After turn in spotlight, back to second place for Miss'd A

At Boardwalk Hall, Kitty Hiccups, Miss'd America 2011, crowns Sabel Scities (Timothy Byars) of Sunnyside, N.Y., as Miss'd A 2012 in Atlantic City.
At Boardwalk Hall, Kitty Hiccups, Miss'd America 2011, crowns Sabel Scities (Timothy Byars) of Sunnyside, N.Y., as Miss'd A 2012 in Atlantic City. (BEN FOGLETTO / Atlantic City Press)
Posted: September 13, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY - In the gaping void left by the departed Miss America these last few years, one lonely pageant stood in to fill the void.

Miss'd America, the drag-queen alt-pageant tableau of debauchery that had satirized Miss America for two decades but had gone dark and depressed for five years after the pageant left, was suddenly pressed into service.

Tourism officials finally declared Miss America dead to them and, with straight faces, embraced the drag queens. This, they said in 2010, would be Atlantic City's main event.

And so it was, presented in Boardwalk Hall. They even pulled the sacred runway out of storage.

But now, with the big kahuna back in town, so it is not. Miss'd America, newfound sincerity and all, has been sent back to the minors - its odd star turn leaving the federally trademarked brand in a condition up for dispute.

Some say the pageant's more mainstream turn positively reflects the evolution of the gay community as a whole, while others say the campy creation has been, well, neutered of its original wit, bite, and raison d'ĂȘtre.

You be the judge. The Miss'd America pageant will be presented at 8 p.m. Sept. 21 in a new casino venue: the House of Blues at Showboat. (In an echo of when Miss America left, two years in Boardwalk Hall took too much of a financial toll.) Tickets range from $45 to $112.

"It was taking itself way too seriously," says Robert "Sandy Beach" Hitchen, creator and writer of the Miss'd America show until 2011, when - in a move that sent out shock waves in drag land - he was ousted.

"They made it a generic gay drag pageant," Hitchen said. "Atlantic City lost its sense of humor."

Others claim the Miss'd America Pageant, like its alter ego, desperately needed updating and more professionalism. Especially if it was going to play in the big house, which on its face was ridiculous enough. This year's contestants include one with TV credits on The Wire. It's more RuPaul, glamour, resumé.

"If you look at the contestants this year, there are some that are very, very serious about the competition, and some others that aren't serious about it," said Joel Ballesteros, head of LGBT marketing at Resorts and the local LGBT Alliance, which benefits from the show.

Historically, playing to a crowd of pageant insiders, locals, and drag-queen groupies on the porch of now-shuttered Club Tru, green appletini's for all, contestants were a regional bunch like Chunky Marinara or the lovely Miss Mortimer (Miss'd A 1995).

The legal rights to the brand were owned by business backer John Schultz, a former city councilman, whose Schultz-Hill Foundation benefits gay causes and was one of the two recipients of funds raised by the pageant.

The winner that first year in Boardwalk Hall, Scott Cooper, a nurse also known as Michelle Dupree, was a single father with two adopted children. He saw his Miss'd America title as a way to be a role model. Hitchen, whose great-grandfather was mayor when Boardwalk Hall was dedicated in the 1920s, thinks all the seriousness helped ruin his creation: "Now, they're doing a generic four-hour drag show."

Some pageant regulars miss the old format, when it was held the day after the pageant. Hitchen would write his monologue off the real show. "We all attended," said pageant volunteer Jeff Whitfield of Virginia. "We needed the levity."

Gary Hill, who owns the Miss'd brand (and forbid Philadelphia's SugarHouse Casino from staging a Miss'd Sugarhouse), says Cooper was a pioneer.

He likes the way Miss'd A has evolved, with national contestants and musical guests like this year's CeCe Peniston. "Some people would rather have it very campy, sitting outside yelling and screaming and getting drunk," he said.

The Atlantic City Alliance, supporter of Miss America, has kicked in money to pay for promotion for Miss'd America, including a series of meant-to-be-sidesplitting Web videos taking contestants around A.C.

And though all the gay bars on New York Avenue have closed, there will be a Miss'd A preparty at the Prohibition Bar at Resorts, the first casino gay bar.

Former Miss'd A Mortimer Spreng believes pageant organizers would just as soon be done with the old guard. "We, as a group, debate every year if we're going to attend/participate, and we always agree to do it 'one more time.' But more and more the voices of dissent are making more sense," he said. "The Miss'd is nothing like it used to be, and it's a damn shame. And yes, the city fathers seemed to have shunted us to the side once the MAO rolled back into town. Oh, well."

(Spreng will go to the parade, but not in drag. Too much trouble, what with all the particulars of the transformation.)

Things are still touchy. A late try to get a Miss'd A float in Saturday's parade was turned down, and some thought Miss A just did not want to be mocked.

But parade producer John Best says no. "It's not that we didn't want the Miss'd America people to be in the parade," he said. "There were deadlines."

Although Best gives credit to the gay community for the invention of the now-iconic (and sponsored by Pink and Pepper shoes) "Show Us Your Shoes" parade, the creation story sometimes gets lost in translation. One report described the drag queens looking down on the parade from New York Avenue fire escapes as simply "hecklers."

Hitchen, now in exile, was there that day in 1975. He says they could see into the convertibles that contestants were wearing bedroom slippers, flip-flops, or nothing. "Show us your shoes," they taunted. The next year, the elaborate shoe ritual took hold.

From Philadelphia, where among other duties he hosts a gay quizzo to be shown on the Food Network, Hitchen has debated another spoof.

"I thought about doing the Miss Universal Galaxy of the Whole Freaking World Pageant," he said. "It would be the worst acts you'd ever seen on a stage, that gets done with the tongue in cheek."

Maybe next year. Anyway, as satire goes, Miss America itself still sets the bar pretty high. How can you even try to top the talent of Miss Arkansas, who during Tuesday's preliminaries contemporary clogged to the theme from Monday Night Football?


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter or Instagram @amysrosenberg.

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