It's been just a few weeks since the newest Queen of the Universe was crowned, and even though there's no new official currency printed with the monarch's face on it, and no multi-day, multi-network telecast of the grand coronation, with a title as broad-spanning and all-inclusive as "Queen of the Universe," you'd think you'd at least have gotten some sort of memo by now or something.
If you weren't in the audience at Circus Disco in Los Angeles on November 6th, it's very likely you weren't aware that Daniela Sanchez, competing as Miss Mexico, became the 38th recipient of the Queen of the Universe crown.
The Queen of the Universe Pageant is a transgender beauty pageant that was created and run by "Empress LaRey" until the rights were sold to Karina Samala, a transgender activist who also won the Queen of the Universe title in 1991.
Since she began producing the pageant, Samala has always seen contestants come from all over the map to compete for the title, though she added that more used to come from foreign countries when it was easier for them to obtain visas.
"When I took over, my non-profit beneficiary had always been Christ Chapel AIDS Food Store of Long Beach, because the first pageant I entered was produced by their pastor at the time and called 'The Closet Ball.' In that contest, you come out as a guy, you're judged as a guy, then you have 45 minutes to transform and then you come out as a girl. And I won it. And so when I took this pageant over, I made it a point, from that time on, to give to them."
Yet Samala's intention to use the pageant as a means to give back extends beyond raising money for charity.
"I use this as a tool for outreach to the girls, and to educate other groups in the community about our culture, because a lot of people come from every segment of the community, and I want to educate them so they know how to receive us and see that we are professionals."
Maria Roman, who competed this year as Miss Argentina, explained that for a while it appeared that Latinas had stopped competing because they didn't think they were getting a fair chance.
"The pageants usually were all Asian women and there was never a Latina that would win so the girls wouldn't compete," she explained. "And I came into the scene because I thought I was kind of heavy and I would show them that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. So I competed about eight years ago for Miss Gay Pride [a separate pageant] and I was the first one to win that and from there I competed in Miss USA and I was the first one to win that. And then I think the Latinas started saying well there is a chance that I can win...if this big girl can win...if this curvy Latina can win then there's a chance. And then you'll see tonight, there will be a lot of them that are Hispanic."
Usually, Kamala explained, those competing choose to represent their country of origin, but she'll allow contestants to choose another country, particularly if someone else is already representing her native region.
For Roman, choosing her country is a matter of strategy, and having competed several times, she told me that she knew that competitors take the stage in alphabetical order. "I'm Puerto Rican but chose Miss Argentina. You either open the show or you close it; but I think it's good to open with energy."
On the other hand, there's Anna Melissa Prime, and though she's originally from Guatemala, she chose to represent Venezuela this time around, for her sixth attempt to win the crown.
Just two slots ahead of Miss Venezuela in the line-up was Vi Puzon, a Filipina who competed this year as Miss USA after winning the preliminary Queen USA competition.
Puzon said that this year was her eighth or ninth time competing--"I lost track," she told me unselfconsciously. At least she admitted that she was a little nervous about competing. "If you don't get nervous any more, that's the time to stop doing pageants."
Yet Puzon also refused to acknowledge that she was threatened by any other competitor. With the professionalism and perfect tact of a seasoned competitor, she identified the biggest competitor as herself. "If I start look at others then it's not bringing out the best in me."
Thankfully Maria Roman leveled with me and identified Miss Mexico as the one to beat.
"Yeah she's a threat," Roman said. "Look at that ass! How could she not be a threat?! She's sickening....and I mean that in a good way."
But going by the history of the pageant, the odds were severely stacked against Daniela Sanchez, also known as Miss Mexico.
This year was Sanchez's first year competing and Karina Samala insisted that "it's very seldom that I get a girl who enters one year and wins; it's very, very tough. I've had one that's been competing for over ten years and only one or two that have entered and won their first year."
One of those exceptions was Yuni Carey--"'Carey' like Mariah Carey' she noted--who won Queen of the Universe in 2006.
Carey was also willing to point out who she thought would ultimately be vying for positions in the top five of the competition. She identified a couple of the Filipina competitors, Maria Roman and Daniela Sanchez, adding to her prediction that her Mexican friend "might even be the winner."
