I wanted to be an Olympic champion, I wanted to be a flight attendant and I wanted to be Miss America. And I think Miss Gay America is a little bit better...we're happier people."
But once you get to know me, the secrets start to come out. You already know I wear nice jeans, but...don't tell anyone...I also love to watch figure skating. There, I said it. I have a library of VHS tapes that I guard with my life; I can spout off a list of obscure skaters (and tell you what they were wearing and skating to) dating back to the early '80s; I can explain the difference between a flip and a Lutz; and in my prime I could actually do a single Salchow (sadly, my own dreams of Olympic glory were shattered long ago). It'll be our little secret, 'kay?
I had another jaw-dropping gay giveaway in my youth: I loved watching beauty pageants (seriously, did I really have to come out to my family?!), a habit I inherited from my mom. Miss America, Miss Universe, Miss Teen USA, Miss World...nothing was off limits. The habit lasted for about a decade and fizzled out in 1989, when Miss Texas won the Miss USA pageant for the fifth year in a row (?!) and I cried foul, suddenly convinced it was a political machine creating a predictable, boring pageant. (The first Miss Texas to win in that string of five? Laura Martinez-Herring, who went on to do me proud in one of my top five favorite films ever, Mulholland Drive.)
But in retrospect--and given my current love of reality shows like The Amazing Race (another all-time favorite) and Survivor--I realize that my pageant passion came more from my lust for competition. Although I appreciate watching a gorgeous gown parade down the runway, I've never had a desire to dress up as a woman: It was the drama of watching the competitors get whittled down until the end, where I bit my nails in anticipation as my eyes were glued to the screen when the winner was finally announced. Pageants were the earliest reality TV shows, offering up a season's worth of drama and tension in just two hours of glitz and glamour.
I got that rush--and a whole lot more that I wasn't expecting--watching Pageant, a 2008 documentary from Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern-Fingerhut that chronicles the 2005 plight of five men on a mission to be crowned the 34th winner of Miss Gay America. Far more than just a peek inside one of the more intriguing (and overlooked) pageants around, the film provides a window inside the lives of some very intriguing individuals. Pageant works on so many levels, it might surprise you. It's funny, endearing, emotional and entertaining--and this comes from someone who's (at best) indifferent to drag, which has never done anything for me. The film draws you in not only with the fanfare and tense competition (the filmmakers couldn't have asked for a better lead-up to the announcement of the winner), but also with its powerful human interest element.
Pageant is a portrait of five driven, complex men who are about a lot more than makeup and high heels. At heart, the film isn't really about the pageant at all (much like I tell people that Friday Night Lights isn't really about football). The filmmakers selected a diverse group of contestants to profile leading up to the event. The documentary opens by introducing us to each of the men in their hometowns, where they talk about their lives and motivation:
The cameras then head to the pageant in Memphis, where we watch the preparation and preliminaries unfold before the big event. Contestants, pageant organizers, judges and past winners chime in with various tidbits along the way as we watch the five central contestants battle nerves, wardrobe malfunctions and each other. You may be surprised to learn how much of a business female impersonation can be, how much some of the contestants spend per year on their alter egos and how elaborate some of their talent performances are (but the hefty prize and appearance package for the winner makes it all worth it).
The judges share what they're looking for in both interviews and on stage ("They have to pass as a woman--if they walk out on the stage and look like a big man in a dress? No..."), while some contestants reveal just how competitive and nasty things can get behind the scenes ("I do have to watch my back...there are several contestants here, they'll stop at nothing to win"). The online gossip grapevine is also addressed.
The film also briefly touches upon many issues that could be documentaries unto themselves, like the history of the pageant and the discrimination contestants have faced over the years (while I would love for those issues to be further explored, the filmmakers wisely keep things focused on less political matters). All of the pageant material alone makes this a fascinating watch--the excitement of the competition is enough to keep this entertaining.
What's amazing is how--free of any manipulation--your perspectives of the five men change during the course of 90 minutes, and how ultimately you end up rooting for them all. It doesn't start that way--at least two contestants are seen as early front-runners, and one comes across a tad cocky ("This is a business...I'm a smart businessman."). You also get a brief glimpse into some of the other competitors (an interview montage is one of the film's many memorable sequences).
But what gives Pageant an extra special glow are the deeply moving (and often painful) human interest elements that are integrated throughout the film. One of the recurring themes with the contestants is self-confidence issues brought about by pain from their childhood (as well as acceptance from the image obsessed gay community). "The moment that I put on a dress was the first time someone told me that I was attractive," notes Toney in one of many heart-tugging moments that gets to the core at what drives these brave men, who aren't afraid to show their scars. Victor faces the added challenge of being a plus-size contestant ("I have fat boobs...they're from McDonald's..."), while older contestant David has to find ways to stay young and fresh. Robert offers this observation: "Is it too simple to say I don't want to die a nobody?"
We also get a look into some of their relationships: Carl's mom is refreshingly accepting, excited by her son's success (his younger brother also cheers him on, although one moment hints at prejudice he possibly faces at school). Meanwhile, Toney is aided by husband Ed--who's heavily invested in Toney's success: "I feel he got screwed out of the title [last year]...I know we're more prepared for it this year. Ed's son Chris--who Toney wants to see in the pageant audience--also shares a few memorable thoughts.
But the most moving moments come when Robert is on camera with his pal Jake, who helps with Robert's talent (a hip '50s inspired swing dance) and provides emotional support for his friend. I don't want to say too much about the unique relationship (which becomes more clear as the documentary unfolds), but what is seen and shared will cause your eyes to tear up; their scenes are the ones that stuck with me the most. It's one of many windows that the film opens on complex yet relatable human interest stories. You care about these people and want to know more about them, and I could easily watch a full-length documentary about each of their lives away from all the glitter.
I was shocked at how much I was moved by Pageant, and not just because of my previously documented nervousness with drag queens. For a film that most people would think is geared toward a limited audience, it offers a surprisingly relatable set of stories that leave a lasting impression (and a truly suspenseful winner announcement). You don't see these men as sideshow acts, you see them as complex individuals with drive, determination and heart--they just happen to be wearing dresses half the time. (Not that there's anything wrong with that... )
Note: Be sure to watch the film all the way through the closing credits, where one final update awaits.