Many a gorgeous, talented, smart young person has found the pageant system to be a doorway to future opportunities. For 33-year-old nurse Joey Gallagher, a national title means travel, networking and, of course, a massive, sparkly crown.
In December 2016, an entrepreneur in Arizona announced his intention to launch a National Bearded Queen pageant. Yes, you read that right. It’s a beauty and talent contest for people with beards, specifically, a pageant dedicated to the art of the bearded queen as well as the community of gender queer, creative, diverse, and avant-garde artists.
Richard Van Stone invited his nationwide network to conduct preliminary pageants, and people in Florida and Iowa have since taken up the task. The Florida pageant, considered the first bearded queen pageant ever, was held in May 2017 in Fort Myers.
Gallagher, a statuesque, dirty blonde with an excellent voice and a skilled “death drop” (a nightclub dance move that can only be eclipsed by a full split or backflip) was almost ready to compete. To get there, he pled for a little help from local friends (Gallagher graduated from Wilmington’s Cab Calloway School of the Arts) through a successful GoFundMe campaign.
It was not his first pageant, nor his first high-placing competition. The Miss Gay USofA is considered one of the “big five” drag pageants in the country, and Gallagher had competed in that. Five years ago, he entered the Rehoboth Idol contest, a singing competition to which he, of course, brought the elaborate costuming and big personality he’d honed during his days as “Serenity Luvsit,” his drag alter-ego.
Soon, Gallagher was scouted by Philadelphia promoter Josh Schonewolf for a competition called “Songbird.” Structured similarly to an “Idol” competition, Songbird eliminated one contestant in each of the fourteen weeks’ of themed competitions.
He entered Songbird three years in a row, always making the finals. And in early 2017, he won. And the road to Miss Florida Bearded Queen began.
It wasn’t always crowns and roses. Gallagher says, “In 2005, I was in a situation where I almost lost my life—a dangerous situation that came up at a gas station out of nowhere. Getting into drag was an escape.”
In his early days of drag, he didn’t sing live, choosing instead to “twirl and entertain.” He says it was brief and fun but didn’t quite fit him and he stopped, returning to his first love.
Gallagher adds, “I felt abandoned by my best friend – music – because I didn’t want to be intimate with it.”
A self-proclaimed “mashup queen,” he likes to take bits and pieces from various arrangements and put them together in a creative way. This skill helped him win both Bearded Queen titles. He sang the same eleven-song Beyonce mashup in both Florida and at nationals in Arizona, which originated from the Beyonce-themed round in Songbird that he won.
But a beautiful face and a melodic voice isn’t enough to win a Bearded Queen pageant. It takes a look, more specifically, multiple looks, to get points on that stage.
Gallagher’s close friend, Jose Corrigan of JC Designs, has been with him since nearly the start. For the Beyonce round of Songbird, they had two months to prepare.
“If you’re gonna do Beyonce, you need to dazzle them. Wear something that matches what you’re about to do. Start by being extra and the most.”
His white blazer with Aurora Borealis crystal was trimmed with fringe, and a smoky boy eye and rhinestone ear cuffs rounded out the Beyonce-tribute look that wowed the judges. A later getup paid a close, but sparkly, homage to the full head-to-toe costume of Rafiki from The Lion King on Broadway.
Noting that drag and pageantry are chock full of “expensive queens,” Corrigan knew the standard was set high, and he was fully up to the challenge. This was a national pageant, after all. Gallagher considers he and Corrigan to be a team.
“It’s never been a ‘me’ thing; it’s always been a ‘we’ thing.”
With the fashion, the talent, the face (and requisite beard – often painted and sparkly), he needed only to impress the judges verbally. Gallagher’s quick wit and gift for gab proved to be an advantage.
The five pageant categories included an interview with eight judges, former and current national titleholders and pageant experts, in which he scored 99 out of 100; presentation – he came out on the runway as the hirsute “Cousin It” from The Addams Family then whipped the hair-suit off to reveal a clubwear interpretation of Pennywise the Clown from IT. His Beyonce-inspired presentation motto was, “If you like IT, then you should put a crown on IT,” which tied in with his singing for the talent portion. An on-stage question augmented the interview category.
The big category was avant-garde and Corrigan got to walk out with Gallagher. They entered with the look fully-concealed, Corrigan covering Gallagher as they walked into the choir part from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Corrigan opened the cape, snapped it, and 30,000 rhinestones glittered on a bodysuit with an eight-foot train.
The look was based off the ideas of stained-glass windows and mosaics.
“These are pieces of artwork fashioned together in such a way that you don’t even realize they were once shattered and then made into something. I was broken. I’ve broken on stage and had a front row seat to people breaking in front of me. I’m not a pristine pane of glass. I’m going to pick up every shattered piece and put it together and it’s going to be beautiful. What you see from far away is pretty, but once you get close, you can see what it’s made of.”
He also sees the look as a reflection of both the drag community and the trend toward alternative pageants. The LGBTQIA flag is a rainbow. And the community is all the colors at once. He hopes that the pageant circuit will continue to put pieces of the mosaic together through reinvention and inclusion of diverse populations.
He’s known another regional bearded queen since high school: the character Aunt Mary Pat, a Fireball-swigging, Eagles-loving, Wawa-obsessed Delco woman who has been hot on the nightclub circuit since her debut in late 2017. Turns out, while they didn’t know each other, RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine runner-up, Miss Peppermint, was once a classmate of Gallagher’s, as well. Drag fans are no doubt hoping to see some collaborations come to fruition.
Gallagher gets to keep the crown, of course. He’ll be given some custom jewelry, and he’ll have opportunities to travel and work with renowned wigmakers and fashion designers. Meanwhile, he’s got a successful career in healthcare, and is able to support what he loves doing and support himself. And his love life lined up with his first win at Songbird and his budding romance has sustained all the excitement since.
One of the biggest lessons of the whole experience: “Going through TSA with that many rhinestones is not easy to do.”
Catch some local Delaware drag performers here: Lilith Del Ray’s Downtown Divas on Thursday, June 21 at Ernest & Scott.