In 25 years of International Gay Rodeo Association pageants, the top honors have only been won by a contestant from the Texas Gay Rodeo Association three times — one of which was late last year, when Michael Fulk’s alter ego Victoria Weston walked away with the Miss IGRA 2012 crown, a first for Dallas and a victory decades in the making.
“I have been dressing in female attire ever since I could open my mom’s closet door,” Fulk laughs.
His drag career started in earnest, however, at a Halloween ball in St. Louis in 1988. One month later, he was doing his first fundraiser, “and within a year I had moved to New York City,” he says.
After many successful years as a full-time entertainer in New York City, Fulk returned to Dallas shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
“My career switched upon my move,” he explains. “In NYC, I was an entertainer full-time and a hair and makeup artist part time. Now I am a full-time hair and makeup artist, makeup coach and educator for Artistic Salon Spa across from NorthPark. Entertainment was relegated to a passion rather than the breadwinner part of my life.”
But that didn’t stopped Fulk from competing and performing in drag — a description he’s proud to wear.
“We are all born naked, everything that comes after that is drag, honey!” he laughs. “Drag comes in all shapes and sizes: leather drag, business drag, casual, cowboy, club kid … the list is endless. I have no issue being called a drag queen, female impersonator, illusionist, yadda, yadda, yadda. If that size 11 pump fits and looks fabulous, I wear it. For the most part, though, when people around me speak of what I do, more often than not they simply refer to me as an entertainer.”
Victoria Weston stands out among many other drag performers because rather than lip sync, she sings live.
“The entertainers from before Stonewall were live,” Fulk explains. “Some sang, some danced, some stripped, but back then there wasn’t as much syncing and/or surgery as today. I think I am a throwback to that era. I am first and foremost closely related to the big band singer. That is my passion, whether it is blues, jazz, Broadway or standards.”
Since returning to Texas, Fulk has upped the quotient of country-western and pop music in Victoria’s act.
“I have heard people say my singing style resembles Shirley Bassey and I have always been compared to the look of Ann-Margret. I couldn’t ask for better comparisons. I’ll take both of those as high compliments,” he says.
Still, he insists, it’s best not to take himself too seriously.
“I take the illusion I portray serious enough to not make it a joke. I don’t want to be insulting or a cartoon of a woman. Every time I sit down to bring Victoria to life I view my job as putting together an ideal,” Fulk says. That means Victoria “doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. Old Hollywood glamour is my mainstay. Even though I am wearing a lot of makeup, hair jewelry, rhinestones, gowns and great shoes, I guess I want to appear to simply be a red carpet version of what I think a woman looks like: Totally put together. Besides that, I like to think of Victoria as a grounded, drama-free old soul with a wry sense of humor and a heart as big as all outdoors.”
Perhaps it’s this philosophy and a healthy sense of humor that has kept Fulk from suffering a fate foretold years ago by his drag mother from St. Louis, Miss Tracy.
“God rest her soul, [she] told me to be ready for a lonely life. She said, ‘They are either going to hate you as a drag queen and love you as yourself or they are going to love you as a drag queen and hate you as yourself. And be prepared for lesbians to hate and resent you.’” Fulk recalls. “I have found that to be false on all levels.”
And few things symbolize that overcoming of obstacles better than a really, really big crown.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 13, 2012.
As the International Gay Rodeo Finals return to North Texas, we examine the connection between the gay culture and the cowboy way
THE COWBOY WAY | Charlie Colella shows the form necessary to score points at the rodeo, but his favorite event is pole bending, a combination of speed, precision and horsemanship. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
Like a true Texas transplant, Charlie Colella wasn’t born to the rodeo, but he got there as fast as he could.
Even today, at 51, Colella’s family doesn’t quite understand how a boy reared in the Chicago suburbs, who holds down a day job as an office working in corporate America (19 years with Xerox, now with FedEx), now lives on a 12-acre ranch in a small town (population: 1,200) an hour north of Dallas, breeding horses and pursuing his passion for the last 21 years: Ridin’ the rodeo.
In Texas, the connection between mankind and the rodeo is a familiar one. Even in urban North Texas, the Mesquite Rodeo less than 20 miles from Downtown Dallas looms as one of the most celebrated in the country. But Colella’s interest developed while he was living in, of all places, Bakersfield, Calif. — hardly the cliché of Western masculinity.
