What Happens in Vegas

Several years ago, while Fred and I were still doing Margaret Ellis Jewelry, we did a trade show in Las Vegas. People had continually told us, “Oh, you should do the Vegas show.” After hearing this over and over, we decided that maybe we should. It was certainly by far an  outstanding show. It was outstandingly the most expensive show we ever did, and by far the least successful. It was a five day show of sheer misery. We had two sales in five days. One was a very small sale to a store in Japan that we never saw again, who wanted to “custom design” every piece they bought. The other was a sale to a regular customer that we could have seen in New York. We did write one $12,000 order, but they came by the next day and cancelled it.

Las Vegas itself is my very least favorite city. It was hot as Hell, and the entire environment was so cheesy that it was almost (almost being the key word) wonderful. While there are some restaurants there that were started by some well-known chefs, they are located inside what feel like shopping malls. We were trapped in the convention hall from morning to night, with horrible food options and no air-conditioning on the set-up day. We stayed at the Luxor (maybe the tackiest hotel on the strip), and had to walk through the canyon of slot machine to get to our room. Fred and I kept fantasizing that we’d get on the elevator with Carrot Top (remember him?) who was playing there. We didn’t. The only comic relief was that a fake Elvis came by our booth. At that point anyone coming by our booth was a joy. We hated being in Las Vegas.

For therapy while we were there, we would go outside at night. There is more neon on the strip than there is in Times Square. Nothing seems authentic; everything seems fake. That’s because everything is fake—fake New York, fake Paris, fake Disneyland, fake Rome, fake Venice, and, of course, fake Egypt. And it’s probably gotten worse. But, the nights were salvaged by my camera. Taking pictures was the one thing that redeemed this trip. I started to experiment with “arty” shots of the lights, and ended up enjoying taking pictures very much. I played around with moving my camera when I snapped—sort of drawing with the lights. I started to see these photos of light as very psychedelic (not that I would know from personal experience, you understand). Since the assignment this week from Sylvain Landry was “Night” I went straight to my Las Vegas photos. I still liked the photos, but I still would never want to go back to this town, even if that $12,000 order had come through.

Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

Currently I am experiencing a very exciting time of my life. I have not “officially” announced any of this on FaceBook, as I must wait until the house is officially on the market. So, I’m only sharing this with my fellow bloggers. Fred and I are moving to Mexico in October. I am physically still in Nashville, working hard to get all the details in order. So much to do to make the house as perfect as possible. Not to mention sorting through 35 years of living in this same house…a house that has an attic and a basement. We are getting rid of the things we no longer love, and packing the things we are not ready to do without. There is now a POD in the drive-way, so that is probably a clue to the world as to what is going on. We have located a moving company to take a van of belongings across the border and on to San Miguel. We will soon be going to the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta to start the process on our temporary residency. I am going to have to sell my sweet little red MiniCooper, as I won’t be needing it in Mexico. (We’ll be traveling in the “Meximobile”…the Rav4 that we bought last summer for our 6 month journey.) We have had several parties this summer because we want to spend time with our Nashville friends. I hope that our close friends will visit us in San Miguel because I don’t think we’ll be back here all that much. We had thought of buying a condo here, but Nashville real estate prices have hit the roof and we’d rather spend the money on a swell place there. Plus, owning a place we don’t live in seems like a rather expensive hassle. And, after being quite displeased with the state of things when we returned this spring after renting our house for 6 months, we know we definitely don’t want to be international landlords.

We are ready to start a new chapter and have new experiences. Nashville has been great for us in many ways. We have transformed our house here into a very personal environment that we have loved. At one time, not so long ago, I would have never thought I would ever be ready to leave. But, also, at one time, not so long ago, I would have never thought I’d ever be ready to retire. My work (designing jewelry) meant so much to me, and it had become a big part of my identity. And, this house had also become such a part of my identity as well. It feels a little strange to just walk out of things. But, when you are ready it is a wonderful, liberating experience. The trip for 6 months in Mexico this past year really opened our eyes to how we’d like to spend our lives. Turns out the call to Mexico is much more appealing than staying put. We are ready for something new and adventurous. Fred, who is the cautious one of this pair, is just as ready as I am, and I am very thankful for that.

As I said, physically I am in Nashville. But, spiritually and mentally I am already in San Miguel de Allende, sitting on a park bench, eating street corn.

Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part Four. Miss Gay Middle Tennessee America, Giselle Nicole

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Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part Four. Miss Gay Middle Tennessee, Giselle Nicole

It takes a while during a pageant for the contestants to change costumes and re-do makeup and lord knows what else. And the promoters don’t want the audience to get restless. It’s during these intermissions when some of the most fun talent of the evening happens. (And, here’s a compliment to the pageants in the Miss Gay America system: they start on time and run like clockwork). Usually at a pageant, former title holders come in as guest performers to take the stage while the competitors are making their changes and the judges are having their pow-wows. These queens are seasoned performers, having been on the pageant circuit for a while, and they are working the crowd. Some of the most amazing performances I’ve personally ever seen were at last year’s Miss Gay America Pageant, where there were several former title holders giving it all they had. Also, during these periods in a pageant the current title holder will perform. For this year’s Miss Gay Tennessee America I’m sure that my pal Suzy Wong will be making a spectacle of herself in the most wonderful way possible. Suzy has decided to donate all her tips for the evening of the Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant to the Nashville Rescue Mission.
I am also looking forward to seeing Sally Sparkles – her name describes her personality, both onstage and off, what a sweetheart – the current Miss Gay America, and Kirby Kolby, Miss Gay America 2012. I have to confess, Kirby is one of my very favorite performers. His energy is incredible, and he serves high drama. I could see him on Broadway, as either a glamorous female diva, or a dramatic male lead. Watching him on stage is real theatre. (He is also one of the best looking men I’ve ever seen. There, I said it.)
Let’s talk about tipping at pageants. It is important to bring lots of dollar bills to any show involving female impersonators. Their tips are an important part of the performer’s income. They have an enormous overhead to look the way they do, and they work as hard as any entertainers you’ll ever see anywhere. Personally, when I go to a show I usually tip every queen involved. Anyone who is willing to go through the changes involved (literally and figuratively) to entertain in this art form definitely deserves a tip. Get up to the edge of the stage and tip your queens, but if you are watching a pageant don’t tip the competitors. That’s a no-no. But applaud them as loudly as possible. And feel free to cheer.
But for now here is a little moment with the beautiful and charming Miss Gay Middle Tennessee America, Giselle Nicole. (Giselle’s first alternate is Jasmine St. James and I hear she is fierce).
Giselle has participated in 7 pageants, with her win of Miss Gay Middle Tennessee being a step up to the next level. The real women who have been her role models are not movie stars or celebrities, but the women who are in her own family; sisters, grandmother, aunts, and her mom. When I asked her if there were other female impersonators who she especially admired, I liked her answer. “Those that have come before me and have paved the way for me to do what I do today.” There is a real history involved in this art form, and Giselle understands and appreciates that.
Giselle’s long-term plan is to become a superstar and cross over into mainstream media as Giselle Nicole. She has trained in musical theatre in the prestigious conservatory AMDA in New York. This crossover “is looking pretty good. I just wrapped up ‘The Boulevard’, a film with Robin Williams and fellow sister Paige Turner. I also have done some extra work on the tv show, ‘Nashville.’ ”
I loved the answer Giselle gave me when I asked who her biggest supporter had been.
“My dad who passed about two months ago was my biggest fan, mentor, and coach. I know that sounds a little strange but he was. I would talk to him on the days of my pageants and he would give me the best pep talks. We talked about pageants like it was football. I was so proud of him because he was a heterosexual male and had no problems telling me how proud he was of me. He would show my pictures to everyone he knew.”

Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part Three. Venus Knight, Miss Gay Nashville America

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Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part Three . Presenting Venus Knight, Miss Gay Nashville America.

As the evening of the Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant continues the two categories of competition that remain are Evening Gown and Question and Answer. A contest can easily be won or lost with one of these two categories. Evening Gown is the part of the contest where glamour conquers all. The contestants will invest everything in the dress for this part of the competition. It needs to flatter their body, catch the eyes of the judges, and bring a sigh from the audience. They are judged not just for the dress, but on how they appear in it. Many times a more elaborate wig will be used in this part of the competition as minimalism and restraint are two words that do not exist in the vocabulary of pageant girls. More is more and too much is not enough. There are times when you might hope the stage is big enough for the dress and the ceiling high enough for the wig. Here is an interesting side note: there isn’t nearly as much focus on being super slim among female impersonator pageants as there is in the “real girl” pageants that they are inspired by. Some female impersonators are rather large women, and that doesn’t have to work against them. It is all attitude and style, and “werking” it!
It is important to realize that in the Miss Gay America system all the competitors are 100% male. No plastic surgery below the neck is allowed. It is all totally an illusion. It involves the highest level of makeup artistry, wigs, lots of foam rubber, duct tape and sometimes 5 pairs of Spanx control-top panty hose.
For Question and Answer the questions that need to be answered are much like the questions asked in the Miss America Pageant. They have a brief pause to think and then to come up with an intelligent, articulate response.
Next time I’ll tell you about what happens during intermissions at the pageants, but for now I’d like you to meet the reigning Miss Gay Nashville America, the girl with legs I would kill for, Venus Knight. (The first alternate to Miss Gay Nashville America is the queen with the greatest name of all time, Venus Ann Serena. She is a unique personality and a true one-of-a-kind entertainer.).

