Ladies of the Night

That guy's dress cost how much money?

Beauty pageants are all the same — the smiles, forced; the answers, rehearsed; the movements, choreographed. The Miss South Florida Illusion Pageant is no different — except that producer Gus Sanchez restricts entrants to drag queens "who have no silicone or surgery below the neck."

Wearing a blue-sequined tuxedo jacket and a perma-smile, Sanchez gently took my hand and guided me through Steel, the Fort Lauderdale "video lounge and dance club" where the event was held.

My chirpy host raised his barbell-pierced eyebrow and announced a diabolical plan: "I'm taking you to hell."

He pushed open the glass door to the colorful, well lit backstage area (normally the front bar). As my eyes adjusted, I noted the room was full of female impersonators in various stages of dress.

"Oh, where are the cameras?" a fully dressed, raven-haired queen named Amanda West asked when Gus introduced me as a reporter.

When I suggested that my writing would create a powerful mental image, she looked at me like I'd lost my mind.

"Don't you have a phone? It has a camera, right?"

Pushy broad. I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture.

"That'll be the cover photo!" she announced.

"Take a picture of that!" Gus recommended excitedly, pointing in the other direction.

I wheeled around. The drag queen behind him was still in transition — she wasn't wearing much other than pantyhose, wig, and makeup.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed with exaggerated shock as her hands flew over her "breasts."

Laughing, I snapped my phone shut, and Gus whisked me out.

"We have to do some sort of benefit! I need a hip replacement," a queen in a pink satin robe called out to Gus as we were going back to the dark, smoky bar.

My host explained that Viva Mirage was competing in the "classic" category — for those 40 and older. And next year would include an "at-large" category for plus-sized ladies. For an illusion pageant, they were finding a way to keep it real.

Soon, I had a beer in my hand and the reigning queens — Tonna McKenzie and her classic counterpart, Snowy — performed Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford lip-synched impersonations. The Crawford bit included a scene from Mommie Dearest that resulted in an entire bottle of baby powder being emptied in the process.

"Cleanup on Aisle Two," the MC joked as a sign-language interpreter conveyed the message to the hearing-impaired.

It was gonna be a read-my-lips sorta evening: Everyone's talent was going to be a lip-synched song-and-dance impersonation — including the deaf contestant, Marilyn Power, whose signer did her best to keep the performer in time. It took balls, and Marilyn had them.

"Come on, give her a clap. She's already had everything else," the MC joked to keep things moving between performances.

My favorite was Lonnaii St. James, a delicate blond who had performed Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" and was now wearing a cream beaded dress that showed off her tattoo armband. It was her awkwardness that made me root for her.

After a less-than-graceful runway turn to show off her dress, she offered: "I am a down-to-earth person. I love my friends who support me in what I do, which is this."

Well, like her comportment, the speech wasn't an award-winner, but it was honest.

"[Lonnaii] is one of the biggest novices. Everything she is wearing is loaned," pageant volunteer Randy Seiber said, adding that each entrant spent upward of $1,500 on wardrobe. Then he added a bit of beginner's pageantry wisdom. "You don't enter to win; you enter to learn."

By 1 a.m. and an eyeful of impersonations of Britney Spears, J-Lo, and Selena (what, no Shakira?), people began to ditch. Who but a knave would leave before the crowning of the queen of queens?

I guess if any show was entitled to drag on, it was this one. When I went to the bar for a Red Bull, it was after 2 a.m., the official closing time, and we were still in the final category.

"You're really a woman?" a good-looking man asked as he sidled up to me at the bar so that I towered over him in my high heels.

Perked up, I nodded.

"Can I feel?" he asked with his left hand poised a few inches from my breast and his right hovering over my ass.

I shook my head at the apparently homo request for a hetero grope.

"You're not gay, are you?" I said with a sneaking suspicion.

He introduced himself as Carlos, a mostly gay (occasionally bi) bartender at the Jackhammer, and he offered me another drink.

"I tell people I've been with a woman, they're like 'Eww!' but then they, like, move closer," he said with a bit of an accent, "to hear what it's like."

To explain his earlier request, Carlos bragged that he'd been the target of similar harassment. He turned so I could see his impressive bulge as he wrapped a hand around the Budweiser tap.

"It's the size of the beer pour," he bragged.

Good for him. I still didn't want to be the heroine in the next erotic, sci-fi thriller he told at the Jackhammer.

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