Miss’d America 2019: Tales from an Atlantic City Weekend Fit for a Queen

Earlier this spring The Miss America Organization announced their famed contest would move to Connecticuit’s Mohegan Sun Casino. I think I grabbed for my pearls when I heard the Miss’d America pageant was also moving after dazzling audiences at the ultra lux Borgata Casino Hotel and Spa year after year.

I would consider myself and ultra fan of the Borgata but was surprised and excited to hear this year’s pageant would take place at the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Richard D. Helfant, President of Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance stated “on behalf of everyone involved with Miss’d America, we want to send our heartfelt thanks to Borgata Casino Hotel and Spa. They were incredible partners for the years they hosted our Pageant. We are thrilled to be back on the great wooden way and couldn’t be happier to call Hard Rock Casino Hotel our new home. Pageants are better on the Boardwalk.”

I packed my weekender bag and came down on Friday night. I have so many memories of passing the former Taj Mahal, built for $1.2 billion in 1990 (I never went in), and smiled when I saw an enormous flashing guitar rising from the entrance to the heavens. There was an older gay couple checking in just before me and they were talking about Miss’d America “we come up from D.C. every year for this, it’s a highlight of the year.”

The contest, founded by John Schultz and Gary L. Hill in 1993, has raised over $400,000 for local, regional, and national LGBTQ charities since it inception. The pageant features emerging and seasoned professional performers including some of the Ru Paul’s Drag Race gurls. I thought about past years with mind blowing performances by queens like Alexis Michelle, Pattaya Hart, Tina Burner, Honey Davenport, Fifi Dubois, and even Mimi Imfurst. I was only familiar with a few of this year’s queens and wondered if they were rehearsing nearby onstage at Soundwaves, this year’s venue.

I checked into my swank North Tower Bay Classic room on the 33rd Floor and took in the view of the shore, the boardwalk, and the Absecon Lighthouse just off in the distance. True to the Hard Rock brand, this “nicely appointed” room already had a playlist rocking when I arrived and freshened up for dinner. Deee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” was literally playing when I crossed the threshold.

I was pleasantly surprised by so many unique and intriguing music memorabilia items on display at the property. I was already late to dinner but pressed my nose against the glass case that holds the sleek white gown Lady Gaga donned on the 2014 Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot and simply had to pop into The Rock Vault to see more items, like the vest Bruce Springsteen wore on his “Born in the U.S.A. tour and a gown Whitney Houston shimmied in on her 1990 “Feels So Right” tour. Downstairs, and what I believe to be the heart and soul of the property, is the stunning Rolls Royce Phantom V that was custom-built for Elvis Presley in 1963.

My friends were already busy at the slots so I dined solo at Kuro, the new Japanese restaurant, featuring contemporary artisanal dishes with locally sourced and imported ingredients from Japan. My friends were gushing about their earlier dinner and I have to say the meal was one of the best I’ve had all year.

My server spoke with me about my dietary restrictions, what I like and don’t like and started bringing out surprising beverages and sumptuous bites like their crispy brussels sprouts, incredible sushi, and their infamous Japanese wagyu beef tacos. After dinner I met up with my pack and we found what we hoped would be a lucky corner of the gaming area for slots and more libations.

After a few rounds we ended up heading to the Boardwalk. There was a cluster of people watching two burly men throwing axes just at the front of the historic Steel Pier and we joined them for a bit before heading back in. Steel Pier, known as “An Amusement City at Sea” is literally the backyard of Hard Rock. I took one look at the 227-foot tall ferris wheel, known as “The Wheel”, further back on the pier, and promised myself I would check it out the next day.

The next morning was like a whirlwind. We considered dancing with Lady Luck in the casino before brunch but ended up elbow to elbow at the bar at the Hard Rock Cafe, a sprawling and expansive restaurant chock full with Instagrammable nooks and crannies. Our bartender was full of tips on games, boardwalk activities, and outlets and our group split up to cover as much of the city as we could.

I put myself on a strict gambling budget and moved down the shore testing my luck at Resorts, Bally’s, and Caesar’s. I ultimately broke even thanks to an enormous Britney Spears slot machine that reminded me if I want a Lamborghini and sip martinis that I “better work bitch” and promptly left with my winnings (read: $40).

