Avant Garbage, the reigning Miss Nerd New York. | FWEE CARTER/ FWEE PHOTOGRAPY
Drag culture and geek culture are seemingly worlds apart — but with comic conventions selling out to capacity and RuPaul an anchor presence on Logo, both now can claim a place in the realm of mainstream awareness, if not outright acceptance. The two specialized interests intersect on June 4 at Miss Nerd New York — a pageant of poindexters where a lady’s Pokémon collection is just as important as the evening gown competition.
I spoke with the event organizers and participants to learn how the reigning queen of the nerds won her crown and what’s in store for audiences at this year’s pageant.
“A queer nerd may have come out as gay or trans or bi and still be shamed within that community for being fascinated with super heroes or enjoying role-playing games,” said pageant director Shane Cherry. “There are people who would rather go to a bar to play ‘Super Smash Bros.’ or ‘Mario Kart’ than go dancing. Nobody should have to come out of the closet as gay and stay in the closet about being a nerd! That’s what the pageant stands for.”
Worlds collide at Miss Nerd New York on June 4
Avant Garbage, winner of last year’s inaugural pageant, sees a clear connection between the outsider status of queens and geeks, at least in her own case.
“I grew up a very lonely nerd, without many friends, and played make-believe with my action figures and dolls and created fantasy worlds to escape,” she recalled. “I read comic books and play video games to leave reality and have fun. Being a drag queen is my ability to escape our current reality and create those same nerdy fantasy worlds again.
Ms. Garbage continued, “Drag queens and nerds are socially awkward outcasts who just want to be liked,” though she acknowledged that a common origin story of struggle doesn’t necessarily translate into political solidarity or romantic compatibility. “Drag queens are becoming more acceptable and mainstream, but most of the gay community still doesn’t want to date or be in a relationship with a drag queen.”
As the incumbent pageant winner, Ms. Garbage will be performing at this year’s event.
“It’s incredible to witness how mainstream both drag and the nerd community are becoming,” she said. “‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is making drag a household topic, and comic book-themed media is dominating films and television to the point where you’re in the minority if you’re not seeing the newest Marvel film.”
Ms. Garbage believes that drag is on the way to becoming acceptable enough to not be shamed within the gay dating scene, and that nerds might be influencing that change.
Goldie Hawn-Solo, a contestant last year, is returning for this year’s pageant. | FWEE CARTER/ FWEE PHOTOGRAPY
Cherry said he wants Miss Nerd New York to focus on more than just beauty and glamour by encouraging a degree of creativity and polish not seen in other drag pageants. When asked how the contestants will prove their nerd cred, he declared, “We won’t be asking them trivia questions or anything like that! But I think nerdy sensibilities will come out naturally. The question and answer portion is always nerdy, and the other areas of competition encourage nerdy themes and creativity.”
These nerdy themes blossomed in last year’s pageant with contestants wearing costumes that referenced “Pokémon,” “Sailor Moon,” and “Carmen Sandiego.”
Ms. Garbage decided to forgo the traditional drag performance of lip-synching last year. Instead, she challenged the judges to a game of “Super Smash Bros.” during the talent portion of the contest — and beat them all. She credited these gaming skills for her pageant win, along with her swimwear category entry as “Slave Leia,” inspired by the skimpy metal bikini worn by Carrie Fisher in “Return of the Jedi.”
The pageant is sponsored by Geeks Out!, an organization that works to maintain a queer presence at geek events like comic book conventions. Steve Gianaca, a member of the group’s board of directors, points out that drag and geek cultures are frequently combined at mainstream geek conventions, through “Crossplay.”
“Cosplay,” explained Gianaca, “is dressing as your favorite geek icon. Crossplay allows you to cross gender lines to do so. At more and more conventions, I’m seeing people dress as their favorite characters regardless of the gender. Drag intersecting geek culture is a way to enjoy your favorite fandoms while opening minds a bit.”
The Miss Nerd New York pageant is open even to geeks who might be new to drag. Anyone can apply to be in the pageant, as long as they perform in the drag aesthetic. The pageant organizers are accepting entries up to June 3, or until their roster of contestants is filled. Interested nerdy queens can inquire at [email protected]
Hopeful competitors should be warned: When asked what she’ll do after crowning her successor, Avant Garbage said, “Push her down the stairs and take back my title!”
Miss Nerd New York 2016 will be held at Rockbar NYC, 185 Christopher St. at Weehawken St., on Jun. 4, from 4 p.m.–9 p.m. Admission is $10, and attendees must be at least 21. Charity raffles — not one of the contestants! — will benefit the Association for Adults with Developmental Disabilities. Visit facebook.com/missnerdny and geeksout.org.