Ladies of the Night

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.

At nearly 3 a.m., the room was full of glittery crowns, and we were awaiting the scores. The former Illusion winners had donned their crowning bling for the initiation of new royalty.

"They look more like drag popes than drag queens," I exclaimed at the sheer size of the head bling while contestants shifted in their heels and did their best to retain their poise despite the wait.

"They're bigger and brighter than regular crowns," Carlos postulated, "because they're bigger and brighter than regular women."

Made sense.

When the winners were announced, it was anticlimatic. The contestants had waited so long, they'd been instructed to sit down (on the stage!) in their expensive evening wear.

The MC had even complained from her stool behind the podium, "If I keep sitting like this, the head of my dick is gonna fall off."

So there was no huge fanfare when Lonnaii and Marilyn were awarded Miss Congeniality in their categories. There wasn't a lot of to-do when Viva Mirage was named the classic queen. But when Vanessa D'Amour, the demure contestant who had done a Diana Ross number, was crowned as Miss South Florida Illusion 2006, her knees seemed to buckle under the weight of the title. Or was it the size of the crown?

Vanessa, in a shimmery, open-midriff gown, was still reeling from her victory: "Winners never quit, and quitters never win. As long as you strive for what you want and believe in yourself, whatever you want, you can achieve."

The illusion was complete: She'd spoken just like any beauty pageant queen! And like other pageants, the chasing of a dream had paid off in a cash prize and some pageant jewelry. As I congratulated the poised young lady with a kiss, her heavily made-up cheek grazed mine with its razor stubble. And that's all it took to dispel the illusion.