In the presence of royalty

by Hannah Clay Wareham

Bay Windows

Friday September 10, 2010

Toni Olin-Mignosa takes home the crown at the 2010 Miss Trans New England pageant.

Towering bouffants, sparkling tiaras, and vibrantly colored evening gowns shimmered in the ornately appointed Academy of Music theatre in Northampton, Mass., on Saturday, Sept. 4. Nearly 500 audience members -- representative of any and all queer ilk -- chatted and laughed until quarter of seven when the second annual 2010 Miss Transgender New England pageant began.

Christa Hilfers, CEO and Executive Director of the pageant, shared the position of co-host with Georgia Star and the 2009 Miss Transgender New England Lorelei Erisis. Erisis introduced the 2010 contestants as they began their opening numbers with saucy hair flips, hip turns, bend-and-snaps, and catwalking that would put Tyra Banks to shame. The ten contestants wore white tank tops, denim mini-skirts or skinny jeans, and heels miles high.

The contestants cheered one another on, offering a hand to hold and friendly encouragement, while the crowd clapped along to a remix of Bette Midler's "I'm Beautiful."

"They're all so beautiful!" Erisis said, standing before the evening's team of judges: 16th Empress of Rhode Island's Imperial Court, Diana Prince; Founder of the East Coast Biker Chikz, Lucky Belcamino; Aydin Brannon; Bear White; Miss Gay Ogonquit 2009, Felicia Michaels Warner; Kayla Evans; Miss Mayflower 2010 Kimmy Supernaw; Melissa Borchardt; Ryan Thomas; Theresa Coley-Kouadio; and Vickie Boisseau.

Local folk artist Arjuna Greist provided entertainment while the women made their first costume change. Greist told the crowd that she had written a song for the evening's performance that very day, and said, "I hope things go well. If they don't, we'll all have a raw experience together." The audience giggled and Greist began her acoustic-electric tribute to the women she knows and admires, embodied in the song's heroine, Grace.

Greist -- wearing a t-shirt that read "Question Gender" -- received a standing ovation for her first song, and launched into an a capella version of "Oh Tranny Boy," a well-received parody of "Oh Danny Boy."

The first contestant introduced was Leslie Anne Rios, a singer/songwriter from Munson, Mass. -- and runner-up in the 2009 Miss Transgender New England competition -- who was competing on the platform of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC). She was followed by Northampton's own Valerie Samone, competing on the platform of ServiceNet, and then Samantha Joy Cornell, a commercial driver from Worcester. New York's Charlene Howell emerged next, and told the crowd she was wearing white "because trans babies are pure at birth."

Following Howell was Ava Cordero, a Springfield native who was competing on the platform of spaying and neutering pets, and then Nicole Hamidi, competing on a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) platform. Boston's Jasmina Andino told the crowd she hoped to be the "first Latina, homeless, HIV-positive Miss Trans New England," and was followed by cosmetology student Toni Olin-Mignosa. Krystal Rash told the crowd she was competing for workplace equality and Faye Coon ran on a Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance platform "because we're all crazy here."

The ladies filed off stage and the talent portion of the pageant began with Rios, performing "Wanna Be," a song she had written herself. Rios wore a bejeweled burgundy floor-length dress, and her strawberry blonde hair swung back and forth as she played an electric-acoustic guitar and sang, "I wanna be happy with roses and lace / With people happy just to see my face." A team of six costumed characters danced behind her -- from the wicked witch of the west to a boy locked in a cage, each had a role in the song.

Cornell followed Rios and told "a short story of the early part of my self-discovery," having explained that her previous plan for the talent competition had fallen through. Cornell's story took place at a Halloween party, during which a drunken man gave her a hard time for being transgender, and later apologized, saying, "You've got more balls than I do."

Samone emerged next with fistfuls of streaming rainbow ribbons flying from each hand and offered a sassy falsetto aria from the Disney movie Pocahontas -- "Colors of the Wind." Audience members punctuated the verses with whoops and cheers, and it became clear just how pro-queer this song had always been. Samone's charming enthusiasm earned her a standing ovation.

