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Hard Rock Hosts Miss’d America Pageant

Carson Kressley returned to Atlantic City for the 2020 competition

Sapphira Cristal, Miss’d America 2020.
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The sequins were shining bright at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City September 21 when the new Miss’d America took her crown. Sapphira Cristal topped six other spectacular drag queens for the title of Miss’d America 2020, at last taking center stage after seven prior attempts.

Queen Sapphira Cristal (“Sa-feera Kris-tall”), 30, wowed the panel of judges with her gowns, hair, makeup, and performances. But it was her live singing of classical opera that riveted the Atlantic City audience, leaving most guests thrilled by her vocal range and sheer talent.

Originally from Houston, Cristal performs mainly in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, though she travels often and has held several drag titles, including Queen of Boston Pride. She devotes time to fundraising and to youth-empowerment programs, and said her personal credo is: “There is no better exercise for the heart than to reach down to lift someone up.”

First runner-up was New York City-based Nicole Onoscopi, a self-proclaimed “wholesome campy comedy queen” who sings and lip syncs and also took home the first-ever Miss’d Popularity crown. The second-runner-up title went to the Countess Mascara, best known for her drag-hosting gigs around New York, South Florida, and beyond.

The full two-hour program kicked off with a Catwoman-styled performance by reigning Miss’d America 2019 Adriana Trenta that initially went off the rails due to technical problems. Carson Kressley, the night’s tireless host, swooped in to lead a short laughter-filled break while using a push broom to clean off part of the runway.

“Glitter is like drag herpes — it never really goes away,” he wisecrack.

With the problems resolved, Trenta seamlessly returned to the stage in a do-over performance that dazzled.

With Kressley clearly at the helm, the pageant began in earnest with judges scoring talent, evening gown, and question-and-answer rounds. Among the 10 local judges, this year’s panel included 1984 Miss America Suzette Charles, activist, author, and Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, Philadelphia Eagles sales director Lynnette Comacho, Woody’s Bar Philadelphia owner Michael Weiss, and Hard Rock Atlantic City president Joe Lupo.

This year’s pageant was the first in the new Hard Rock Sound-Waves ballroom venue, after five years at the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa (where Lupo once oversaw operations).

Along with the new stage and an almost-full house came the welcome addition of a live stream of the pageant at MissAmerica.org, a first for the annual competition.

For a mid-show break, singer and dancer Frankie Z took over the stage with his dance team.

One of the evening’s most memorable moments came when a woman donning a sash that read “Bride Tribe” ascended the runway’s steps and grabbed the mic from Frankie Z. She thanked the audience, then gave a shout-out to her friends and the bride-to-be — before security escorted her out.

“I heard that there was a drunk lady on stage — that was me,” Kressley joked once he regained the mic.

The pageant has always doubled as a fundraiser, but this year organizers kicked up the fanfare — and brought in more charity dollars — with real-time voting via text/ SMS for the new category: Miss’d Popularity.

“It’s not like the presidency, y’all — your votes will actually count!” quipped Kressley.

Each text contributed $5 to Miss’d America’s fundraising arm, the Schultz-Hill Foundation, whose founders Gary Hill and John Schultz also started the Miss’d America pageant back in 1991.

At the post-event press conference, foundation president Hill said that the primary purpose of Miss’d America has always been to raise awareness and fundraise for LGBTQ causes and the local community.

Among the LGBTQ organizations and initiatives supported are the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the Manzoni Center that provides health services to Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, Student Scholarships for LGBTQ Activism, the LGBTQ-friendly John C. Anderson Senior Apartments in Philadelphia, and the Drag Queen Story Time Literacy Initiative.

Hill thanked Richard Helfant, the president of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance and long one of New Jersey’s top LGBTQ advocates.

During the press event, Miss’d America’s seven contestants each introduced themselves out of drag with short videos.

In addition to the three top contenders, the pageant saw splashy sashays from Boxxa Vine, Cherry Poppins, Wendy Waxwood, and Savannah Savonier, all of them hailing from the East Coast.

Kressley, during the press event, thanked the Hard Rock for a warm welcome and offered congratulations to all the queens.

“As a connoisseur of drag, it’s so gratifying to see such an amazingly talented group of contenders,” he said. “I don’t envy the judges because it was a very close competition. Everyone was spectacular and each queen brought charm, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to the stage. I think it’s loud and clear: Drag is an amazing form of entertainment, it’s an art form, and such a pleasure for me to be able to host tonight and be able to celebrate these participan­ts.”

Kressley added, “You’re really experts at the art of drag, which ultimately is about embracing everyone’s diversity and creativity and all the special things that each person brings to this earth.”

During the pageant, Helfant had bestowed a mock Tony award on Kressley for his brilliant hosting over the past eight pageants. Kressley, in turn, noted that he would be jetting off to Los Angeles soon after the event to attend the Emmy Awards for his work on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” alongside RuPaul Charles and Ross Mathews.

As it turned out, the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. Kressley was indeed prescient when he told Helfant, “Thanks for the award! I’m going to put this next to that new Emmy Award I get tomorrow.”

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, specializing in travel, culture and LGBTQ interests. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kelsycc.

Updated 12:38 pm, September 26, 2019
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