Tag Archives: pageant

Omaha’s Historic 
Drag Scene

December 17, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 2004, The New Yorker published a story entitled “Homecoming Queens.” “Compared with most Midwestern towns,” writes author Mark Singer, “Omaha has an active gay demimonde that’s not so demi.”

Well, it’s been around for a long time, Mark. Take, for example, the Miss Max pageant. Rumored to be the longest-running drag queen title in the United States (though who first said this and where remains to be discovered—still, it’s a nice story to repeat), the pageant is produced every January at The Max on 14th and Jackson. It’s been that way since 1984.

“It’s kind of a coveted title,” says Chad Bugge modestly. He’s Miss Max No. 26 and the recipient of three of Omaha’s biggest drag titles. He won his first, Miss Divine Diva, six years ago, followed it up with a Miss Max win, and finally reigned as Miss Gay Omaha in 2011.

Or, rather, Anna Roxia did. “I started out as Anna Rexia,” Bugge explains, “because I used to be really, really skinny. But Anna Roxia is a little more rocker chick.” Anna is a shock queen with edgy performances to match. She’s been birthed on stage and shaved her head in front of a live audience, all while maintaining a high-level of makeup and body—the pads, hair, and so on. “It’s not beauty,” Bugge says, “not true female impersonation. It’s more of an artistic expression.”

Expression is what drag boils down to and what Omaha has fostered in its gay heart for more than 30 years. For Bugge, drag was the chance to overcome a shy persona and rock some confidence with an alter ego. For Steve Knox, it was about revisiting the allure of theater.

Knox is Miss Max No. 28, the current Miss Gay Omaha, holds a degree in theater, and calls himself Nicolette NuVogue: The Actress of Omaha. “He can probably recite every Miss Max by name and number,” says Bugge with a smile. “Drag is almost romantic for him—when you talk with him, you can see it.”

“If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day. They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were.”
— Steve Knox

Knox does have a bit of an encyclopedic knowledge of the names in Omaha drag over the years. “If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day,” he asserts. “They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were. The minute you’re Miss Max, you’re a celebrity in gay Omaha. Reina del Mundo, No. 23…she was 21, nobody knew her. The night the crown went on her head, everybody knew who she was, and it changed her life.”

Each city’s drag scene is different, Bugge says. “In Omaha, it’s very close. We help each other run for pageants, and the formers of all the pageants are a sisterhood. And then there are the families and houses that are all there for each other. And then not having as many bars to perform in, well, we’re all working in the same place.”

But, he adds, it’s becoming less of a stigma for gays, specifically queens, to be in straight bars. He compares the older years of Omaha drag to the pre-WWII years of the geisha. “It was this secretive, artistic performance for the elite,” Bugge says. “After the war, it sort of broke out and became more mainstream. That’s what’s happening right now with drag. Before, a queen would walk down the street, and people would be rude and catcall.”

He adds that negativity still happens, “but now more than anything you get stopped for pictures. The crowds that we get are mostly straight at, like, the casinos. And when I travel out of state, those crowds are mostly straight.”

The fascination with men dressing as women is certainly nothing new. “Drag hails from Shakespeare,” Knox says, matter-of-fact. “Men would go on stage to play women’s roles, and the script would have a note that said Drag. Dressed As Girl.”

Omaha’s drag scene may not quite go back to Shakespeare’s days, but Knox and Bugge are nonetheless proud to add to its history. “You want to share your art with everyone,” Bugge says.

“To be part of the legacy….” Knox shakes his head. “Alexandra Stone, No. 14; Dominique Divamoore, No. 19; The Amazon, No. 17. Those girls are the ones I used to watch and be like, you are so amazing.” He’s still not quite used to younger queens approaching him for advice. “It’s so weird! But it’s a level of respect now. I’ve earned my place in this.”

The Language

Like any subculture, drag has its own vocabulary. Chad Bugge (Anna Roxia) and Steve Knox (Nicolette NuVogue) shed a little light on a few phrases.

Audience whoring. “I don’t audience whore,” Knox says. “That’s when you go into the audience and flirt with the tables to get tips. No. You have to come to me.” Tipping is of course good form, but Knox and Bugge agree that if someone is clearly enjoying the performance, that’s perfectly acceptable. Just don’t try to have a conversation during a queen’s show. “It’s no different than being at a dinner theater,” Knox says.

Bio-drag. When a bio woman or trans-woman performs in traditional drag. “It’s turned into a melting pot,” Bugge says of Omaha’s drag scene. “I can’t speak for other cities, but if you wanna be on stage here, you’re welcome to, you just need to have something to show.”

Fish. The opposite of the old way. “It’s more of a natural girl look,” Bugge says. “Not the huge hair, not the crazy costumes, no body.” The word comes from fishy, as in “something’s fishy about that girl.” The more fish a queen is, the more she looks like a real girl.

Mothers and daughters. A more experienced queen will sometimes take a newcomer under her wing to teach a few tricks of the drag trade. “I’ll answer any questions and occasionally lend some things out,” Knox says. “But don’t lend anything out if you don’t trust them! Queens are shady—you spend two hours backcombing hair, you lend it out, you get it back, and…that’s not what I gave you at all.”

Nationals. These are the big, nationwide pageants, like Miss Gay USofA, Miss Gay America, Entertainer of the Year, Miss Gay United States, and Miss Continental. “Those queens are spending, gosh, over $50,000 for their dress, their package, their talent,” says Knox. “I went to EOY, and these girls were coming out with like Broadway revues.”

The old way. “I consider it the only way,” Bugge says. If a queen follows the old way, she puts on full body along with full makeup. Hip pads, breasts, the nails, the hair—it all goes toward a general polished look of perfection.