He has been riding almost as long the International Gay Rodeo Association has been around. “In 1990, I was living in Los Angeles and bored with my life and met these guys from the rodeo,” he explains. “I was a city boy. My folks took us camping and we rode trail horses when I was a kid, but even they said, ‘Where did this come from?’”
Surprisingly, the idea of a gay rodeo didn’t even arise in Texas. The first acknowledged event — a fundraiser to fight muscular dystrophy — took place in Reno, Nev., in 1976. In 1981, the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association had been formed, followed in 1982 by the Texas Gay Rodeo Association. By 1986, the IGRA was formed as an umbrella organization of regional groups, including ones from Canada (hence the “international” designation).
Colella started off his rodeo career big: Riding steer and bulls. That’s where a human sits atop a one-ton wild animal and tries to hold on for eight seconds. Even the best cowboys end their rides being thrown on their asses. “It often was one of the biggest rushes ever!” Colella gushes. Rodeo events have resulted in him suffering a fractured pelvis, a broken foot and a herniated vertebra. He doesn’t ride bulls anymore.
“There’s an old saying: To be a bull rider, you fill your mouth with marbles; every time you ride a bull, you spit out a marble; once you’ve lost all your marbles, you’re a bull rider,” he laughs. “I started with that and rode bulls for a couple years, but I’m a little older and little smarter now, so I don’t do the rough stuff.”
Colella pursues about 11 of the 14 competitions, and he’s qualified for seven events in the IGRA Finals, which take place at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth this weekend. (For a complete schedule of events, go here.) The invitational event is considered the capstone of the gay rodeo season.
“Pole bending is the one I get nutted up about. I was sitting No. 1 in it [this year], but I had a bad day last time and someone pulled ahead of me,” he says.
Even with his current slate of events, Colella has had his share of close calls. Just last month, he “had a little argument with a steer,” as he puts it. “I’m not quite sure what happened — I think I got horned,” he says, pointing to a two-inch scar on his forehead smack dab between his eyes. “It was in Kansas City in, of all events, wild drag. My buddy does the drag and the steer got away from us. We caught it and he went around me with the rope. I ducked to keep from being penned and that’s when it happened. It went through my hat, so it could have been worse.”
All in the day of a cowboy’s life.
Or, for that matter, a cowgirl. Gay rodeo has traditionally embraced women in a way that mainstream rodeos have not. In 1989, a woman, Linn Copeland, was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of president of the IGRA, and in 1990 she was elected to another full term. While women’s and men’s events are still kept separate in competitions, Colella for one doesn’t see the women’s branch as being any less competitive: The events are the events, and the skills are exactly the same.
“We’ve had some incredible bulls and some pretty incredible female bull riders. I’d like to see more women get involved — there are like two guys for every girl.
“We compete men against men, women against women, but if we blended it all together some of these women would kick your butt. I was teasing a buddy once that he ‘threw like a girl,’ and did I get my ass chewed out. I was being unfair — these women can throw a rope. Some of these girls’ll kick your ass!”
RIDE’ EM | Corella will compete in 7 of 14 events at the invitation-only IGRA this weekend. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
So what keeps men — and women — like Colella coming back year after year?
As a convert to cowboydom, Colella takes it seriously as a lifestyle. Even at work, he dresses daily in a pressed Western shirt, jeans and ostrich-skin boots; he proudly sports an oversized belt buckle, one of perhaps two dozen he has won over the years for his rodeo skills. (“I’ve got every ribbon, every buckle I’ve ever won. A lot of people put a lot of effort into getting that together and that means something to me,” he says.) For him, as gays are fond of saying, it’s a life, not a lifestyle.
“Anyone involved in the rodeo, gay or straight, says it’s a way of life,” he says. “I’m single, and it’s difficult dating living where I live, but I decided I wasn’t gonna sacrifice what I wanted for a guy. I have a great life so I’m pretty happy. This is who I am. It’s what I am.”
The rodeo also gives him a chance to show off his skills behind the scenes.
“It’s a kind of a gratification of how I’ve trained my horses,” he admits of each victory. ”The oldest horse I own is 19 and she’s the mother of another two, so I have bred them myself. You do well, it is a reflection of that. You’re saying, ‘My horse is very talented, and I did that.’”
