Craig Henderson, Houston’s 61-year-old pageant promoter extraordinaire, passed away on August 30, just one day after his Miss Gay Texas USofA pageant celebrated its 35th anniversary at downtown’s The Ballroom at Bayou Place.
The show went on without him, but it was hard on everyone involved. There were 30 contestants and 25 former winners—including Dallas-born Kennedy Davenport, the reigning Miss Gay USofA from 2019 and runner-up in season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2015; and Houston’s own legendary Tommie Ross, who has won multiple titles including Miss Black America, Miss Gay of USofA, and Miss Continental. Tomika E. Cavalli won this year’s crown.
Local drag performer Kofi (also known as Terry Ray), Henderson’s friend for more than 30 years, served as the host of this year’s preliminaries. Kofi had teamed up with Henderson’s administrative assistant, Kayla Monroe, and former Miss Gay Texas winner Kelexis Davenportto to put on the pageant, which many former pageant winners helped with.
“The three of us knew what we had to do,” Kofi says. “He taught us so well, and we wanted to make him proud.” Kofi herself was one of Henderson’s former pageant winners, holding several titles including Miss Gay Texas USofA Classic 2010, Miss Gay USofA At Large 2000, and Miss Gay Texas USofA 2005.
“I’ve been doing drag for 40 years,” Kofi says. “And I met Craig at my very first pageant. I didn’t even place in the top ten, but we became close friends.”
Henderson took over the state pageant duties 25 years ago, after he met Pearland native Jerry Bird and fell in love with drag-queen pageants. Bird produced the first Miss Gay Houston pageant and then expanded it to the rest of the state before buying the entire Miss Gay USofA pageant in 1985, which now includes Mr. Gay USofA, Mr. Gay USofA At Large (for contestants over 200 pounds), Miss Gay Black USofA, Mr. Gay Black USofA, and Mister USofA MI (for male impersonators).
“What I really love about it is the people I meet in the pageants,” Henderson told OutSmart earlier this month. “Almost all my friends I’ve met there. I just like to make people smile and have a good time for a few hours.”
Looking back on his Texas pageants through the decades, Henderson expressed amazement. “Things have certainly changed in the gay scene overall. Back then, some gay bars wouldn’t let drag queens in. Now every gay bar has drag shows. As for the pageants, the talent portion has certainly progressed. The dance performances are choreographed, and they spend months rehearsing them. They’re like Las Vegas reviews. And it’s not uncommon now to see contestants in the gown competition with three-, four-, five-thousand-dollar gowns.”
While there have been social-media reports that Henderson died of COVID-19, Kofi notes that there are questions. “He was fully vaccinated, but he had underlying conditions. He went into the hospital a few weeks ago with kidney stones, and then one thing led to another.” Kofi has been talking with Henderson’s mother, who says funeral arrangements are pending.
“But with COVID and it being Memorial Day weekend, I’m sure a lot of people won’t be able to attend,” Kofi says. “So we are planning a celebration of life for later. He loved a great celebration.”
As for the pageants that Henderson owned, the future is unclear.
“We’re going to sit back and see, but we’ll do whatever it takes to continue his legacy,” Kofi emphasizes. “Who knows? Maybe the three of us will wind up taking them over.”