History is important to Coco Montrese—and now she’s a part of it.
Montrese performs in clubs around Florida and the country and is a permanent cast member at the Flamingo Resort in St. Petersburg. But the Miami native never considered a career in female impersonation until studying theater and education at Alabama State in the 1990s. That’s where she met Mocha Montrese, who was immediately mesmerized by the young student.
“I was in the crowd and was just amazed by her,” Montrese says. “But she walked up to me and said I was beautiful and that she wanted to put me in make up.”
The next thing the young college boy knew he was in a gown and wearing full makeup and getting tips from everyone in a nearby Alabama bar.
“I had never had a job,” Montrese said. “I focused on school and my parents took care of me. I saw this as an opportunity to make some money and not interfere with my school work.”
Soon, Coco was born, thanks to the mentoring of Mocha, and Montrese has continued to perform while holding down a day job as a performer with Walt Disney World the last 11 years.
But that job at Disney isn’t what will make Coco Montrese go down in the history books. Coco Montrese is the 39th performer to wear the Miss Gay America crown.
A bittersweet crown
On Saturday, Feb. 27, Montrese was crowned Miss Gay America 2010—nearly four months after the annual pageant was held in St. Louis, Mo. Alyssa Edwards of Mesquite, Tex., was initially crowned in October and Montrese was named first alternate.
“I knew I was at my best,” Montrese says. “It was a bittersweet moment because I was so close. There were only eight points between us. I was confident of myself and I knew I could win.”
Shortly after the New Year, Montrese got a call that the title had been stripped from Edwards, and she was the new title holder.
“I was driving when the owners of the pageant called to tell me I was Miss Gay America 2010,” Montrese remembers. “I had to pull over. I had tears in my eyes.”
Montrese says her partner of two years, Alfonso Hestele, immediately asked her what was wrong.
“I had to tell him, ‘I’m Miss Gay America!’” Montrese says.
The Miss Gay America Pageant hasn’t officially released details surrounding the removal of Edwards’ title, but Montrese was able to say that business dealings that conflicted with her reign were part of it.
“I love Alyssa and we are good friends,” Montrese says. “But we both had to sign a contract—they were identical—that state we are able and willing to fulfill the role of Miss Gay America. It’s a job.”
Edwards, who has been in entertainment for some time, had several side projects already in the works and was unable to focus solely on the Miss Gay America title. Edwards runs a dance studio and her dance team appeared on America’s Got Talent and MTV. Similar projects may have been a conflict of interest with her role as Miss Gay America.
“I knew there was a possibility that I would be Miss Gay America,” Montrese says. “You have to put your other endeavors on hold. She had other things lined up already.
“[Miss Gay America 2001] Charity Case said it best,” Montrese recalls. “‘In order to be Miss Gay American you have to think and act like Miss Gay America,’”
Montrese said that before the pageant, she went to speak with her supervisors at Disney to explain her plans to pursue the title.
“I told them that this is a title that I felt I could win and that if I did win it, it would require some time off,” Montrese says. “Disney was great and very supportive. They gave me everything I needed to be able to do this.
“And make sure you let your readers know that I will still perform at the Flamingo Resort,” she adds. “I just won’t be there every weekend.”
“My parents knew I was gay—kind of,” says Montrese, who lives by day as 35-year-old Martin Cooper. “My father was a Pentecostal minister and he and my mother caught flak because they didn’t cast me out because I was gay. They were never ashamed of me.”
It wasn’t until later that the elder Coopers, who have since passed away, learned their son performed as Coco Montrese in the evening.
“I was hesitant at first because I wanted to make sure they were ready for it,” Montrese says. “I’m headstrong, so when I told them about Coco, I said, ‘You are either with me or against me.’”
Fortunately for Montrese, the entire Cooper clan was supportive and his sister-in-law is one of Coco’s biggest fans.
“I invited all of my family to the night I give up my crown in Ohio,” Montrese said the week before traveling to St. Louis. “I think they’ll all attend—especially my sister-in-law.”
…And world peace
When Montrese told family members about her performances, she says she learned a lesson that she lives by every single day and plans to share throughout her reign as Miss Gay America 2010.
“My parents told me that it’s all about love,” Montrese says. “You don’t have to understand ever facet of somebody, you just have to love them.”
Montrese has met several people during her career that just don’t get the art of female impersonation, she says. But part of obtaining equality, she believes, is accepting things we may not completely understand.
“We are striving so hard for marriage equality, but we deprive ourselves of equality in our own community,” Montrese says. “I know many cross dressers and some people may not understand it—but it’s not for us to understand. They are a part of the community that we need to embrace and love them.”
For those who don’t have an appreciation for the art of female impersonation, Montrese has a special message.
“You have to get past they why and look at it as what it is—an art form,” she says. “I am a man in a same-sex relationship. But I have a career impersonating a female. We have to come together and get acceptance before the overall community accepts us and grants us the rights we deserve.”
Montrese says she hopes to build on the momentum of her crown and begin a production company in the next few years. She also says several potential business partners are lining up to support her future endeavors.
One thing she won’t do, however, is pursue another crown.
“When I’m in a relationship, I’m monogamous,” Montrese says. “I’m Miss Gay America and I don’t need anything else. This is my happily ever after.”