By Meagan Douches
The Miss Gay Latina Asheville pageant, now in its 11th year, has become hugely successful, attracting acts from all over the country and selling out continually each year. Competitors bring their best performances, facing off in the categories of talent, evening gown, interview and cultural folk costume from a country of their choice.
“There is nothing like it in all of North and South Carolina,” says Elio Gonzalez, the organizer and dedicated founder of Miss Gay Latina Asheville. “People come up from Atlanta, Raleigh, South Carolina. … It’s something that is very unique in Asheville.” The show returns to the Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 3.
Extraordinary entertainment aside, “It’s the sense of camaraderie and inclusion that truly sets this pageant apart,” says last year’s winner, Dorae Saunders. A Columbia, S.C., native, Saunders has been competing on the national pageant circuit for over 25 years. She is notorious for her wildly entertaining Tina Turner impersonation, which landed her a spot on Season 3 of “America’s Got Talent.”
The experience played a big role in the entertainer’s career. Her television audition quickly reached more than 1 million views on YouTube. Saunders was eventually eliminated in the quarterfinals. While she was grateful for the experience and national exposure, she says she wouldn’t do it again unless it was on her own terms. “It was exhilarating and disappointing,” she says, “It had highs and lows, but overall, it was a learning experience.”
While being on reality TV wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Saunders was able to make history, being one of the first transgender women on national television. “The joy is that I opened doors for others,” Saunders says. “It wasn’t about me. It was about knocking down barriers and breaking stereotypical myths and allowing people to see inside female impersonation and all that we do.”
A decade after her appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” Saunders is still doing what she loves — entertaining and participating in competitions throughout the country. She was invited to compete in Miss Gay Latina Asheville 2017 and ended up receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, after performing Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”
Saunders says that winning Miss Gay Latina Asheville meant a lot to her, especially being the first black entertainer to wear the crown. “To be able to entertain the various audiences in Asheville was humbling,” Saunders says. “To be received so well by so many different backgrounds of people — it was amazing in so many ways.” Saunders looks forward to returning to the 2018 show to perform in both the opening and farewell numbers, before handing off the crown to the new queen.
This year’s performance lineup also includes the California-based and nationally recognized entertainer Shae Shae LaReese, who will be judging the competition as well as performing. LaReese holds the titles of former Miss National and former Miss Gay USofA, and is well-known for her lively dance performances.
Coming from her home base of Miami, Valeria Coutier — Miss Gay Latina Asheville 2015 — will be a featured guest performer at this year’s event, alongside six-part dance troupe the Night Boys.
Miami-based makeup and performance artist Taina Norell will also be performing at this year’s event, as will Travis Stancil, a professional dancer from Asheville.
According to Gonzalez, attendees can expect to be blown away by outrageously embellished costumes and unbelievable hair and makeup. Each year, he and his staff work to take it up a notch, including more acts and bigger performers from around the country. “This year the level of the competitors is just, wow!” says Gonzalez. “There are going to be a lot of surprises.”
Saunders says that she knew Miss Gay Latina Asheville was something she wanted to be a part of after she saw how the show was conducted. She compares it to national competitions like Miss USA and Miss America. “The way that Elio and his organization run the competition, it’s star quality,” she says.
A detailed and dedicated organizer, Gonzalez takes pride in offering a place of inclusivity and acceptance among competitors and audience members alike. “I feel like this is going to be a big family reunion,” he says. “You see husbands and wives that come out each year to the show, and I get really touched when I see that. It brings people together, brings love and respect for each other, no matter the nationality.”
WHAT: Miss Gay Latina Asheville, missgaylatinaasheville.com
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m. $25