At 5 pm last Sunday, the Oregon Convention Center's vast Portland Ballroom was virtually empty — except for a smallish meeting room next to it bustling with activity. That space had been transformed into a dressing room full of 10-foot-tall wigs, feathery costumes and half-naked men who were doing their best to look like women.
"It's that time, boys!" bellowed Monica Boulevard, 38. "Lift up your shirts and show me your tits."
Or lack of tits. The mandatory 5 pm boob check was part of the 27th Annual La Femme Magnifique and La Femme Plus Magnifique Pageant. As pageant director and emcee of the contest to crown the "most glamorous female impersonator in the world," it was Boulevard's (a.k.a. Casey Ipock) duty to make sure none of the men who had traveled from as far away as Hawaii to compete had augmented their original equipment below the neck. The "boys" coyly exposed their chests to show that they were indeed "real."
Behind the scenes there were other "real" things that surprised me about this surreal show. Like how cute the boys were out of drag. Gender issues aside, I'd always thought most of the "girls" in revues were primarily shy guys who loved the attention they got as gals. Boy, was I wrong. These dudes were attractive gents, including La Femme floor manager (and 1996 winner) LaVanda de la Rosa, a.k.a. Kevin Manring, 42, who secretly admitted to me he'd shagged his share of straight men dressed as women. "I like to entertain, but I can't sing and I can't dance," said Manring. "With La Femme you can be a star."
La Femme was created over a quarter-century ago by Oregon icon Darcelle XV and his partner, Roxy LeRoy. I've seen lots of them, but this was the first time I'd spent time backstage before the big night. And, considering this was La Femme's largest pageant ever—17 contestants in all—and the first time they'd crown a fat and a skinny one on the same night, I'd picked a good year.
As always, the contest lasted longer than the longest of Academy Award ceremonies. This year it was just over five hours. But backstage—even though the 17 contestants had to double up on just nine tables and dressing racks—drama stayed at a minimum. No catfights. No name-calling. Not even a single finger-snap. In fact, there was no drama at all—just the hum of dressers helping them in and out of their formal, talent and showgirl ensembles as they hurried back out onstage.
By evening's end Hawaii had swept the pageant, taking both the La Femme and La Femme Plus titles. No surprise considering the Aloha State entrants traveled with an entourage of 35 and the La Femme Plus winner, Mez Carsi, was able to re-create the opening number of The Lion King as her "talent."
But that sounds bitchy. And, on this night, these hardworking "girls" were having none of that.