Friday, September 7, 2007
Viva La Femme
Originally published in The Oregonian on September 6, 2007. Photos and text by Jason Simms.
BeBe J was the perfect image of grace last Sunday night in the Portland Room of the Oregon Convention Center.
As she stepped onto the wide stage fit for a Prince concert, a thick, soft layer of her purple dress peeled away, remaining in a mound around her ankles like an exotic plant and revealing a skin-tight glittery gown.
She waved from the catwalk, and from table 70 – the farthest from the action – she seemed like a monarch. Distance is your friend in any impersonation contest. Female impersonators are no different.
This was the 26th annual La Femme Magnifique International, hosted by Portland’s own Darcelle XV (namesake of the longest running drag show in the country), and widely regarded as the biggest beauty pageant in drag show business.
But all was not as refined as BeBe’s entrance in the formalwear competition.
“She looks awful!” audience member Clayton Walker heckled loudly at Cicely, the winner of the 1985 pageant. Previous winners performed throughout the night, donating the hundreds of dollars they made in tips to charities such as Camp Starlight, a summer camp for children affected by HIV/AIDS.
Doug Foufos, another face in the crowd, came to the performers’ defense, explaining that a sense of tradition and honor is often more important than sex appeal. “If it weren’t for that old troll, none of us would be here,” he said of no former winner in particular.
Despite the camaraderie, competition was fierce. In addition to two Portland contestants, five others came from Denver to Honolulu after winning regional competitions. They paid their own way to be here, not to mention the $400 earrings and $250 dresses they rotate for four phases of competition.
After the first phase, Bebe seemed to be one of the front runners. But there was some tough competition in the theme round, when performers wear costumes made to match the year’s theme, in this case, famous animated villains.
A couple of Cruella Devilles and a Queen of Hearts seemed a bit Disneyland, but Sophia, another Portlander, wowed the crowd in her Catwoman costume complete with cracking whip.
But anyone who saw BeBe walking around before the competition had no fear. A pair of male buttocks never swayed and quivered with such femininity. Rumor has it she also had her nose and chin done. Only hormones and breast implants are barred as performance enhancers.
Later in the talents competition, Sophia performed as a lip-synching Tina Turner facsimilie with the legs to pull it off and elicited the largest gasp and applause of the night with a double spin.
As Clayton Walker quipped: “You wouldn’t understand if you’ve never tried to spin in three-inch heels.” Apparently, he and most of the audience had.
But Mexican-born BeBe’s Latin baile — with a cast of four men to carry her around — was a clear hit with the crowd.
Emcee Darcelle stood at the side of the stage watching the action, about a quarter of her 7-plus feet belonging to her blond wig. Who was Darcelle rooting for? “I have a favorite, but I never choose,” she said. “ I have to be so neutral it makes me sick.”
The the final round began: the elaborate Vegas showgirl competition. A peacock the size of a Volkswagen strutted onto the stage followed by a scantily clad contestant with a 3-foot Spartan-style feather headdress, proving the pageant to be something of an athletic event with a focus on neck strength.
BeBe bore a magnificent series of thick cords, like a pre-historic purple and pink fern, as though it were a beret, kneeling and smiling at audience members along the catwalk.
The moment of truth arrived.
Sophia took runner-up honors. It was all or nothing for BeBe. If she lost, it would be a robbery as far as the locally biased crowd was concerned. Luckily, the judges agreed.
Young men flooded the stage to hail their new queen.
This is the original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive url expired.
In yesterday’s Oregonian you’ll find a piece on La Femme Magnifique International (with probably the silliest headline ever applied to a story I wrote), which, from what I understand, is the biggest drag pageant there is.
I’m greatly indebted to a couple of sources in the story for hanging out with me and answering questions throughout the night. The event was really fun, but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on if you’re a drag queen n00b like me.
If you have any drag wares I can borrow let me know…I’m tempted to try to enter the pageant next year. I think my Dagger of the Mind skills would be really valuable in the competition.
Photos: Bebe J’s headdress (above), and her coronation as victor (below...that’s Darcelle XV on the right). By me.