Shock queen. “Eye makeup to Jesus,” Knox explains. “Everything is over the top.” Edgy hair, edgy costume, edgy makeup, edgy performance.

Tipping around. “Not performing, just going out in drag,” Bugge explains. It’s a way to get a few supporting fans before trying out for a pageant. “Letting people soak it in, asking who you are. You get a buzz going.”

Unclockable. “Nobody can top what you’re doing,” Bugge says. “You are perfection itself.” In pageants, judges clock every mistake by a contest. “If you got the hemline just right, if there are no loose threads—you’re unclockable.”

Obsessed With the Dress

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Listen up, drama queens…A new TV reality show, Obsessed With the Dress, airs this summer and takes place right here in Omaha. The location for the show, Winning Crown Boutique in Rockbrook Village, is a dress shop that specializes in pageant wear.

This show will not be just another Say Yes to the Dress, show promoters say. Viewers can anticipate seeing the inner workings of the boutique and learn the background stories and successes of clients, as the show follows each girl through to the end of her pageant. But don’t fear—the show will undoubtedly serve up a heavy dose of drama, much like its bridal show predecessor.

Michele Strom, Mrs. Nebraska 2007 and owner of the boutique, got the idea for Winning Crown while preparing to compete in the Mrs. America pageant. When she couldn’t find a local venue to buy a dress, the entrepreneur-at-heart recognized a retail niche that needed filling and started a dress business out of her home in 2007. She moved the business to the Rockbrook location in early 2009.

Strom says she has no formal background in design. “I just have a unique eye for being creative and an ability to visualize what will look good [on a client]. I missed my calling at an early age, but it’s snowballed into this amazing opportunity to find something later in life that I am really passionate about.”20130404_bs_9891_web

The business has been such a success that Pie Town Productions in North Hollywood contacted Strom about her store being the location for Obsessed With the Dress, which airs nationally this summer on WE Networks.

“Our development team reached out to dozens of such shops across the country,” says Jennifer Davidson, an executive producer at Pie Town Productions. “But when we found Michele Strom and her team at The Winning Crown in Omaha, it was obvious that we had a show here.”

There are two types of drama that unfold on Obsessed With the Dress, Davidson says. “The girls and women shopping for gowns are relentlessly competitive and fascinating. But the staff gets into even more crazy drama. There is a villain at the shop, and he is gunning for the manager’s job. These office politics are off the hook!”

Strom’s staff includes Beau Olson, manager, who has a keen eye for fashion; Frances Nefsky, a graphic designer and creative mind; and Sarah Summers, an expert on all things pageant. “When it comes to pageants, we dress girls to win. I drill that into the minds of my staff and clients. I am not here to get [them] second place,” says Strom.

“When it comes to pageants, we dress girls to win. I drill that into the minds of my staff and clients. I am not here to get [them] second place.” – Michele Strom, owner of Winning Crown Boutique

“Because we have an hour per episode to tell our stories, we get to take a deeper look at the personalities behind the scenes at the shop, who are equally as fascinating as Michele’s customers,” adds Davidson. “Most of Michele’s salespeople are pageant winners themselves, [while] some are not and have their own agendas. Let’s just say that old pageant rivalries never die!”

Strom promises that the girls in the show are the real deal. “These girls come into [the store] for their dresses…They are all our clients and not manufactured [characters].”

Strom wants to bring awareness to not only what her store does, but also to debunk the negative pageant image. “There have been some shows in the past that have been negative, and I want people to see the positive side of these women. These girls are really smart and do a lot for our community. And it’s not just about the dress; it is about making my clients the best they can be.”

Winning Crown accepts drop-ins, but coaching and one-on-one time with Strom requires an appointment. Check out this unique business right here in Rockbrook Village, and tune into the Obsessed With the Dress premiere Aug. 2. Check wetv.com for show air-times.

UPDATE: The show now premieres July 27 at 8 p.m.

Mary Knickrehm

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The misconception that beauty pageants only value skin-deep beauty is about to change. Omaha native Mary Knickrehm has personally taken on the challenge to show the rest of the world there is more beneath the surface to both the contests and the contestants.

The 15-year-old Central High School sophomore recently won the title of Miss Nebraska Jr. National Teenager, not because of her looks, but because of her moral standards. The reason she got into pageantry may be surprising.

“I really did not have high self-esteem, and one of my friends suggested I do one in order to boost my confidence. I wasn’t sure because I had really bad stage fright,” Knickrehm admits. “I did my first one and absolutely loved it. I had a cause and thought, if I won a pageant, it would be a way to get my message across. I thought more girls would be willing to listen to me if I had the title.”

Gen-O-Mary-Knickrehm-20120911_bs_9969-Edit-copy

Her message is clear—The objectification of women in the media and the way some women present themselves needs to change. To spread her beliefs, she started her own fashion blog to address issues of modesty. She uses it as a platform to urge women not to degrade themselves for attention.

“Television networks like MTV and VH-1 show celebrities that have their chests out and are wearing things that are just not appropriate and then they receive all this high praise for it. That has a negative impact. It’s not right,” she says.

Knickrehm does not stop there. In addition to her blog, she does mission work for a group called Serving God’s Kids. Last summer, she traveled to Mexico to volunteer at Casa de Elizabeth, an orphanage in the city of Imuris, Sonora. It was a life-changing experience. It made such an impact that she is attempting to raise $10,000 by July 22, 2013 (when she gives up her reign) to give to the orphanage.

Granted, she is an extraordinary example of a teenager, but with her lead, more can follow. She is otherwise a “normal girl,” she says. She joined cheer team to avoid P.E. class, loves riding horses, and always needs a nap after school before she dives into her homework. She has her eye on attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and then graduate school at NYU. “I never want to be ordinary,” she concludes. Knickrehm is off to an incredible start.