But, Colella admits, there’s more to getting involved in the gay rodeo than all of that. It’s the sense of community that comes with it.
“Everyone just takes care of you,” he says. “I think it’s important that we all belong to a group, an organization, whether it’s your church or the leather community or the rodeo. IGRA helped me find who I am, helped define who I am. Any club who can bring out who you are [is valuable]. I’ve met so many people from around the country. It’s just amazing the amount of friends who offer support.
“Most of the people in the top 10 or 20 are competitive, but we all want everybody to do well. I wanna win, but I’m gonna root for the next guy and coach him to do just as well.”
Colella is fit and healthy, but now in his 50s, the most he’ll promise about what he’ll be doing five years from now is say he hopes to be upright. But the rodeo grabs ahold of you in a way you can’t fully control.
“There’s a friend of mine in the rodeo who’s over 60 and still doing all the events: He’s still wrestling steer and riding horses,” he says. “We joke that the day he dies, we’re all gonna say, ‘Thank god! Now we can stop,’ because as long as he’s doing it we can’t justifying quitting. But one day, I’ll do other things at home with my horses.”
Like any great movie cowboy, the time’ll come to ride off into the sunset.
But not this weekend. This weekend, there are ribbons and buckles and titles to be won and animals to be tamed. That’s life on the rodeo.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.
FAITH-BASED PRIDE | The Rev. Carol West, pastor of Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth, waves to the crowd as part of the church’s entry in the 2010 Tarrant County Gay Pride Parade. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
Parade moving downtown, will include Street Fest; parade and picnic condensed into 1 weekend
FORT WORTH — Fort Worth’s LGBT community, re-energized by the June, 2009, raid on the Rainbow Lounge, has over the last 18-plus months become a much more organized, visible and active presence in the city.
Last October’s annual Tarrant County Gay Pride Week provided strong evidence of the community’s vitality.
The Pride parade was the largest in many years and included a first-time feature: a block party on South Jennings Street with vendors, entertainment and the Coors Main Stage. The following weekend, the popular Pride Week picnic pulled in a huge and diverse crowd to Trinity River Park.
This year, as TCGPW Association plans for its 30th annual Pride celebration, Fort Worth’s LGBT community can look forward to an even bigger and better event, parade chairman Tony Coronado said this week.
The biggest change, Coronado said, will be in the timing of the main Pride week events. Previously, the parade has been held on a Sunday afternoon to kick off the week, and the picnic has wound up the festivities the following Saturday. But this year, the parade and picnic are being held the same weekend — and the parade is moving downtown for the first time in its 30-year history.
The Ride the Rainbow Pride Parade and Street Festival is set for Saturday, Oct. 1, with the parade beginning at 10 a.m. on Main Street. The Street Festival, Coronado said, begins after the parade and continues until 6 p.m.
ROYALTY ON PARADE | The 2010 TCGPWA titleholders were among the entries in Fort Worth’s Pride parade last October. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
The following day — Sunday, Oct. 2 — the picnic will be held from noon to 6 p.m. in Trinity Park, with the area and layout expanded to accommodate the expected increase in attendance, Coronado said.
But while the two main events will take place in one weekend, Coronado said Pride week runs from Sept. 29 through Oct. 9, with a variety of local events set throughout the week and the International Gay Rodeo Association’s World Gay Rodeo Finals taking place Oct. 7-9 in Fort Worth.
One reason for condensing the parade and picnic into one weekend, Coronado said, is to broaden the celebration’s appeal to out-of-towners, especially since this will be the 30th annual parade.
“We’ve been working with the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau a lot. They are helping promote our celebration, and having it all in one weekend will make it easier for people to come in from out of town to attend,” Coronado said. “This way, they don’t have to decide between coming for the parade or coming for the picnic. They can come for one weekend and attend both.”
Coronado stressed that being able to coordinate these events on a larger scale than in the past and make sure they are successful requires careful planning — which is why TCGPWA laid out a two-year plan to prepare for the anniversary year, and why the organization has made a concerted effort to reach out to as many organizations and communities as possible.
“We are using social networking a lot, and we are reaching out to the LGBT individuals and organizations throughout Tarrant County, especially in the rural areas, trying to get them involved and excited,” he said.
