An estimated 1 billion people in 190 countries watched Venezuela’s Gabriela Isler be crowned Miss Universe on November 9. She smiled. She strutted. She gave a vague, inoffensive answer to a vague, inoffensive question. And before she knew it, she was posing in a million-dollar diamond bikini.
We know the beauty queen, with her perfect tan legs and glittering dental work. But the pageant industry has more than one face. What about Miss Earth and Miss Ethnic Opulence? What about contests celebrating culture or scholarship, overcoming disability or kicking ass on horseback? There’s a sash for any number of passions, and Las Vegas is home to some colorful titleholders. You might not recognize them without their regalia, a nice reminder that real people are attached to the royal Miss, Ms. and Mr.
Mr. Gay World USA
What is your opinion of a strong man?” the judge asked. Matt Simmons could have talked about his brutal gym regimen or his five years of service as a sergeant in the Marine Corps.
“I said it was mentally strong,” he recalls, “able to be who they are without sacrificing themselves to please others.”
That answer helped him beat seven other finalists (narrowed down from 50) in a pageant linked to the TV series The Next American Gay, which sent him to Belgium to compete against 28 countries in the August final of Mr. Gay World. At the urging of the show’s producers, Matt wore his military dress uniform as his national costume. The image was powerful, but online backlash accused him of playing for sympathy.
“Some people didn’t think it was right to wear, but others were like, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine. He’s proud of it. Let him be who he is,’” says Matt, whose service ended just before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell did.
Today, he splits his time between studying business management and accounting at UNLV and working at Fizz, a new champagne lounge at Caesars Palace. Las Vegas is one of the less exotic places he’s called home, as he was born in Spain and lived with his military family in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Sicily by the time he was 6. So meeting Mr. Gay World contestants from India, South Africa and New Zealand was surreal only for what they had in common.
“It was surprising that everybody had the same goal and outlook for the future, coming from such different places. Everybody wanted the same thing,” Matt says. “Equality.”
Personal trivia: Matt plays trumpet, baritone horn and snare drums and loves symphonic music. His mom thinks his singing voice is a cross between Josh Groban and Michael Bublé.
Under the sash: Matt came in third at Mr. Gay World and will be a judge for Mr. Gay World USA 2014. He says the competition is “like Miss America, but for gay guys.”
Pageant snapshot: “Since it’s a competition, you’d think everybody’s in it for themselves, but they were all supportive. My bags didn’t make it to Belgium for two days, and people were giving me clothes and shoes to wear.”
Miss Asian Las Vegas
Catherine Ho was “not that kind of girl.” Pageants seemed beauty-obsessed and catty, a world away from her focus on international business at UNLV. But when she heard about the inaugural Miss Asian Las Vegas, her Taiwanese and Chinese background compelled her to look past pageant stereotypes.
She had been stereotyped and bullied for being Asian throughout her childhood, burying her roots so deep that, even fluent in Mandarin, she never realized her Chinese name, He Guan Yi, prophetically means “princess” or “champion.” In playing up her American culture, she lost touch with the history and traditions of her heritage. The pageant was a way to reconnect.
After six months of delving into her Asian cultures, especially through conversations with grandparents on both sides of her family, Catherine competed. Her platform was breast cancer awareness, honoring her Taiwanese grandmother’s fight for survival. Her talent was the song-and-dance number “Roxie” from the Broadway hit Chicago. Her wardrobe was a wedding dress tailored to her 5-foot, 90-pound frame, a red bikini and a custom ethnic costume of a Chinese qipao, a Taiwanese headdress fit for an empress and a red lantern signifying the East.
Other contestants whispered their speeches to themselves backstage, but Catherine says she was too nervous to practice. When she stood in the spotlight she spoke from the heart, in the moment, the same way she hopes to represent the local Asian community and Las Vegas when she competes in Miss Asian America/Global next August.
“I'm so proud to be Chinese and Taiwanese, and I want to showcase that I'm proud to everyone. ... I feel like I’ve always been a role model to my family at home, to my little cousins. But now that I can be a role model to all ages around Las Vegas and among Asian American women, it inspires me to inspire others," she says. "It's a really incredible journey for me. I feel like a different person now."
Personal trivia: As a kid, Catherine was in commercials for Amtrak and Citibank. While she plans to practice law, she’s also hoping to break into television as a talk show host.
Under the crown: With her $10,000 prize package, Catherine won a walk-on role in award-winning web TV series Caribe Road.
Pageant snapshot: “Being onstage was a blur to me. I’m really excited for the DVD to come out because I have no idea. I don’t remember anything because backstage was so stressful. You have two minutes to change!”
Ms. Nevada Petite
Occupation: model, personal trainer, cocktail waitress, online entrepreneur
She competed in her first pageant at age 2. She was named Carnival Queen in her native Uruguay five times. She’s won Miss Photogenic, Miss Performance and Miss Kiss for blowing the most kisses from a parade float. You have to wonder why Cecilia Howard never contended for a major crown. At 5-foot-3, she says she was simply a realist. “It’s not that they would not take you for the pageant, but you know that you will never win. … I mean, come on. There are girls that are 6-foot-2.”
Cecilia laughs at this, and at childhood memories of crying on Saturdays because there was no school. “That’s how social I was.”
Pageants channeled her hyper-social energy, and other than a volleyball/handball/soccer tomboy phase in high school, she’s been in them on and off for 28 years. Fitness and nutrition have always been her platforms, prompting her to found her own digital motivational organization, Fit Girls Rok, and work as a personal trainer. As Ms. Nevada Petite, she also stays connected to immigration issues, from broadcasting on a Latino radio station to attending local forums. “People actually look at you when you walk in the room, and they want to know who you are. ... They want to take pictures with you and they want to know what you think about, and it’s really a job. You have to represent 24/7.”
