A group of performers in suits hold a drag artists above their heads in a stage production.
Performer Paula Sinclair and dancers during the talent competition at 2022’s Miss Continental Elite pageant Credit: Jack Neilsen

The art of drag has been around for centuries, and today’s drag ball scene can trace its roots to post-Civil War Harlem, when Hamilton Lodge No. 710 began hosting regular competitions. The modern drag pageant evolved from one-off nights in bars, clubs, and rented banquet halls, to several pageant systems throughout the country; if you’ve ever seen Miss America on TV, you’ll be familiar with the format. The stakes of these competitions can be high, but so can the barriers for entry: For example, since the Miss Gay America (MGA) pageant (which began in 1972 at a Nashville bar) began drawing contestants and audience members from different states, winners have been guaranteed prize packages, including full-time work for at least their reigning year. But MGA’s long-standing rule barring transgender performers has shut out many potential trans and nonbinary participants. 

In 1969, Peoria native Jim Flint established the Baton Show Lounge in River North. The club quickly became one of the country’s premiere venues for drag performance, and by the late 70s, Flint realized that there was an opportunity to support performers that were excluded from pageant systems like MGA. He launched the Miss Continental pageant in 1980, which became a highly coveted title, partially because it had no specific rule regarding the participation of trans performers. Miss Continental has since expanded into an international system of preliminary competitions that culminate in an extravagant series of events in Chicago each Easter and Labor Day weekend. It’s also inspired three titles in addition to Miss Continental, creating opportunities for even more folks to compete: Mr. Continental (for hot male-identifying contestants), Miss Continental Plus (for more zaftig competitors), and my personal favorite, Miss Continental Elite. Created in 2004 as a competition for entertainers 40 years old and up, Elite’s competitors are often seasoned performers whose talent is unmatched.

Miss Continental
2023’s Miss Continental Plus and Miss Continental Elite pageants happen Sun 4/9 through Tue 4/11 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage. Tickets are $65; call 312-527-9338. More information on Miss Continental at thebatonshowlounge.com

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