“Whether they are officially involved or not, all the GLBT organizations in Tarrant County are a part of the pride celebration. It’s up to them as to how much they participate, but we want to make sure they know they are all invited to be a part of this.”
TCGPWA is also in the process of creating a scholarship fund through its new education committee, Coronado said. An awards panel has been established to research and develop criteria, target needs, set parameters and establish a required apprenticeship to award a scholarship to someone in the LGBT community.
For more information, go online to TCGPWA.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.
How do the hyper-masculine world of leather and the camp of female impersonation find common ground at the rodeo? With surprising ease
NOT THEIR FIRST TIME AT THE RODEO | Robert Cantrell, co-founder of the leather group Firedancers, and Don Jenkins, better known as drag maven Donna Dumae, are the seemingly unlikely grand marshals at the TGRA’s Big D Rodeo this weekend. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
In Texas, cowboys are known for their 10-gallon hats. And drag queens are known for the 10-gallon wigs.
The Texas Gay Rodeo Association’s (TGRA) Big D Rodeo 2010 kicks off this weekend in Alvarado, Texas (midway between Midlothian and Cleburne along Highway 67), and as always, there’s a fun mix of boot-stompin’, calf-ropin’ and dress-wearin’ — all in the name of charity.
But the event also highlights a unique confluence of gay culture. This year, the two grand marshals are Don Jenkins (aka drag diva Donna Dumae from the United Court of the Lone Star Empire) and Robert Cantrell (aka Cleo), one of the founders of the Firedancers.
For anyone unfamiliar with the gay rodeo, the mix of drag and cowboys may seem a little counterintuitive, but to co-director Dan Nagel, the Big D Rodeo is the perfect marriage of camp and cattle needed to raise money for local organizations.
“Drag is a huge part of making those charity dollars,” he says. “TGRA is honored to have the support of so many of the other organizations and clubs in Texas, such as the UCLSE. We could not do all the good that we do with the support from our brothers and sisters throughout our communities working together as a team for a common goal: Charity.”
According to Nagel, some of the biggest crowd pleasers at gay rodeo are the “camp events,” which include competition in goat dressing, steer decorating and the ever-popular wild drag race (one rope, one steer and a man in drag — what could possibly go wrong?).
But the Big D Rodeo also features plenty of serious competitive sports you’d find at many traditional rodeos, including bull and steer riding, team roping, barrel racing and calf-roping on foot. And the skills it takes to succeed don’t depend on sexual orientation or dexterity with a curling iron.
In his 13 years with the International Gay Rodeo Association, six of which he’s worked with TGRA as well, Nagel has participated in six to eight gay rodeos per year on both sides of the proverbial fence, with a hand in everything from rough stock and speed events … and his share of camp demos, just for good measure.
“The rush you get is incredible,” he says. “Like any sport, the thrill is to compete and compete well.”
“We have a great lineup of live music, from Nashville and Texas both, a vendor market, great food, beer, and cocktails,” Nagel continues, “and cowboys and cowgirls from all over the country.”
So pretty much, something for everyone.
“It’s a party-like atmosphere with western lifestyle and heritage that come with all the rodeo hype,” he says.
And the fact the leather and drag communities come out for it proves that the stereotype of the dour, hetero Texas cowboy is just that.
— Steven Lindsey
Big D Rodeo calendar of events
9 a.m, — Horse stall check-in begins
Noon–3 p.m. — Barrel exhibition runs
6–9 p.m. —Registration
6–10 p.m.: Diamond Dash Jackpot Barrel Race
8–11 p.m.: Diamond W Expo; Homo rodeo.com meet and greet; live music and entertainment.
9 a.m. — New contestant registration
10 a.m. — Rodeo performance
1 p.m. (approximately) — Grand Entry
Afternoon — Rodeo performances
2–4 p.m. — Expo; entertainment
7 p.m.–? — Expo, with live music by Weldon Henson and James Allen Clark
10 a.m. — Rodeo performances
1 p.m. (approximately) — Grand Entry
Afternoon: Rodeo performances
2–4 p.m. — Expo; entertainment
8 p.m. — Expo; dinner and awards.
Diamond W Arena, 8901 E Highway 67, Alvarado. 214-346-2107. TGRA.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 10, 2010