But even though our communication was brief, Sanchez diplomatically told me "all of the girls" were her biggest competitors.
Just when I feared I might have permanently waded into the waters of dangerously polite (and frankly sort of boring) diplomacy, I met Maria Carmen, who currently choreographs and directs the show. Carmen won Queen of the Universe in 2010 after competing three of four times, though she playfully made sure I knew that each of those times she hadn't walked away with the crown she had "always been in the top five."
Originally from the Philippines, Carmen competed as Miss Zimbabwe in 2010, a strategic move of course, because according to her logic, "in the end, when I go out, they forget all of them. I go out and they're all like 'wow' and they'll forget everything they just saw" before her.
Though she obviously appreciated the competition and her ultimate win, Carmen insisted her favorite thing about Queen of the Universe is "you see all these girls from the community, from different backgrounds, race and ethnicities, and once a year they all get together. And although it's very competitive in nature, you gain a lot of friends, you build the community, and you harness camaraderie even though they are all competing against each other. They are all having fun and working together to have a good show."
I watched Carmen and the 2011 Queen of the Universe, Malena Tandoc, exemplify that friendly camaraderie earlier in the day as they tried to coach a contestant to a more confident, sexy runway walk. "I want to see hair moving!" Carmen barked at her, to indicate how springy the woman's steps should be. "Flowing and bouncing!" chimed in Tandoc. "Like horse legs!" Carmen said, repeating "Horse! Horse! Horse!" as she illustrated her own bold gait in short shorts and high boots, her long hair bouncing around her shoulders.
Maria Roman explained that though the competition is still fierce, and the pageant is one of the hardest in the LA area, there's no feistiness or danger the contestants will come to blows as they almost did the year a candidate visiting from Thailand first won (although, towards the end of this year's event, there did appear to be a skirmish between two shrieking audience members.)
"You know the beautiful thing is that the culture [of the pageant] has changed and the women get along now and tonight it will be beautiful," Roman said.
"The other beautiful thing that I've seen throughout the years is that the pageant has evolved, the women have evolved. A lot of these women [first] competed as boys and drag queens and evolved into beautiful women so it creates a sense of community and sisterhood."
Considering this feeling of "sisterhood," it thus seems a bit strange that the first rule that appears in the list on the pageant's website specifies that "all contestants must be male."
Karina Samala indicated that that those rules have existed since she took over Queen of the Universe, and that the contestants know it doesn't mean that they need to identify as male, but that they must still have their male genitalia.
"This is a transgender beauty pageant," she insisted, and "at the time, when I was doing this, we didn't have the transgender umbrella that we call it now. Most of the previous ones were drag queen [pageants] and stuff like that."
Some of the contestants I spoke to didn't appear to have quite the same degree of clarity regarding this rule. Though they acknowledged that some pageants expressly prohibit altering one's "southern parts," some interpret the rules of this pageant a bit more loosely. And since we're past the days--at least, I'm fairly certain we are--when competitors were subjected to physical examinations to verify their original parts were left intact, I'm assuming those that choose to rebel against this regulation could silently slip under the radar.
Still, I imagine the rule might need to be revisited in the near future to bring it up to date with the contemporary dialogue around transgender terminology and identities, and that referring to transwomen as "male" might not sit well with everyone in the community.
But besides the feeling of sisterhood it provides the women with, and the mentoring she is able to give to many of the contestants, Samala also believes that for many competing in the pageant, there is great appeal in being able to live out a commonly shared childhood dream. "I think in early development in life, even when they are young boys, looking at the beauty pageants, [thinking] 'I wish I could be like that, I want to look that pretty.' It's always transgenders [wanting] to be the best they can be and to look the best, to be gorgeous. Our lives are built on getting ourselves beautiful. Because that's the image that women give us and the beauty pageant is a really good platform for us."
It's a sentiment echoed by Malena Tandoc, who told me, "Since I was little, yes, I always wanted to be a beauty queen."
So who determines who receives the crown and serves as a spokesperson for the pageant at events in 2012? Each year, Samala chooses a panel of 14-15 judges, assembling a wide judging pool that includes notables from the community, the occasional celebrity judge, and key city officials Samala believes can help build bridges with the trans community. This year the panel included West Hollywood's Mayor Pro Tempore Jeffrey Prang and Kelly Fraser, Captain of the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department.
