By Blair Jackson
It is 4 p.m. at Tangerine, in the middle of registration for the Miss Gay Northwest Arkansas pageant, and I am (technically) the only girl in the room. A contestant with glossy caramel hair named Makiya Devoire and her stylist, Coco, are standing at the bar, waiting for the interview portion. Makiya is wearing a short, black cocktail dress and Coco is wearing black sequined leggings and knee-high boots. “This is the worst part,” Makiya says, as she waits for the judges to call her back.
When they finally do call her name, Coco, who is also Miss Gay Fort Smith, grabs a
brush and smoothes a few flyaways from Makiya’s hair. We wish her luck and she disappears into the hallway.
I am waiting for pageant administrator and Miss Gay United States, Fayetteville resident Jeremy
Stuthard, who, I am told will be about half an hour. Jeremy is better known in the pageant and drag circuit as Taylor Madison Monroe. Over the years, I have seen Jeremy perform at Dickson Street Theater, but I remember him as a tall blonde woman.
In the lowlight of the bar, I don’t recognize Jeremy as his female counterpart. Sporting a five o’clock shadow, a charcoal oxford and a pair of black pants, the only flash of Taylor I see is when he playfully throws a blonde wig on his head. I introduce myself, and, after removing his wig, he shakes my hand.
Along with what seems to be his entourage, I follow him into the dressing room. Here, the lighting is better, and when he sits to pose for a photo, I am reminded of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” He carries himself with the posture and composure of a woman who has been trained to carry a crown. And by the look of the enormous
crown on his dressing table, good posture is a demand of the title and a necessity when balancing a colossal wig and 4 pounds of jewels.
During the day, Jeremy works at Dillard’s in Fayetteville in the women’s shoe department. “I’m blessed with my job,” he says. “I love the people I work with, and the people I work for.” Jeremy says his supervisors are accommodating his schedule demands this year because they understand the title of Miss Gay United States is “a once in a lifetime offer.” The title requires Taylor Madison Monroe to serve as the administrator of each preliminary pageant leading up to the national competition, which means traveling to each state (and Puerto Rico) and all of the city preliminaries as well.
Jeremy’s phone rings, and he excuses himself to answer it. “That was my mother,” he says after hanging up. He tells me about her, his “No. 1 fan,” who drove to Ronoke, Va., to be attend at the Miss Gay United States pageant. He admits that, even though it sounds cheesy, winning the national title in front of his mother has been the proudest moment of his life so far.
“When they announced me as the winner, my mom started bawling. I picked her up and spun her around and said ‘We did it,’ and it’s true. If it wasn’t for her love and support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Taylor Madison Monroe was born eight years ago on Halloween night when Jeremy donned a black dress and hit the streets as a woman for the first time.
“It started on Halloween, then turned into a full-time gig,” says Jeremy. “I had a straight girl do my makeup that night.”
I glance at my own makeup in the mirror, and Jeremy jumps to reassure me, saying, “It’s not that straight girls can’t do makeup, but drag makeup is different.”
And it is.
Later in the evening, I sit behind Jeremy as he applies his makeup. He angles a flat edge diagonally across his cheek and brushes blush across it, leaving behind a sharp line of rouge and the illusion of high cheekbones. In a few steady strokes, he pencils two arches, an inch or so above his natural brow line, to create defined, feminine eyebrows. He applies a light base under his eyes and on the bridge of his nose, to catch the light of the spotlights; and he applies a blush to the edges of his temples, forehead, jawline and nose to create contrast.
Incorporating a blend of theatrics, comedy and glamour, and with the novelty of a “dude in a dress,” the experience of a drag show or pageant is a celebration of femininity and personality. To Jeremy, it’s an outlet for creative expression. “The ability to take a decent looking guy and turn him into a statuesque, beautiful women — all of the duct tape, hair and pantyhose that it takes — is an art form that I love,” he says.
I ask him how they use duct tape, and he clears his throat before answering, “Penises, fat and boobs.” Backstage with 10 other queens (some with crowns and some without), waistlines are formed by wrapping duct tape around the torso. Faux cleavage is created by taping the skin across pectoralis muscles to bring any excess skin together.
Jeremy turns to me and sweeps rouge around the curves of my chest. “See, look how that enhances your breasts,” he says. I stand and look in the mirror. He’s right.