Venus has established herself in national pageant competition and went to Miss Gay America last year as first alternate to Miss Gay Tennessee America. She laughingly said she has participated in so many pageants she has lost count. She is a strong competitor, a powerful dancer, and an interesting personality. As is true with all four of the performers I interviewed, Venus remembers the first time she went on stage as a
female impersonator. She has performed frequently at Play, but found she wanted to stretch her wings a bit, and that desire was what led her to start competing in pageants. She feels that pageants are a way to get out into the world and open doors to opportunities.
Venus’s strongest supporters are her mother and grandmother, and her former boyfriend, Tony, who remains a close friend. When asked if there was a female impersonator she especially admired, Venus didn’t hesitate in naming Ivy White.
Venus makes a clear definition between her life as a female impersonator and her life as a guy. Venus is the first person in his family to graduate from college and earn a Master’s Degree, both from Western Kentucky University, His interest is family counseling, and in the future sees himself having his own practice. He also is planning to get a law degree. He sees Venus in the future as a national title holder. He is determined, focused, and ambitious, in and out of the wig.

Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part 2. Miss Gay Memphis America, Iris Le’Fluer

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Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part 2. Miss Gay Memphis America, Iris Le’Fluer

Before I continue with the presentation of the preliminary winners for the Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, which will be held in Nashville at Play on September 15, I’ll tell you a bit about the categories that the contestants compete in. They make their initial appearance in an introductory walk across the stage and down the runway called Presentation. This is where they tell the audience (and judges) a little bit about themselves and have a chance to show off their personalities. The category of Male Interview is not seen by the audience. This takes place before the performance part of the pageant begins and for this one the contestants appear before the judges as their male selves. They are asked questions about their lives without the wig. There are two talent presentations. One is Solo Talent where only the performer is on stage and works solo and there is the Production Number, which usually involves back-up dancers, props–the bigger the show the better.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the other two categories, Evening Gown and Question and Answer. But right now I’d like you to meet another of the beautiful preliminary winners, Iris La’Fluer, Miss Gay Memphis America. (The first alternate for Miss Gay Memphis America is Tyra Hunter. I have seen her perform before and I know she will bring it. She is a great dancer.)
Iris “comes from a small country town but has big city dreams.” He knew early on that he was a born queen. “When I was little I used to dress up in my mom’s clothes and do shows for my grandmother. I always wanted to hit the stage!” The rest is history, or I should say, her story, because Iris has been performing ever since. She started entering pageants in 2010 and has placed first or second alternate in every pageant she’s entered–except for the ones where she has been crowned the winner. Her most exciting win is the title of Miss Gay Memphis America, and that is what she will be competing as in the upcoming Miss Gay Tennessee America pageant. Her greatest cheerleaders have been her partner of three years, Chris, and her mother, who has been her dresser and has appeared in her talent. Her mother and her grandmother are the real women who have inspired her the most.
Looking into the future, Iris says that the title of Miss Gay Tennessee America is something she won’t give up on. She is considering several possibilities for life without the wig as well. One of those is becoming a makeup artist, where she could put her skills to good use. Iris gives special credit to two former Miss Gay Tennessee Americas, Anita MsCocktail and Pat McCooter have been especially helpful to her during this particular pageant experience.

Miss Gay Tennessee America. Part One. Miss Gay East Tennessee America, Katie Love.

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Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, Part One. Miss Gay East Tennessee America, Katie Love.