I briefly considered popping into Ripley’s Believe It Or Not but the tall ferris wheel seemed to summon me from down the boardwalk so I pulled out my $9.99 and climbed into my own private gondola and started to ascend high above the Atlantic Ocean. A ride on The Wheel typically lasts about 12-15 minutes. I don’t know if it’s because I was there a little off hours or off season but the ride was actually a little over twenty minutes (I didn’t mind) and completely relaxing.

I gazed down at the beach and saw some surfers off in the distance, and even caught a glimpse of two of my friends coming back from the local outlets. I’m typically afraid of heights but there was something completely peaceful and calming about the ride. I could have hung out at the top the rest of the day…but I knew I had to get back to the Hard Rock to see which of the contestants in the Miss’d America would truly make it to the top.

Backstage at Sound Waves, seven fabulous queens were waiting in the wings for the show to begin. The gorgeous Adriana Trenta, Miss’d America 2019, kicked off the show as she flew in from upstage and directly into a bit of a technical malfunction (live theatre is always a thrill!) Trenta and her dancers handled the curve ball like a pro and were quickly whisked offstage to reset for the top of the show.

Flurries of gasps and whispers filled the audience only to be shushed by the hysterical Carson Kressley, who flew in wearing a sparkling blazer and bright red kicks. Kressley truly proved to be the host with the most. In case anyone was unclear as to where they were Kressley pointed out that “this is Miss’d America, with a “d”, because there’s plenty of “d” up in here tonight! This is the pageant with the big “d” and later clarified that Miss’d America is a “charity event that raises money for LGBTQ charities in our very own community …since the first year a queen was crowned on the deck of Studio Six…Miss’d America has raised half a million dollars”.

After his opening monologue, Kressley was carried offstage by the hunky Miss’d America Dancers and Adriana Trenta slayed the second go at her opening number.

After the opening adventure we met the contestants: Boxxa Vine, Nicole Onoscopy, Cherry Poppins, Sapphira Cristal, Whendy Whaxwood, Savannah Savonier, and The Countess Mascara who paraded in gorgeous (and some, campy) swimsuits. These magnificent seven danced, sang, cracked jokes, opened their hearts, and turned it up for this year’s competition.

Highlights of the evening included Boxxa Vine’s reimagined Hocus Pocus, Whendy Whaxwood’s elaborate number filled with maybe a thousand costume changes, the adorable Frankie Z and his eight energetic backup dancers, and the stray woman from a bridal party who rushed the stage to gush about her friend’s upcoming wedding (she was promptly escorted offstage) but in the end Ms. Sapphira Cristal took home the crown. Sapphira Cristal, a.k.a O’Neill Nichol Haynes, hails from Houson, Texas, and is a classically trained composer and operatic singer with a 6 octave vocal range.

In the press conference after the show, Sapphira Cristal talked about her background in opera and stated that she “went to the Eastman School of Music for opera and I’ve been a big fan of opera since I was six years old. It’s a part of me and I love to bring opera into drag and to audiences because opera is drag. Look at any opera stage, they’re in super drag. Those stages are huge so you need to be in drag just to be seen in opera.”

Just before the closing reception I asked Sapphira, who had been a contestant for several previous years to which she responded, “this year I was prepared. I just knew what I wanted to do, I made a plan and a schedule and made sure everything happened. My dancers got paid before they even got onto the stage. I wanted to make sure everything was taken care of before I came to Atlantic City.” Her preparation certainly paid off.

As my friends and I raided the dessert table at the afterparty I looked out at the crowd and saw a diverse range of people of all ages dancing and enjoying the music. Half-dressed dancers were twirling with the drag queens and next year’s pageant hopefuls. Kressley was holding court and smiling for pictures with a crowd of gorgeous Millenials and Ms. Sapphira Cristal laughed as she passed by with Honey Davenport, out of drag.

I watched the scene swirl around me and thought about what a wonderful time we’re living in, how there are so many extraordinary events happening every night of the week and in so many unique and interesting cities. When you come across an event, a party, a competition that piques your interest do yourself a favor and get up and go. You never know where the road will lead you, oh the places you will go.

All Photos courtesy of Paul Dempsey Photography 

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Jeffrey James Keyes

Jeffrey James Keyes is a New York-based writer and artist. He recently co-authored the New York Times Bestselling book Killer Chef with James Patterson and wrote and produced the award-winning short film Uniform. He writes about travel, weddings, and wellness for a variety of publications and websites.