Trading secrets and tips is part of the backstage atmosphere at the pageant. The girls are swapping wig glue and hairspray, offering words of encouragement (and a few catty zingers here and there). Some personalities are bigger than others. Some makeup is brighter. Some hair is bigger. Some outfits are more glamorous. But there seems to be a mutual respect and appreciation for each individual’s personality and image.
“What’s the difference between Taylor and Jeremy?” I ask.
“There’s no difference,” Taylor says. A few of the other girls overhear and begin chiming in, and Taylor rethinks her statement. “Well, Taylor’s a little more bold. She’s a little more ballsy.”
We both laugh at the irony.
Jeremy’s transformation in the mirror, which now happens in about two hours, has been eight years in the making.
After acquiring a drag name (compliments of three former presidents), Taylor Madison Monroe began performing at the nightclub Wild On — back when Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was still Sixth Street.
“I was a mess,” says Taylor of her early days. “Female impersonation comes with experience. The more you learn, the better you get.”
Even as a self-proclaimed “mess,” Taylor was hot enough to get a gig at Dickson Street theatre as a show director, providing spectators with an experience that still draws crowds in the hundreds on Sunday nights and has become a staple of Dickson Street night life.
Taylor’s journey as a beauty queen began in 2004 with the Miss Up and Coming Pageant, in which she placed dead last. The loss inspired Taylor to focus on the art of a female impersonator.
It took eight months of constant practice but after eleven pageants, Taylor won her first title as Miss Tulsa USA. “It wasn’t that I was crown hungry, but I was learning and growing,” says Taylor.
“Each pageant helps me grow as an entertainer because of those judges,” she says.
In those early years, Jeremy was addicted to methamphetamines. He always had his car packed with pageant necessities and would drive all night to shows. “I was doing five shows a week at that time,” he said.
I ask him if he thought the methamphetamines gave him a competitive edge, “No,” is his firm answer.
“I believe it was my downfall in my competition … because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. There was no mental awareness or capacity for anything. I was just go,go,go.”
After four years of addiction, he quit cold turkey, relying only on the support of his friends and family to achieve sobriety. “It’s still hard to watch shows like ‘Intervention,’” he says. “You get chills in your bones watching someone smoke a pipe. But that’s not who I wanted to be.”
He says that drugs are still prevalent in the national drag pageant circuit, and that it was once a major part of drag culture across the state.
Those like Taylor who have recovered from substance abuse are transforming the pageant circuit of Northwest Arkansas into a more socially responsible, more professional network by aligning themselves with the NWA Center for Equality and working to be role models.
Sitting in the crowd, before the pageant, I meet A.J. Hattabaugh, Mr. Gay Fayetteville. “I thank Taylor so much,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. She introduced me to the pageant circuit.” A.J. says the pageants offer an empowering experience of exposure and prominence in the gay community.
Arkansas is currently the only state that offers city preliminaries as a precursor to regional and state pageants; and Jeremy says the recent success the state has had on the national circuit gives him hope, not only for a stronger LGBT community, but also for a strong network of female impersonators and male entertainers.
“Arkansas has a history of not producing (winners at nationals), but this year we took home two national titles in one weekend.” The second title Jeremy refers to is a nod to the male performer Braxton, who won Mr. Gay United States.
On stage, Taylor is a sassy, playful, gorgeous woman with a hooting laugh that is contagious and easy-going. ”I’m very content with the person I’ve become, but I am always learning new things and moving on to bigger and better things,” says Miss Gay United States in her dressing room.
As for life beyond female impersonation, Jeremy says he dreams of opening a nightclub called “The Three Dead Presidents,” (a tip of the hat to the Taylor Madison Monroe legacy) that would offer an experience for every lifestyle and taste in music. Retirement, however, is nowhere on the horizon. “I plan on retiring when it doesn’t become fun anymore. There’s no timetable for it.”
Though the pageants are a powerful social tool for empowering individuals in the gay community, the
essential element of the shows remains to be the entertainment value. “Dudes in makeup in dresses.”
But Taylor and the other commentators offer more than a spectacle of the stage. The banter and quick wit of each lady brings a brazen comedic element to the experience. Double entendres,raunchy outbursts, bitchy backbiting and genuine camaraderie create an improvisational masterpiece of edgy adult entertainment. It is a performance that attracts crowds of mixed backgrounds, and even if only for a few hours, these “dudes in dresses” steal the spotlight and bridge the gap between traditional and alternative lifestyles with comedy, grace and blatant sexuality.