I have had the pleasure of photographing the four winners of the preliminary contests leading up to the Miss Gay Tennessee America Pageant, which will be held in Nashville at Play on Sunday, September 15. This has proven to be one of my favorite projects and I have enjoyed spending time with each one of these unique individuals. They will be competing not only against each other, but also against the first alternates from each of the preliminaries. This should prove to be a very entertaining event, heightened by performances and appearances from the reigning Miss Gay Tennessee, Suzy Wong (who will be competing at Miss Gay America as the current Miss Mid America), Sally Sparkles, the current Miss Gay America, and Kirby Kolby, Miss Gay America, 2012. I am sure the talent line up will include many other great performers in the wonderful world of female impersonation. I was happy to learn that the very witty Anita Ms Cocktail will be at the podium, serving up some of that diva-glamour-humor that she does so well. The promoter for this event, Jeffery Culbert, will be on hand, and it is always great to see the Miss Gay America guys, Terry Eason and Larry Tyger. And the one who started this whole thing, the grand guru himself, Jerry Peek, will also be in the house.
Since I have enjoyed getting to know these fascinating illusionists, I thought it would be fun to share a bit about them with you. If you are a Pageant novice, these posts will prepare you to get the most out of the pageant. Today I want you to meet a contestant who is as personable as she is pretty-Katie Love, Miss East Tennessee America. (The first alternate was PurrZsa Kyttyn-Azrael, and I look forward to meeting her at the pageant).

Katie is happy that her mother plans to attend this pageant and watch her perform for the very first time. She has enjoyed experiencing the sense of family that comes from working closely with others in the Miss Gay America pageant system. Winning the title of Miss Gay East Tennessee was a thrill to her, and this was the first time she had entered a pageant that was part of a national system. She had “practiced” a bit with some local contests, and saw each one as an opportunity to learn more. Her biggest cheerleaders are her ex-boyfriend, who is now her best friend, and her current boyfriend, who is her soul mate. This is just a snapshot of what great people skills Katie has. She makes this work beautifully. She exudes the kind of spirit that feels like she must get along with everyone who is fortunate enough to cross her path.
She has a very positive, upbeat attitude. I loved her answer when I asked her what she thought she’d be doing in five years. “In five years I see myself preparing for the Miss Gay Tennessee Pageant. This will either be to enter because I haven’t won yet, or because I have and I am here to entertain. I am a fighter and I don’t believe in giving up until you have achieved your goals.”

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down

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I was intrigued when I received a request from Dee Dee Renner to do her portrait. Dee Dee is a transgender performer at Play Night Club who has recently been recovering from a diagnosis of leukemia, and the chemo that followed. Earlier this summer she started to feel more and more exhausted, and when she went in to find out why, she received the bad news. She has spent most of her time since then going through what has had to be the most intense experience of her life.
Her support system has been amazing. Her mom, Joy, has been here with her the whole time. Her dad has spent a great deal of time in Nashville with her as well. Her employers and co-workers at Play have rallied to encourage
her, and there has been a page on Facebook, Prayers for Dee Dee, to keep her friends and fans up to date on her progress. On July 15, a benefit was held for her at Play, and she made a special Skype appearance. The exciting news now is that she will be at Play for her first live performance since before her diagnosis on September 6.
I have had the opportunity to photograph several people in the drag and transgender community, and I was honored that I was the person Dee Dee chose to record this time of her life. She wanted a really artistic portrait, not a promo head shot, to show that she was still herself, even though her hair was missing and the trials of her battle were showing on her face. I knew what she had in mind, and our photo shoot was, by its nature, very intimate. At the end, I was satisfied I had captured what we had in mind.
I believe that Dee Dee is on her way to a complete recovery, and I was inspired by her positive energy and strong attitude. I am sharing this photo as a tribute to her will to survive, and because it shows that even in the hardest of times, we can rise above the trouble and see the light ahead.

Dee Dee and Joy

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Two for the Price of One

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Arnold Myint, aka Suzy Wong, being crowned Miss Gay Mid-America

Two for the Price of One

This post is a tribute to my friend Arnold Myint, aka Suzy Wong. There are many sides to Arnold. He is as high-energy as it gets and can do a million things at once. He is always on the go, always has a project in the works, and will not settle for anything less than perfection.

Arnold is a phenomenal chef and a very giving person. One picture of this is that he recently raised top dollars for Nashville Cares during Dining Out for Life., combining his life as a chef with his passion for giving.