The red velvet curtains then parted to reveal a faux stone wall. As dramatic music crescendoed, Howell was chased onto the stage and "attacked" by a hooded man carrying signs that read, "God Hates Fags" and "MassResistance.org." Before running off stage, he tore off Howell's green cloak to reveal a sparkling rainbow ball gown. The solitary Howell wept over her predicament before finding solace in lip-synching a song: "God Help the Outcasts," from the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This fairy tale -- based very much in real life for all too many transgender people -- occasioned another standing ovation.

Cordera next danced and lip-synched to Christina Aguilera's "Glam" in a lacy bustier and sequined miniskirt. With her white-blonde pageboy hair style, the music wasn't the only thing that made one think of the pop diva.

Hamidi then drifted on stage -- pale, tall, and waif-like in a way that can only be compared to "The L Word's" Shane. She wore black stockings and an oversized black blazer that was quickly shed as she sang "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig & The Angry Inch in the stockings and a black strapless bra alone. Her Nico-like voice, combined with bright red fingernails and stringy black hair, created an aura of intoxicating energy and force.

A young girl dressed like a fairy next stood on stage before a Portuguese flag covered in signatures, and held a portrait of Andino in front of her face. Andino stood behind the podium and read from a prepared autobiographical speech detailing a history of sexual and domestic violence, as well as homelessness. "I want to share this with you not because I want your pity," but because "Let's face it, I survived!" Her well-written and well-delivered speech describing how she would use her position of Miss Trans New England as one of political advocacy was continually interrupted by applause from the audience.

Mignosa next sang "He's A Tramp," followed by Peggy Lee's "Fever." She was small but curvaceous in a cap-sleeved, tight-fitting black dress and red T-strap patent leather heels, casting her smoldering dark eyes at the audience. Mignosa's small stature belied an exceptional voice, and she was quickly an audience favorite.

Rash then stepped on stage wearing a floor-length black dress and black silk gloves that reached her elbows. She sang "Unchained Melody," and clicked her heels together as her arms slowly windmilled through the song.

Coon next appeared from behind the curtain clad in lingerie, and someone in the audience barked approvingly. While the monologue she delivered was certainly toeing the line of family-friendly, Coon proved to be quite talented.

During the evening gown segment, each contestant was accompanied by a sharply dressed usher who led the contestant to center stage, kissed her hand, and then allowed her to stroll and spin about the stage, showing off her invariably sparkly dress. Every one of the ten contestants had her ballerina moment on stage, set to a soundtrack of pop ballad and audience applause. In the moments before the 2010 Miss Transgender New England was announced, each woman was a queen.

Following the evening gown portion, the women stood together in the center of the stage holding hands, and received a standing ovation minutes long.

After a fifteen-minute intermission, the audience was treated to a performance from the 16th Empress of Rhode Island's Imperial Court, Diana Prince. In a shimmering rainbow muu-muu, Prince was somewhat reminiscent of a disco ball. Her stage presence and powerful singing voice were, however, untouchable as she gave new life to Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" -- remixed, of course.

Another special guest further extended the crowd's anticipation. "Sir Octo-Cock" performed a menagerie of Mister Rogers snippets and "Avenue Q" classics that had the crowd in stitches.

Lorelei Erisis began her final walk as the first ever Miss Transgender New England to a full standing ovation. Saturated with emotion, a slideshow of images from Erisis' reign was projected behind the stage while a recorded speech played, and nary an eye in the house was without a tear or two.

The moment for which everyone was waiting rapidly approached, and the top five contestants were named: Andino, Rios, Howell, Hamidi, and Mignosa stepped forward, gripping one another's hands. Andindo wiped away a tear as Hilfers prepared to announce the 2010 Miss Transgender New England.

"Tonight's winner is..." Everyone held their breath. "...Toni!"

Mignosa broke into sobs and fell into the arms of another contestant before kneeling to accept her new crown from Erisis.

The runners-up responded with immediate grace, smiling and clapping for Mignosa. Howell received the honor of Most Photogenic, and Rios was named People's Choice.

The remaining contestants cleared the stage as Mignosa took her first walk as Miss Transgender New England to pageant classic "One in a Million." Tears slid down her cheeks unchecked as the winner beamed at her adoring public.

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