The experience of competing in a beauty pageant has been a source of cultural fascination for decades. Films like “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “Miss Congeniality” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have found the humor — and often, the morbidity — in the experience, but there’s another competition that’s received less attention in mainstream media: Miss Gay America. This pageant celebrates the “art of female impersonation” and asks men to tuck, cinch and strut their way through gender illusion with the best in the business. M’Shay Victoria Foster — also known as Joel Little — is a Little Rock native and the winner of Miss Gay Diamond America 2019, a regional competition and a preliminary to the Miss Gay America pageant. Now living outside of Dallas, Foster is competing in the MGA pageant for the fourth time next week, and M’Shay thinks this may be her year to take it all. Our conversation with the queen follows.
How long have you been doing drag?
I actually started when I was in high school. The first time that I dressed in drag was for a high school homecoming event, called “switch it up” day. It was a school sanctioned event, all the girls dressed like boys and boys dressed like girls. Not… a lot of kids participated, this was ‘97 or ‘98, so things were a bit different, but me being me, I fully committed. And that was my first real, full transformation experience. I started performing when I was 19. I’m 37 [now].
Can you tell me more about who the character of M’Shay is?
Well, my name is from a real woman that I know. Her name is M’Shay, she is a teacher at Parkview. She was a cheerleading coach, she was a dance teacher… [and] she was one of my teachers. [She was] someone I latched onto [during] my senior year and just really created a bond with and felt comfortable with. Without her even knowing — because I think teachers don’t always really understand the impact they’re making — I felt protected around her, or safe. So when I moved on to develop my character, when I picked my name, I knew automatically [that] I wanted to name myself after her.
M’Shay as a character is a beauty queen, she’s glamorous. I’ve grown into a place where I really find a lot of joy in making people laugh. I think she’s really aesthetically pleasing, and just beautiful, but not afraid to get ugly for the sake of a laugh. One of my deepest hopes is that I come across as humble and approachable, because [people like that] are the people [who] have had the biggest impact on me. I’ve met so many wonderful Forever Miss Gay Americas [past MGA winners] that have… made me believe in myself, just because of that approachability. I can get to their level because they’re accessible to me. When someone is so out of reach, you think “I can never be that, because they’re so far from me.” I want people to see me as someone who is accomplished, but is still within their grasp. It creates how people see you, but more than that, it creates how people see themselves. And I think everybody needs to see themselves as good enough, because we all have a unique experience, and we all have something different to offer. Does that mean we’re going to win? No, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough.
This is your fourth time competing in Miss Gay America. What are you looking forward to this time around? Do you feel like you have a better chance at the overall title?
I think this year I do have a better chance at the overall title. I think every year, it’s a gamble. You go in with this idea that everybody has just as good of a chance as everybody else, but within my spirit, I feel like I have a better chance for myself. Which I think, in part, is because this year I am going as my authentic self.
The Miss Gay America system’s slogan used to be, “Where the boys are boys… and female impersonation is an art,” so there was this overemphasis on “we’re dudes.” It gets into this really kind of blurry area because, what does that mean? I’m not overly masculine, I do identify as trans, and there are a lot of people that were maybe steered away from the pageant because of how they promoted themselves. But what is this idea of masculinity? We’re not all football players. Just because I’m a florist doesn’t mean I’m not a man. As someone who’s trans-identified, clearly I was born cisgender male, but [the MGA pageant] didn’t always feel inclusive, and you really felt like you had to hide a part of who you are.
This year, it’s specific: They’ve changed the wording of the rules [to] where you can openly compete as transgender, you just can’t have any body modifications or [have] been on any hormones during your competition, which has always been the case. But there have been trans-identified people [who] didn’t feel welcome at all, so they’ve really opened that dialogue. I think just having the opportunity to compete in a more comfortable emotional and mental capacity makes you feel like you can achieve more.
Which of the competition events are you most looking forward to?
My favorite by far is evening gown, just because [of] the heightened glamour. It’s the epitome of drag and gender illusion and pageantry as a whole. You always think of that beautiful woman, and that is by far my favorite category.
What do you love about drag? What keeps you going as a performer?
It’s really multifaceted, it’s a very layered reasoning. One of them is that I love to compete. I’ve always been a competitive person. … It’s a completely different spectrum of drag than just performing. There is an art of competing, there is an adrenaline rush of competing, there is a sense of satisfaction from winning. Defeat hurts, but a good competitor learns from defeat, and it’s how you hone your craft and how you polish to get better. … Beyond that, I love to perform. And I love to be onstage.
My goal is to always equate my every performance to an experience that I had that was kind of my ‘ah-ha’ moment for drag. That happened on the final night of Miss Gay Arkansas, 2002*. … It was my first time at a MGA pageant, [and] it was my first time at a drag function. The reigning MGA was Charity Case, she was the first MGA I ever saw. It was my first time at a drag pageant of any kind. But when she took the stage, I just remember immediately having that “ah-ha” moment of, “This is who I’m gonna be. This is who I am.” And that’s kind of my goal every time I take the stage, to hopefully have that presence about myself that I can hopefully impact somebody else in that way. Entertaining somebody on the surface is fine, but you want to create a deeper connection with your audience. That’s my goal when I perform, that’s part of why I love what I do. I do love to entertain, but you have the opportunity to impact people’s lives in such a deeper way, and then you can continue that, by saying you have an impact on people’s life off the stage. We do so much work in the community that without drag as that platform, we might not have access to these people.
*Correction: A previous version of this article listed the year of a Miss Gay America pageant incorrectly.