Antwan Lee is low maintenance. In the morning he throws on jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap and walks out the door to his costuming business in the Design District, where he designs for color guard teams and ice skaters, with little more than a quick glance in the mirror. But by evening, Lee transforms into Asia O'Hara, one of the most famous drag queens in the country, with a hair, makeup and wardrobe routine that would exhaust most women.
O'Hara is the reigning Miss Gay America, a pageant that dates to 1972, long before RuPaul's Drag Race became a sensation. On Friday, Texas' representative to this year's pageant will be crowned at The Rose Room, located inside Oak Lawn nightclub S4. The preliminary, with a "Siren of the Sea" theme, begins on Tuesday and contestants will be judged according to five categories: male interview, solo talent, evening gown, on-stage interview and talent. The winner will go on to the finals in Tennessee in October.
O'Hara's duties as the reigning Miss Gay America include community engagement, attending charity events and maintaining a social media presence that positively reflects the organization. She's also required to attend all of the pageant's preliminary competitions and is in charge of much of their administration, down to enforcing all of the rules and regulations.
Lee grew up in Grand Prairie but his family moved to Dallas when he was 14. His parents' beliefs are very traditional. "My parents were conservative, but also they kind of taught me to have my own mind and make my own decisions and think for myself," says Lee, who spoke to us as he was driving back from a Miss Gay America preliminary in Louisiana.
Pageants were not something Lee ever aspired to participate in as an adolescent, although he did love performing in everything from band to color guard to dance to theater. "After all of that died down I was subconsciously looking for another creative outlet, so pageants kind of came to me at an appropriate time and filled that need to compete and be on stage," Lee says.
Surprisingly, it wasn't a gift for makeup or hair that gave Lee the confidence to try drag at an amateur night at The Rose Room. "When you start off, you're pretty terrible," he says. Instead, it was his strong decision-making skills. "It was the first time ever where I was solely responsible for everything that I showcase, from my talent to my gown to my interview answer. With other extracurricular activities you’re part of a team or you’re being coached and you have support that’s helping along."
The rest got easier. "When I started I didn’t have YouTube and Facebook to sit and study," he says. "But you can’t hide behind a mass of other people like a choir or a dance team, so I think there’s a lot more motivation to learn. [In the beginning] you meet people who are good with makeup and costuming and hair, and you hire them to help you, and slowly but surely you learn how to do it yourself."
Lee says one of the mistakes many female impersonators make when competing is trying to win first place in every single category. Instead, his strategy is to identify his strengths and weaknesses and focus on his weak areas first. "I say, 'Of these five, which two can I win in, and which two do I think I might be second or third place in, and which need most work,'" Lee says. "I start with the most work and build that to a consistent score. ... Pageantry is a numbers game."
The routine that won O'Hara the crown was an upbeat dance number to Aretha Franklin's "School Daze," in which O'Hara and her backup dancers wore poodle skirts for a '50s schoolgirl look. Lee makes all of Asia O'Hara's costumes and sometimes designs for other entertainers, too.
Lee says when he was named Miss Gay America as O'Hara he initially received some backlash from fellow female impersonators in Texas. "Some people felt like I wasn’t in it for the right reasons," Lee says. "People do get emotional." But he adds that the tension quickly dissipated and that generally there's not much cattiness in Miss Gay America. "Once you win and the crown goes on your head, they support you," he says.
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Of the drag cultures he's observed in his travels across the country attending preliminary pageants, Lee has been particularly impressed by what he's seen in Arizona, where the entertainers are embraced by their surrounding communities. "[Their winner] was on the local news," he says. Dallas isn't always that inclusive.
"Just geographically, the way things are set up we have specific areas for specific lifestyles and clubs for those lifestyles," Lee says. "We’re fortunate to have that so everyone has a place where they can go and feel at home. But other places don’t have that luxury, so everyone is forced to intermingle and you get exposed to things you didn’t even know you had an interest in. I think there is a great deal of support for the art form here but it’s not as widespread."
But even now that Lee is tapped into female impersonator communities far beyond Dallas, The Rose Room holds a special place in his heart since it's where Asia O'Hara was born. She'll attend the preliminary there this week and help to ensure that it runs smoothly, although she won't be participating in the judging. And Lee likes it that way. "I prefer not to judge," he says. "There's no point value for star quality."
Miss Gay Texas America takes place at The Rose Room at S4, 3911 Cedar Springs Road, from Tuesday, July 19, to Friday, July 22. Cover is $10 to $20. For more info, visit missgaytexasamerica.com.