Once again, a pageant winner was crowned in Atlantic City.
She wore a glittering evening gown, a crown was pinned to the bouffant up-do hair high atop her head and she waved to the adoring audience as she walked the runway.
She also happened to be a 6-foot tall drag queen who wowed the judges with an opera-turned-jazz vocal performance — complete with costume reveals and choreography.
Sapphira Cristal was named the new Miss’d America Saturday night at Hard Rock Atlantic City’s Soundwaves Theater.
Sapphira, also known as O’Niell Nichol Haynes, 31, is from Houston and currently works as a professional drag performer in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
After winning the crown, Haynes said the preparation for this year’s pageant came from not only seven years of participating in the Miss’d America Pageant, but also being in the moment and enjoying being on stage.
Atlantic City has been a town synonymous with pageants for nearly 100 years.
The elements of the Miss’d America Pageant are much the same as the pageant it once lampooned.
On stage, the contestants are judged in swimsuits, evening gown, interview and talent categories. Off stage, the audience is full of fans pouring over the program book and cheering on their favorites. A number of officials from City Hall and state agencies past and present were recognized either in the audience or on the judges panel.
The seven contestants — obviously not enough to represent every state in the country— take the pageantry seriously, with hours of rehearsals.
The on-stage questions genuinely ask the contestants to give opinions on current events — in 30 seconds.
Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984 and one of this year’s judges, posed the question to the Miss’d America contestant Boxxa Vine: Should the Miss America pageant should return to Atlantic City.
Boxxa Vine, from Massachusetts, said the pageant should come back as an Atlantic City event, adding that “tradition is extremely important.”
The Miss America Organization announced in April its pageant would be held at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, much to the dismay of local pageant fans.
The jokes rolled on throughout Saturday night, with host Carson Kressely saying the MAO pageant fans will be upset they have to pump their own gas and won’t find a good diner in Connecticut. But other than a few quick jabs, Miss’d America carried on as its own brand of campy stage show.
While the Miss’d America Pageant continues, organizers haven’t forgotten the base of the event: the community.
With Miss America once again leaving Atlantic City, Miss’d America made sure to let the area know it was here to stay. Earlier this month, Miss’d America 2019 Adriana Trenta was on a float in the city’s Celebrate America Parade and the drag pageant organizers minced no words announcing their pageant would always have a runway and swimsuits.
“We’ve come for the last five years. It’s really just about supporting the community and enjoying the atmosphere,” said Anne Marie Smarra, of Absecon.
Smara, along with friends Dot Bickel, of Hammonton and Diana Ritter of Wall Township, were one of hundreds of groups friends at the pageant, seeking a night of entertainment.
“Look at the costumes and the makeup and the dancing — it’s an art form!” said Bickel.
Haynes, who turned a degree in Voice and Opera from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester into a career as a professional drag performer, can now add the pageant title when billed as his glamorous persona on stage.
“I think singing opera lends itself well to being a type of drag performance. If you go to the opera and you see the large stage sets, the costumes … it’s drag,” said Haynes, “so, I would love to help bring opera and into drag.”
As performers strive to make their shows bigger and grander, organizers of Miss’d America have worked hard to keep up with the demand for drag.
The Miss’d America Pageant started as a small themed party at John Schultz and Gary Hill’s Studio Six nightclub in the 1990s and has grown into a full stage production with dozens of volunteers and loyal fans.
“The goal was always to have fun,” said Hill.
Initially a celebration and spoof of one of the city’s most famous traditions, Miss’d America become the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance’s biggest fundraiser, generating more than $400,000 over the years to support many area LGBTQ charities and initiatives.
The reigning Miss’d America spends her year performing at regional pride events and representing the title.
Over the years, and with the changing of the Atlantic City nightlife scene, the pageant has moved venues and has now found a home at the Hard Rock. The new venue allowed for more VIP tables along the runway and the opportunity for the event to be live-streamed.
“With the events Miss’d America does and the exposure we get from having performers from different areas, I do see the pageant expanding,” Hill said.
Hard Rock also hopes to see Miss’d America Pageant grow as a widely known event.
“It’s a great show, and it’s great to be able to present the show to the local community and the regional community” said Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City.
Officials at the event said it was sold out and was a big draw for many people in the region.
“We hope to have this in the bigger arena next year” said Lupo.