Homecoming Queen: Coco Montrese returns to her roots for Gay Days

By : Kirk Hartlage
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Most of America was introduced to drag performer Coco Montrese from her Season Five stint on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But those of us in Central Florida knew her first as a local entertainer who called the area home for over a decade. While here she appeared on a myriad of local stages including The Parliament House in Orlando, the both the Flamingo and Suncoast Resorts in St. Petersburg; Hamburger Mary’s in Orlando and Tampa; and Pulse Nightclubs in Orlando and Lakeland. And while she called Central Florida home she also amassed a collection of pageant titles. She’s a former Miss Hernando County, former Miss Lakeland, former Miss Gay Orlando, former Miss Parliament House, and a former Miss Gay America.

For this year’s Gay Days festivities we’re bestowing another title on Montrese: Homecoming Queen.

Montrese—and Martin Cooper, her real-world alter ego—return to Orlando for the annual first-weekend-of-June pilgrimage of LGBTs. She will host the Miss Gay Days Pageant on Wednesday, June 4, and the Glow Pool Party on Saturday, June 7, both at the GayDayS host hotel, the Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld.

And while she’s here she also plans to enjoy a bit of the festivities.

“Oh, I have to go into the park,” Montrese says, referring to Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom; this year’s gathering marks the 24th anniversary of the LGBT community visiting Walt Disney World’s signature theme park en masse on the first Saturday of June. “I’m going to see old friends perform. It will be a trip down memory lane.”

Montrese, err….Cooper worked at Disney World for 11 years as an entertainer, primarily with the nightly Phantasmic show at the Disney Hollywood Studios. Though he admits performing in the same show for years on end could be tedious, Cooper worked as both a trainer and a swing performer in the show, which saw him portraying a wide variety of characters from night to night. Cooper recalls how each June’s Gay Day would energize him and his friends year after year.

“It’s such an exciting event, not just for the people who come to it, but for those of us working there as well,” Montrese says. “I remember people saying four or five months out that that they had to start training—they had to get back in the gym—so they could look great for Gay Days!”

Working for the Mouse provided not just a steady paycheck but also a flexible schedule for Montrese to perfect her craft en route to winning all those pageant titles. In 2010, Montrese was crowned Miss Gay America when that year’s original winner Alyssa Edwards had her title revoked. Montrese and Edwards were later reunited as contestants in Season Five of RuPaul’s Drag Race where past issues with the pageant created an immediate tension between the two…which of course became one of that season’s most popular story lines on the reality competition show. Still, Montrese says Drag Race was a great experience that opened a lot of doors for her.

But it was during her reign as Miss Gay America where the current chapter of Montrese’s career kicked off. While performing as the reigning Miss Gay America at one of the pageant’s preliminaries in Las Vegas, she was discovered by Frank Marino, the man behind the longest-running drag celebrity impersonation show on the Vegas Strip. Marino was so impressed with Montrese’s spot-on performance as Janet Jackson that he offered her a spot in his Divas Las Vegas show at the Quad Resort and Casino.

“Everyone dreams of becoming that Vegas showgirl and I can’t believe that actually happened for me!” Montrese says. “I’ve lived here four years now and everything is still an adventure. I live right in the hustle and bustle of everything: my condo is actually on the Strip. I live in the middle of it all. Living here is amazing; I don’t think I could live anywhere else.”

Working for Disney provided a solid background in performing the same roles day after day; the Divas show runs nightly six nights a week. When Montrese first joined the cast she performed only as Janet Jackson and Rihanna, but soon after Marino challenged his latest discovery to try recreating the legendary singer Dionne Warwick as well…and gave Montrese a week to do so.

“Not only did I watch her performances, but I watched her interviews,” Montrese says. “It’s important to capture who they are not just on stage, but off it as well, to truly capture a celebrity’s essence. That’s how you get the character.”

It’s also important to get the “look” right—including makeup and costumes.

“That replica needs to be almost exact to what they wore,” Montrese says. “Learning their mannerisms, working with signature songs…it’s like going back to school.”
When a Watermark writer suggests Montrese take on Toni Braxton as another celebrity to recreate, Montrese has a good laugh.

“Everybody tells me I look like Toni Braxton, but I don’t see it!” she says. “But she is a character I’m actually developing right now—it’s so funny that you said her!”

Still, sometimes Coco gets to be just Coco—she’s also in residency, as they say in drag circles, at Las Vegas’ newest gay club, Share. And while she brings the same dedication and passion to the stage whether she’s performing as a celebrity or just as Coco, Montrese admits there can be a difference between performing at gay clubs and events versus shows like Frank Marino’s Divas.

“Performing in a casino, it’s predominately a straight crowd, and they don’t see you as a drag queen, they see you as an artist,” Montrese says. “It’s lots of bachelorette parties, divorce parties, lots of conferences. Drag has gone so mainstream, it’s good that we have something like Frank Marino’s to introduce mainstream audiences to drag performances. They’re more prone to go to a show like Marino’s than to go see a drag show at their local gay club.”

And with numerous Cirque du Soleil incarnations and other high caliber shows nearby, Divas has to be an equally extravagant, high-class production in order to attract any audience at all. When friends who’ve only know her from the clubs see Montrese perform in Divas, they often admit they didn’t realize the show was going to be as high-level as it is. Montrese says it’s also fun to see people compare headliners appearing in shows on the Strip—like Britney Spears—to their Divas drag doppelgangers.

But for a few days in June she’ll leave all that behind to visit the Orlando locales she once called home, no doubt gaining even more Marshmellows—as she calls her fans—along the way…because what’s hot Coco without a few Marshmellows?

“Even though I don’t live in Orlando anymore I’m extremely excited about coming back,” Montrese says. “Gay Day is a place where we can all come together and celebrate who we are.”

More Info
WHO: Coco Montrese
WHAT: Gay Days Pageant, Wednesday, June 4; Glow Pool Party, Saturday, June 7
WHERE: Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at Seaworld


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