In August, Cecilia represented at Ms. USA Petite, paying her own way to Florida, altering her own gown, doing her own hair and makeup. In what she says was her final pageant (at least on that side of the stage), she won Miss Photogenic and first runner-up, despite perceiving a little frostiness related to her hometown.
“Everybody has this perception of Las Vegas, about the partying, the crazy things. I’ve done a lot of good things over this past year, going to the museums and talking, reading to the kids. And it’s just so cool, because Las Vegas, besides being Sin City, is a whole community. … I will actually fight for that.”
Personal trivia: Cecilia’s Vegas crushes include Frankie Moreno (“so handsome”) and the city’s amazing chefs (“I’m like a guy; you can whip me with food”).
Under the crown: Do you ever wear the crown when you’re home alone? No. It’s a pretty heavy crown. It leaves a mark in my forehead. (laughs) What is the riskiest pageant look? The smoky eye. When you play with black shadows, if you screw it up, you’re done.
Pageant snapshot: “Judges are always intimidating, but you have to see them as your friends, show them that you want to be there, you want them to know you. That’s the most important thing.”
Ms. Senior Nevada
Occupation: corporate real estate broker, national sales trainer, sales and marketing consultant
Helicopter skiing, distance running, singing smoldering jazz at four nightclubs in a single night. These are not pastimes typically associated with “seniors,” but Kat Ray loves making a case for those quotation marks.
Before she turned 60, the youngest “age of elegance” allowed in Ms. Senior Nevada, Kat crossed paths with 2010 titleholder Marilyn O’Leary. She researched the pageant and tried to get some friends to do it with her as “fun for the summer.” She had no idea of the legacy (28 years) and scope (monthly initiatives supporting seniors) of the crown. “I thought it was like a 5K run: You sign up, do it in a day, get your goody bag and go home and it’s over,” she says. “Little did I know it was going to totally change my life in an amazing way. I’m representing a picture bigger than myself.”
Her August win in Nevada led Kat to Ms. Senior America last month, where her mermaid gown (which took 89 hours to bedazzle), styling of Nat King Cole and poetic treatise on life as a river won her second runner-up. Being around so many distinguished women got her excited not only about her reign but also about her age, especially standing next to 90-year-old Ms. Louisiana.
“This is not a beauty contest,” Kat says. “It rewards women who do a lot of nonprofit work; they give back, they’re leaders in the community. … You’re sucked into this family of wonderful people.”
They’re ventriloquists and cabaret dancers, cancer survivors and military veterans, all “60 and better.” Kat hopes to share their stories through public speaking during her reign, along with volunteering for worthy causes like Meals on Wheels, Life Long Dreams and My Furry Valentine and, of course, singing at senior centers. “They love to see the glitz and glamour,” she says. “In our day, the queen was like, wow, the big deal. So I always wear the crown.”
Personal trivia: Kat has been known to sing Sinatra at the Mad Greek, Bootlegger, Italian American Club, Tap House and Copa Room.
Under the crown: Ms. Senior Nevada contestants have 35 seconds to share their “philosophy of life,” worth 20 percent of the total score. And they might be asked to name the state fossil (ichthyosaur!).
Pageant snapshot: “By the time we were all standing there waiting for the queen to be announced, my feet were killing me. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get this queen thing over with; I want to put on my flip-flops.’”
Miss Las Vegas Pride
Occupation: hair and makeup artist, stylist
Selena D’Angelo has won pageants, mentored contestants and worked her cosmetic magic behind the scenes of Miss USA and Miss Universe. But all that sparkle can’t compare to the crown she inherited as a dear friend’s dying wish.
Tracy Kalani Savage was meant to be this year’s Miss Las Vegas PRIDE. When Tracy passed away in 2012, the PRIDE board found a letter saying there was only one person who should wear the crown. “The board read the letter to me, and we all cried,” Selena says. “So being Miss PRIDE is more personal to me.”
As a boy growing up in Hawaii in a conservative Japanese household, Selena was torn between duty to family and the need for self-discovery. She went through phases of being gay and androgynous, never feeling “like it was home.” Lost and acting out, she got busted for shoplifting at 18, violated parole and spent 18 months in jail. “There was a blessing, because everything was stripped away from me, and all I had was myself and time,” Selena says. “I was able to soul search, and that’s when I made my decision on who I am today.”
Her parents have embraced her as a transgendered woman, and her husband of four years celebrates her, even if it means dividing their garage down the middle. “One side it’s all military and as straight as it can be, and the other side there’s glitter explosion and feathers and rhinestones and drag queen wigs,” Selena says, laughing. She met her husband at a Reno casino, where he was dealing cards. They were friends first, affection growing through letters while he was deployed in Iraq. “I never hid anything, and I think because of that he fell in love with me.”
Selena pays that love forward to her transgendered “kids” in Hawaii, young women struggling with some of the same demons and addictions she faced. She gives them emotional support without judgment, hoping to help them find themselves. That role fits the vision of Miss PRIDE, which Selena feels is more about spreading the gospel of acceptance than trying to embody the entire LGBT community. “I’m an individual, and everybody has their own story. When they start saying that all gay men or all transgendered or all drag queens have to be a certain way, that’s when we speak up. … You shouldn’t categorize us,” she says. “I can’t speak for everyone. All I can do is have a voice.”
Personal trivia: Selena makes costumes for contests, like a showgirl getup worth $5,000 in feathers alone.
Under the crown: "[My mom] used to put on that little disco dress ... and would spray that glitter in her hair. When I perform, I like to be that same kind of diva.”
Pageant snapshot: Can the hair and eyelashes ever be too big? Never. (laughs)