At the Miss Hermosa y Protegida Pageant, the Curves Can Be Fake, But the Messages Are Very Real

There (S)he Is . . .
At the Miss Hermosa y Protegida pageant, the curves and eyelashes might or might not be fake, but the HIV/AIDS-prevention messages are very real

It's 5 p.m., two hours until show time, and Christian Gonzalez is struggling to get his handcrafted butt just right. The goal is voluptuousness, roundness and a little shelf.

"I tried and tried but couldn't do the truco last night," Gonzalez says about the "trick." He rubs his behind and adjusts the bulky chunks of spongy yellow foam, the preferred material, beneath several layers of hosiery. He looks in the mirror. His face sags. The foam is also saddled on his hips to achieve a woman's coveted shapeliness. He pushes and adjusts to make sure he's flat in the front and round in the back. He turns to the side, looks again and smiles. He's on his way to pouring himself into the mold of his alias, Samantha Palacios, for the night.

Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant
Russ Roca
Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant

Every man or transgender woman padding around backstage before tonight's Miss Hermosa y Protegidabeauty pageant has employed similar and generally unpleasant tricks to achieve a temporarily disappeared front mound and a luscious derriere.

In a quick pre-pageant lineup rehearsal at 5:30 p.m. called by the mother of pageant etiquette, Manuel "Bibys" Chavez, the contestants scuttle across the stage like curious, centaur-like creatures: lean above the waist in their muscle shirts and trim, pre-wig hair; buxom below, in high heels and fishnets. Their elfin faces are dusted with their first brilliant layers of color. Breasts are almost an afterthought, since for most it is merely a matter of throwing on a padded bra and adjusting the filled-in cups.

"Where's Nicole?" Chavez calls out. When she arrives, Nicole Lopez shuffles softly onto the stage in a short summer dress, her makeup and hair all done. "I was saying my speech way out loud in the car all the way over here," she says. "I think I've got it down. I'm so nervous."

A few weeks earlier, Lopez was still collecting money for her evening gown at the gas station where she works in Santa Ana. She and two other contestants tonight are a bit calmer than the others—they've been living as women for several years and have sprouted breasts and enough around the middle to eschew the foam.

"Do it again!" Chavez calls out in Spanish. There will be several rounds of parading onstage tonight—swimsuit, fantasy dress (made from recycled materials and representing the country each contestant has chosen to represent) and evening gown—and Chavez anticipates the frenzied backstage drama.

"It needs to be done right, girls. It needs to be right!"

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Every beauty queen has a story about her precipitous ascent to the top. Last year, several weeks before being crowned Miss Hermosa y Protegida (Beautiful and Protected) 2007, Carlos Diaz knew nothing about gliding across a stage in heels and even less about hiding his most obvious male asset beneath a flirtatious swimsuit.

"I didn't eat. I didn't sleep," he says. "I was so stressed out."

Everyone does the trucodifferently when it comes time to slip into something feminine, says Jose Luis Amaro, the lively drag MC who founded the annual beauty pageant in 1993, during the height of a national preoccupation with the rise in HIV/AIDS infections. The show is run by the Center Orange County, one of the few nonprofits serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

Amaro giggles one evening over his glass of white Zinfandel and resists divulging details. "The tricks you use are secret," he says, laughing. Several layers of stockings are central to one of his favorite methods. So is the elastic ankle part of a sock. He shares a little more: the clasping of the male organ with one or two sock rings and the pulling back and then up with several pairs of stockings. He says no more.

For Diaz, such mysteries were as foreign to him as wigs and temporary butt padding. Last year, when Alfonso Guerrero, the new pageant director, asked the quiet, 34-year-old waiter to participate in the annual pageant after four participants had dropped out, Diaz hesitated. "I had never dressed in drag before, but the directors knew I cared a lot about HIV/AIDS awareness," he says.

The Spanish-language pageant, held for the past 14 of its 15 years at the Community Center of Costa Mesa, only welcomes contestants who have something—or once had something—to flatten beneath their stockings. Their superficial task is to transform into pageant-quality beauties over the course of an evening. But the real challenge is to wow the health professionals who sit on the panel of judges with a potent HIV/AIDS-prevention message. The three-minute speech accounts for 75 percent of their total score.

"We were trying to think of a way to reach out to the transgender community, which we knew was here but had no way of reaching," says Amaro about the pageant's origins. "At that time, things were focused on the gay community and the straight community, and there was nothing in between for this very specific group.

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