When the contestants first took the stage that evening to greet the panel of judges and the excitable crowd, a few technical glitches prompted the witty emcee Charlene to quip "It's a transgender beauty pageant so you know we're having 'testicle difficulties and we're going to restart the program."
After a successful reboot, one-by-one the women debuted their dazzling national costumes and many entertained the crowd with introductions that ranged from the serious to the ridiculous.
Miss Malaysia sang a Malaysian song that she explained meant "I love you all." "I am Angel Bonilla Soo," she announced. "I am Soo-per hot, Sooo-per sexy, and most of all...Soooo-per talented."
The crowd went wild as Miss Mexico made her way across the stage, balancing a fragile arch of color that swayed behind her beaded outfit as she made her way to the microphone to deliver the first introduction in Spanish.
Miss Paraguay was certainly the first to leave the least to the audience's imagination as she strode down the stage in little more than a few bursts of brilliantly colored feathers and glittering rhinestones.
Miss South Africa's sword-bearing, disco-chic light-up angel was a crowd favorite, and a shiny, silvery prelude to the multi-colored butterfly motif worn by the contestant who came after her, who told the audience she represented the "tsunami-free country of Tahiti!"
As Miss USA, Vi Puzon released bundles of red white and blue balloons as she took the stage and spun pinwheels placed over her breasts and crotch before she warned us: "from the country that brought you the first telephone, the light bulb, television, washing machine, iPod, and the iPhone, I'm your next favorite app."
Not to be outdone by Miss Paraguay's barely-there costume, or the small replicas of butterflies artfully arranged in Miss Tahiti's hair, Anna Melissa Prime wore giant butterflies in her headdress, and smaller ones that looked they had just conveniently landed on her body to help her avoid receiving a citation for indecent exposure.
After an intermission and a final round of questions and answers, the judges decided Miss Venezuela and Miss US Virgin Islands would tie for 4th Runner Up, Miss Puerto Rico would take 3rd Runner Up, Miss Argentina would be 2nd Runner Up, and Miss Paraguay would be 1st Runner Up, making Miss Mexico the new reigning Queen of the Universe, a mere six hours after the doors to the event opened [!!!].
But besides sending some of the women home with shiny trophies, flowers, cash prizes, and one with the rare bragging rights that she's the new Queen of the Universe, is there a real point to this sort of pageantry?
The contestants and Karina Samala insist that there is.
Maria Carmen claimed that training for the Queen of the Universe competition was crucial in helping her prepare for everyday life.
"You will go different places and you will hear people talking about you and you will see looks from people, but because we're used to grace under pressure, we just walk in the world, all pretty, proud of ourselves, we don't care what you say," she said.
It's an odd, privileged experience trying to imagine who these women are and where they've come from or what they've gone through, when watching them sashay confidently down the runway.
"It's very difficult because of the prejudice from relatives and parents," explained Samala, "and a lot of the girls end up on the streets because of their parents and relatives not accepting them, and their parents saying 'I'd rather see you dead than acting and dressing like this.'"
"The pageants help showcase transgender women in general," added Anna Melissa Prime. "Not only are we beautiful and talented but we are also human beings more than anything."
Asia Vitale, a Filipina who has won almost ten different pageants and became Queen of the Universe in 2005 said, "When I won [this pageant], I thought it was the funniest thing. My first reaction was, oh my gosh, I spent four years for this? And I'm looking at the audience and the people were leaving and some people really didn't care. But then for me it was a sense of accomplishment."
But though she's able to recognize the serious merits and importance of this pageant, Ms Vitale still can dish and recognize dazzle like the best of them. Backstage, before the competition, Vitale told me that she was the "one whose costumes used to open up and occupy the whole stage."
"I think it's the year of the Latina," Vitale suggested. "When I first entered this competition, there were three Thai girls who won, one after another. Three in a row. And then after them it was three Filipinas in a row. Then three Latinas in a row. Then three Filipinas again. So, since we don't have any Thai girls in the pageant, I think it's going to be a Latina."
After Miss Mexico's win, Vitale called out to me as she hurried out of the venue. "What did I say? What did I tell you?" and she left after boldly predicting that the winners of the next two years would continue the resurgent reign of the Latina.