Texas is the home of all things pageant—drag included.
by Donalevan Maines
The drag entertainment empire that USofA Pageants founder Jerry Bird has built from his home in Pearland started with the Miss Gay Houston pageant and grew from there. But Bird’s interest in pageantry began when he and boyhood pal Mark Ambrosy were teenage stagehands at the Miss Texas Scholarship pageant in Fort Worth—the competition that picks the Lone Star State’s representative to Miss America.
“Mark’s uncle was the producer of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. He got us on at Miss Texas,” Bird explains. “Every summer, we would go for a week,” working backstage during preliminary nights in preparation for the Saturday night finale.
Ambrosy went on to win Mr. Gay USofA, while Bird and former Mr. Gay Texas CJ Harrington formed “he & she Productions” and produced Miss Gay Houston as a preliminary to the Miss Gay Texas pageant that selected the state’s representative to Miss Gay America.
Bird took over the state franchise for several years before buying the Miss Gay USofA pageant in 1985. Since then, he’s parlayed it into seven national pageant systems. At first, the money he made producing the Miss Gay Texas-USofA pageant helped sustain the national pageant. But once it became a thriving operation, Bird handed over the reins in Texas to protégé Craig Henderson, who grew up in Pasadena, graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in business, and remembers meeting former Miss Gay America/National Entertainer of the Year Tasha Kohl at a Westheimer Arts Festival and thinking, “That cannot be a man!”
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Bird grew up on a dairy farm in Pearland before going to Texas A&M University, majoring in dairy science and minoring in business administration. During college, he supervised the petting zoo at Astroworld for $67.50 a week. He quit “that good-paying job” to start a career at Southwestern Bell, beginning as a repairman and working his way up to management. When Southwestern Bell and AT&T split in 1985, Bird accepted an early buyout.
“Two months later, I had my first Miss USofA,” he says, when former Miss Gay America Michael Andrews was crowned in a pageant at the Copa in January 1986. “She was an institution,” he says of dragdom’s Ann-Margret.
Bird explains, “I started with an IBM computer, a typewriter, and a gay bar guide.” State franchises sold for $5,000 or one-third of the door. Bird also sold local and regional franchises. His system also revolutionized scoring in drag pageants. “I cut out sportswear. Kids were spending $5,000 on an outfit they would only wear once. It was cost-prohibitive. By eliminating sportswear, it made it easier to enter a pageant,” he explains.
To get a winner who could travel across the country and entertain anywhere, Bird made the talent category worth half of the final score, and the interview and evening gown categories each worth 25 percent. Bird also replaced cumulative scoring (where a judge might give one contestant 50 points and another only 10) with comparative scoring, where, for example, if there are 10 contestants, a judge gives 10 points to his or her favorite, 9 points to the second choice, 8 points to the third choice, etc.
Comparative scoring made it more difficult for someone to “rig” a pageant, a charge often alleged at events where judging is subjective. Contestants also began getting individual judges’ score sheets, which they could compare with the master list of score totals. “It keeps everybody honest,” Bird explains. “All you have in this business is your name and your reputation. When you plant a seed of doubt, a whole vine of deception can grow.”
In addition, Bird has become known as the “conference king.” Whenever a dispute arises, he explains, “I just have a three-way call. That way, each party hears what the other has to say, and they both know they’re on notice.”
In the mid-1980s, Bird launched a separate pageant system for female impersonators weighing more than 200 pounds, in response to their complaints that smaller contestants held a number of advantages over them. The “at large” system has proven popular with fans, too. Even with the emphasis more on talent than beauty, a number of at-large contestants have also won state and national titles in the “regular-size” system.
For example, Houston diva Kofi won both Miss Gay Texas at Large 1999 and Miss Gay USofA at Large 2000 before winning Miss Gay Texas USofA 2005. In 2000, plus-size Chevelle Brooks of Houston won both Miss Gay Texas USofA and Miss Gay USofA. Brooks is a judge at this month’s Miss Gay USofA pageant in Dallas, with preliminaries May 25–27 at the Round Up Saloon, and finals on May 28 at The Lakewood Theater. Miss Gay Texas USofA Jayda Iman Alexander is among the contestants vying for the crown that stands 14 inches high.
But first, Houston’s Lawanda Jackson crowns her successor as Miss Gay USofA Classic after two nights of competition among female impersonators over the age of 40 in the annual pageant May 23–24 at the Round Up Saloon.
Other USofA Pageants include Mr. Gay USofA, Mr. Gay USofA at Large, Miss Gay Black USofA, Mr. Gay Black USofA, and Mister USofA MI (the MI denotes male impersonators, or “drag kings”). Mister USofA MI “took off like gangbusters,” Bird says, upon returning from Oklahoma, where 44 contestants competed for its first national title in March.
Coming August 3–5 is the company’s seventh national pageant, Miss Gay USofA Newcomer, at Talbot Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. It already has 17 preliminaries, says Bird.
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Craig Henderson began his career with USofA Pageants when he met singer/master of ceremonies Bubba McNeely at JR’s, and he introduced Henderson to Bird. “I had been to the Copa, and saw Tasha Kohl, Donna Day, Naomi Sims, Tiffany Jones, and Ernestine, who was so funny,” he recalls. Next thing he knew, he was producing the Miss Houston Metroplex pageant. “Back then, I wasn’t worried about the cost, but it can be profitable if you watch your expenses,” he says. Bird was impressed with Henderson’s business savvy and dependability, and hired him as the stage manager for USofA Pageants. “Now, he pretty much runs Texas,” says Bird.
Ten years ago, Henderson revived the Mr. Gay Texas USofA pageant, transforming it from “just a body contest” to “mainly a talent contest.” “There is no swimsuit competition,” he explains. “Talent is 50 percent, interview 25, and club wear 25.” Most of the contestants are backup dancers for the Miss contestants, Henderson says.
This year’s Mr. and Mr. at Large pageants will be held June 16–18 at Club Crystal, 6884 Southwest Freeway. Last year, RK LaRue won the Mr. title, leading 10 dancers in a production number based on the Broadway hit Hairspray. The year before, Ram Crawford won both Mr. Gay Texas-USofA and Mr. Gay USofA. The reigning Mr. Gay Texas-USofA at Large is Angel Crawford.
Reigning Miss Gay Texas-USofA Jayda Iman Alexander crowns her successor on August 22 at Club Crystal, following the preliminaries August 18–20. Alexander calls Houston home after fleeing New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. At last summer’s pageant, says Henderson, Alexander performed “a huge circus theme” with several songs, and swept both the talent and evening gown categories.