But, I’m not here to rave about his cooking, I want to talk to you about his drag. You see, I happen to love drag queens. The art of female impersonation has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. A lot of people just think of drag as a man in a dress, but it is so much more than that. I have watched Arnold develop the character of Suzy Wong from the beginning. In fact, the beginning was when Andrew Pentecost, the most incredible makeup artist I know, came to my house and turned Arnold into Suzy for one of my jewelry ads. We had a blast that night. Then Suzy started showing up more and more frequently. Suzy was turning into a brand, and Arnold found ways to combine his skills as a chef with Suzy’s skills as an entertainer. (An example of this is that at the New York Pride celebration recently Suzy was the cocktail queen for Absolut vodka). Arnold was once a professional skater, and he missed the fun of putting on makeup and shiny costumes and being in the spotlight. Suzy came in on 6″ platform heels rather than skates but the same Arnold was underneath the wig.

What came next for Suzy was pageants. There are all sorts of drag queens. Pageant queens are in a world of their own. Arnold and I drove to Cincinnati three summers ago to see a pageant together. He was a backup dancer for one of the contestants. I could see the handwriting on the wall. Arnold is a real competitor and had his eyes on a crown. So, last October I went along to the Miss Gay America Pageant in Columbus, Ohio as the chief cheerleader and confidante of Miss Gay Tennessee America, my gal pal, Suzy Wong.

This past spring Suzy won the crown of Miss Gay Mid-America, and, as the acting Miss Gay Tennessee, has worked very hard to support all the contestants in the preliminary pageants leading up to Miss Gay Tennessee, 2014. I have been very happy to do the photos for the Miss Gay Tennessee website. It has given me a chance to photograph some very interesting female impersonators and has also given me a chance to watch Arnold at work. He has been so incredibly helpful and supportive to everyone I have photographed. His genuine love for this art form, and his genuine love for helping others has shown through every time, even though some of these people will eventually be his competitors in the upcoming Miss Gay America Pageant in St. Louis this October. Once again I look forward to going along as his right-hand pal. No matter what the outcome of the contest, I know my friend Arnold will be a good sport and a source of positive energy for everyone who crosses his path. That’s just how Suzy rolls.

A State of Mind

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Sometimes it’s just time to shift a gear and move on to the next thing. People who know me seem surprised that Fred and I have sold our business and retired. Not that it’s so unusual for a woman approaching 70 to be ready for a change. It was great to get in touch with what I really wanted to do-design jewelry-and then to somehow manage to do it, and do it with a fair degree of success, for 30 years. It was a wonderful life for Fred and me to both quit our day jobs and do something that seemed so risky and adventurous. And we did have an adventure. We went places we otherwise would not have gone, and met some very interesting people along the way, but when it was time to move on, it was time to move on. Personally, I had reached a point where I wasn’t enjoying my work as much. My motto for the past few decades has been, “Always leave while you’re still having fun.” I wasn’t having much fun and I was completely tired of selling things to people.

I had jokingly said for about the past five years that I liked photographing the jewelry more than any other part of my job. I really only had time to do one portrait a month which was the ad for my jewelry. I needed to spend more time on photography in order to see my photos become art. I wanted to spend more time studying Spanish, and to turn our 3 week vacations in Mexico into much longer stretches of time. I also wanted to have time to cook more and develop wheat-free, vegan recipes. I felt I needed more time every day for physical workouts. As I was approaching 70, I realized more every day how fleeting time really is.

Fortunately, my husband and partner, Fred, is a good planner and he had starting to thing about the economics of our retirement. That is huge, and you are never to young to start thinking about this. We found a great financial advisor, and realized that we actually could retire without living in a cardboard box.

It took a year from the day we knew we were both ready until we actually left. In the midst of that time we sold our business to Mclaine Richardson, a very talented young woman who had worked for us for about three years. She is young, doing an excellent job, and I believe she is having fun in the same way I did so many years ago. I was so happy this happened; for many reasons. Obviously, it’s great to sell your business. It is also a very good feeling to know that your loyal employees will still have jobs, and to see the name of something you have worked hard to develop for a long time be continued.

I’m sure everyone who has ever retired has had their own process to go through. For Fred and me there was some stress to get here, but for now, it’s absolutely the best life I’ve had so far. I don’t really think of myself as “retired,” just as someone who has changed her state of mind.
This blog will be about how this journey unfolds. I will focus a lot on cooking, and try to be helpful to people who want to eat healthier. I will explore issues that relate to gender identity, as this is currently the subject matter I am most interested in photographing. When we travel I will share those destinations. Next trip up is to San Miguel in the mountains in Mexico. The photo for this piece was taken there last summer. I don’t want to define and confine this writing on the front end. Who knows where it will go? Who knows where the journey will take me? I’d love to have you go along for the ride.