Three years ago, before identifying as nonbinary and earning the nickname “Back Handspring Queen,” drag queen Aaliyah Tealheart wouldn’t have been caught dead in makeup. Today, Tealheart proudly carries the title of Miss Amateur Spiral 2018.
Spiral Dance Bar has hosted “Miss AM,” an amateur drag pageant, for over 10 years. Last year, Tealheart won over the judges in a handmade corset covered in protruding purple and white spikes made of paper. For the talent portion, Tealheart lip-synced to Leona Lewis’ “Homeless” dressed as a — you guessed it —“street queen,” a contrast to the more glamorous routines. Oh yeah, and Tealheart nailed cartwheels and back-handsprings while wearing 5-inch heels.
Sunday, Tealheart — whose singular-pronoun preference is "they" — will crown their successor and give a performance while Lansing drag icons Asio Aviance and Caj Monet host the evening festivities. Contestants will be judged in three categories — each one requiring a different look — talent, formal wear and presentation. The latter is based on performers’ execution of the theme, which is “DC vs. Marvel.”
While living in Grand Rapids, Tealheart, then 20 years old, “wanted nothing to do with drag” until becoming good friends with local entertainers.
“We ended up getting drunk one night. They were like, “Hey, let’s put some makeup on you,” Tealheart said. “If that would not have happened and I had not met those friends, I don’t think I would have made it outside of my comfort zone and evolved into the person that I am today.”
The entertainer developed their drag persona based on the vampire queen Akasha, played by the late, r&b singer Aaliyah, in the film “Queen of the Damned.” Their last name was added upon being adopted into Lucy Tealheart’s drag-family, based in Seattle. Since then, the amateur queen hasn’t looked back and dreams of winning a national title.
The former gymnast said they started visualizing victory four months before the Miss AM pageant by developing routines and reaching out to professional showgirls for advice.
Tealheart first competed in Spiral’s amateur pageant in 2017 and left crownless. As a former competitive gymnast, “loser” wasn’t in their vocabulary, and earning the pageant title became emblematic of their desire to master the art form.
With a new outlook on the competition and a one-of-a-kind corset, Tealheart said they went into the show feeling “very confident.” But some of that confidence wilted the day of the show when Tealheart was surrounded by their equally fierce competitors. What ultimately helped calm Tealheart’s nerves before tearing up the stage was the support and affirmations from their roommate, Nomi d’Shire, and professional queens.
It’s not uncommon for the word “pageant” to spark the image of an angry hoard of stage mom’s clawing at each other’s necks, while their young, beautiful offspring pick at their flaws. Miss AM is no such pageant. While judges rate contestants on appearance, according to Tealheart, consistency and attitude trump high-dollar costumes in amateur pageants.
Since competing in drag, Tealheart has learned many valuable lessons such as how-to Gorilla Glue on ear rings, avoid spending $400 on a gown that doesn’t qualify as “formal attire” and above all, the value of empathy.
Over their three-year career as an entertainer, she has become the “mother” of two “daughters” — drag terminology for a mentor. Tealheart keeps in regular contact with her “children” and advises them on how to develop their craft. However, the drag mother says the most vital part of their role is having open arms and a charitable ear.
Before winning Miss AM, Tealheart was told they weren’t “the most approachable person.”
“It took a toll on me. I have worked a lot on showing that I’m a nicer person right off the bat,” Tealheart said.
Tealheart sees performance as the best medium to will help them evolve and change.
“You can’t always stay in one spot when you are a performer because if you do, you are just going to get stuck.”
Miss AM Spiral 2019 Pageant
Sunday, May 26
Registration: 5 p.m. Doors: 9 p.m.
Contestant entry fee: $50, Cover: $5
Spiral Dance Bar, 1247 Center St. Lansing