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There She Is, Miss Richfield 1981

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HEARTY LAUGHS: Russ King says his character, Miss Richfield 1981, was an also-ran at a beauty pageant in his hometown until the frontrunner lost control of her flaming batons, taking out all of the other contestants.

‘All-American beauty queen’ headlines 65th Diana Awards.

By Don Maines

ABible-thumping, flag-waving “pageant girl” will hop a Greyhound bus from Minnesota soon to headline LGBTQ Houston’s first truly bougie event of 2018.

“Miss Richfield 1981 is a perfect fit for the spirit of the occasion,” says Brian H. Teichman, chair of the 65th annual Diana Awards, set for March 10 at the Hilton Houston Post Oak. “She is an internationally loved celebrity with the humor and ability to get the crowd energized into the show.”

Miss Richfield’s alter ego, Russ King, says he began performing the wacky character at an employee-appreciation party for the 60-member staff of the Minnesota AIDS Project, where he served as communications director. “I thought I should be a beauty-pageant winner,” says King, recalling how he and his family loved to gather around the TV each year to watch the Miss America pageant.

“We were a family of all boys—I have three older brothers—and I would have to pretend that I wasn’t as excited, but I really loved it,” he says. “As a kid, I knew that I was different. When you’re gay, you’re more in tune with things.” Like old-school beauty pageants, for example.

Per King’s backstory, his character was an also-ran at the 1981 Miss Richfield, Minnesota, pageant until the frontrunner “lost control of her three flaming batons; the accident took her out, along with all of the other contestants.”

“That left only me,” King says, “so I won, and I have dedicated my life to the friendly citizens and merchants of my hometown,” a once-tony suburb of Minneapolis.

Three Minnesotans have been crowned Miss America, but none ranks as King’s favorite among the almost 100 women who have won the granddaddy of all beauty pageants. “Very clearly, the one I love the most is Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Miss America 1965,” King says. “She was the first and only one to win both Miss America and Miss Congeniality. My character loves that about her. You know she’s written two books?”

In That Girl in Your Mirror (1966), Van Dyke revealed her beauty secret as “that inner sparkle only Christ can give.” In the 1967 follow-up, Dear Vonda Kay, Van Dyke fielded letters from teenage girls on topics such as smoking, drinking, and boys.

“I even got to meet her. She was married to a pastor in the Twin Cities, so [as a reporter] I did a story on her. Oh my God, that was . . . ,” King says, before cutting himself off and explaining that Miss Richfield conducts herself as a proper, aging beauty queen.

“She doesn’t swear,” King says. “There is no profanity in her act. She should always resonate the qualities you think of in an all-American beauty queen.”

However, he concedes, “she is crazy and inappropriate, and there are sexual innuendos, but she is never filthy. When I first started in 1996, I felt like Miss Richfield should comport herself a certain way. She should be clean. In bars, that made me different. It was really a way to separate myself from other entertainers. It made me different, and it has served me well. You can bring teenagers to my show—even younger kids. That’s not to say that I have anything against other people using profanity.”

Of course, that depends on the context. King says he was not pleased about news reports in December saying that profanity, including “the C-word,” cropped up in the emails of men running the Miss America pageant. Their correspondence also disparaged Minnesota’s 1989 Miss America, Gretchen Carlson, an ex-Fox News anchor, as “a snake.”

“That was such a disappointment,” King says. “It was evidence that a woman should be running our country and the pageant.”

Well, wouldn’t you know, the men resigned, and on January 1, Carlson was selected to chair the Miss America Organization’s board of directors. Also seated on the board were former Miss America titleholders Laura Kaeppler Fleiss, Heather French, and Kate Shindle.

Life is funny like that, as in the way the Diana Awards were born with a touch of kismet.

“In 1953, a gathering of friends unknowingly created what would become the Diana Foundation,” Teichman says. “It was the evening of the first television broadcast of the Academy Awards, and reception was lost. The group decided to present a gag award while waiting for the broadcast signal to return. The annual awards party’s guest list grew for the next several decades, moving from private homes to hotel ballrooms and the largest theaters in Houston. AIDS-related deaths nearly ended the club, but the show would go on. The Diana Foundation has become the oldest, continually active gay organization in the United States operating as a nonprofit.”

The sapphire-anniversary 65th annual Diana Awards Show will be held “in the spirit of the original camaraderie of our founding, to celebrate ‘That’s What Friends Are For,’” Teichman adds.

“The awards are a roast [of notable Houston personalities],” he says. “They are handed out for behavior that was not perfect.”

In addition to the humorous honors, a more serious award will be presented to honor openly gay Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg “for outstanding contributions to the LGBT community.”

“Only 15 individuals have been presented this accolade,” Teichman says, noting that, as Harris County’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, Ogg oversees more than 600 employees and a budget of $68 million. “Kim’s election is a mission of dedication to protecting Harris County citizens from violence and discrimination.”

The 65th annual Diana Awards will benefit Bayou City Performing Arts, the Botts Collection, Dalton Dehart Photographic Foundation, Out for Education, University of Houston LGBTQ Resource Center, and University of Houston Libraries. While the Diana Foundation is limited to 100 members in any given year, the Diana Awards are open to the public.

What: 65th annual Diana Awards
When: March 10, 6–11 p.m.
Where: Hilton Houston Post Oak, 2001 Post Oak Blvd.
Info: tinyurl.com/dianas2018

This article appears in the February 2018 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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