Cherry Poppins, aka Dayton Prevention Specialist Danny Thomas, was crowned Miss Gay Ohio America 2022 on November 13 in Columbus. She now competes for Miss Gay America 2023 at the national pageant in Little Rock, Arkansas on January 17-20.
A pageant win takes a lot of time and hard work. There’s the evening gown, wigs, and makeup for starters. Not to mention the presentation costume, talent preparation, and interview. But Danny loves the competition, and Cherry loves the stage!
Cherry qualified for the state title after winning the Miss Gay Gem City America 2022 pageant in March, one of 12 city preliminaries in Ohio. She last competed for Miss Gay America in 2017 as the Miss Gay Ohio America 1st Alternate.
As Cherry gets ready for a return to the stage, Equitas Health couldn’t be more excited. Danny came to work in our Dayton office a year ago. I spoke with him recently about Cherry’s new title, the responsibilities it brings, and her plans for the national competition.
MLF: By the way, how should I refer to you?
DT: I tell people, “My name is Danny Thomas, and I give you the illusion of Cherry Poppins.”
MLF: I love that. How would you describe that illusion?
DT: I’m a big personality on stage. I’m all about embracing my culture and community when I perform, along with being a little sassy.
I’m getting ready for my promo photo for Miss Gay America, and I’m going for an extravagant look. I want to come right out of the gate, Bam! That’s Miss Gay Ohio America!
MLF: Speaking of Miss Gay Ohio America, how many competed this year?
DT: There were 22 from throughout the state. It was the 50th anniversary of the pageant. Last year, Miss Gay America celebrated its 50th anniversary.
MLF: It must have been pretty special to win on the 50th anniversary?
DT: One of my friends said I was destined to win this year because it was the anniversary. He said, “You’re going to be remembered.”
MLF: How often can you compete for Miss Gay Ohio America?
DT: You can go until you win. I have competed twice before. In 2012, I was in the top 5 for Miss Gay Ohio America, and I was invited to go to Miss Gay America. I took some time off after that, and 2017 was my first time back.
MLF: What responsibilities does the title of Miss Gay Ohio America bring?
DT: I have to be at all the city preliminaries next year. I’m hoping to add a few more to the 12 that were held this year. I show up for registration, talk to the contestants, and go over the rules and regulations. I give them pep talks and make sure they don’t need anything. It’s a big job, but I’m excited for it!
MLF: What’s your pep talk like?
DT: A lot of people are nervous. I tell them the pageant is just five people’s opinion of you based on what you did that night. It doesn’t say who you are or validate your hard work doing drag. There can only be one winner.
I also tell them, be yourself. We want to get to know you. That is one of my favorite things about Miss Gay Ohio America. They want to know who you are off the stage. They’re going to see your gown on stage; they want to know who you are and what you do.
One of my questions during the state competition was, “Everyone is prepared to win, are you prepared to lose?” I told them I have lost four other times.
MLF: Do you have to be gay to compete for Miss Gay America?
DT: The system itself is old school. It’s the longest-running LGBTQ pageant system, and there are some old traditions.
The pageant’s new owners have made some changes. There was a time when you could not cuss on stage. Now, if it can be said on television, it can be said during your talent. That is huge! We had a non-binary contestant this year, and they competed as their authentic self. It is really cool to see things happening like that in the system.
MLF: You said pageant officials asked what rule you would change. What did you say?
DT: The current rules don’t allow for any cosmetic work from the neck down. This means most trans women cannot compete in the America system. As Miss Gay America, I would advocate to change that rule. Each year there is more and more progress, and I am excited to see Miss Gay America become more and more inclusive.
MLF: Miss Gay America calls itself the oldest, largest, and most respected pageant system for female impersonators. Do you prefer to call it female impersonation or drag?
DT: I call it drag, and drag is a more inclusive term. I don’t feel like I am impersonating a cis woman. When I am on stage, I am doing drag. It’s a character you create, and you’re taking that character to the next level. There are drag kings and non-binary people who do drag. That’s why I like the term drag.
MLF: How do the pageants compare to a drag performance for you?
DT: Pageantry taught me how to polish my drag. It taught me how to be an administrator, how to help my stage presence.
MLF: I know there are other pageants. What sets Miss Gay America apart from Miss Continental and Miss Gay USofA?
DT: The sisterhood. The family you gain is unmatched! I’m a community person; I love building community and having that tribe around me. I think the other systems are fantastic, and they have phenomenal performers, but there is more of a community and family feel at Miss Gay America. When we’re together, you can feel the energy and love for one another. When you step down, they don’t call you a former, they call you a forever.
MLF: Can you say more about the sisterhood?
DT: I was the most seasoned entertainer at Miss Gay Ohio America this year. I had been doing drag the longest—15 years. There were a lot of newer entertainers of five years or less, and we were like a family. We cared for each other. We were in the crowd cheering each other on. They even tell us, you’re not competing against each other but with each other.
MLF: Miss Gay America tags itself as “a symbol of excellence since 1972.” What does excellence mean to you?
DT: A symbol of excellence is a person who sets a standard. You look the part, but you also act the part. You care about your community. You want to give back and set a path for others. As Miss Gay Ohio America, I want to show young entertainers—especially young entertainers of color—that even if the cards seem stacked against us, we can do and be whatever we want. That is what I want my legacy to be, to set an example and encourage the next generation.
MLF: What are some of the challenges entertainers of color face?
DT: Usually the pageant likes very sleek updo hairstyles. They want the old Hollywood hairstyles. You don’t see ethnic hair. This time I decided to do a braided updo. If I’m impersonating a black woman, not all black women have bone-straight hair. I wanted to show that it is ok to embrace your culture, while entering a predominantly white space. The pageants for years were kind of cookie-cutter, but things are changing. Ava Aurora Foxx, Miss Gay Ohio America 2021, is biracial. Before her, we had not had a person of color with the state title since 2010. It was a big deal to have Ava then me right after.
MLF: The theme for Miss Gay America 2023 is Dream in Color. What does that mean and how are you preparing?
DT: It’s a rainbow theme, and everyone was assigned a color. My package is set. I’m just kind of amplifying what I did for Miss Gay Ohio America. I’m going to tweak the things that worked and the things that didn’t.
MLF: Can you tell us your color?
DT: Orange, and I’m excited! The color is just for the presentation category.
MLF: What is Cherry’s wardrobe like?
DT: I love things that are high fashion. Sometimes I like campy costumes, but really high fashion and avant-garde is what I enjoy.
MLF: Do you make your own clothes?
DT: Oh no! I have a couple of different people who make things for me.
MLF: How about the makeup?
DT: I wanted Miss Gay Ohio America to be stress-free, so I hired an artist who does drag makeup.
MLF: How long does it take to do your makeup?
DT: The fastest I can get it done is 25 minutes. If I’m really taking my time, it can take an hour or an hour and a half.
MLF: All of this I’m sure can get very expensive?
DT: Oh Boy! You have no idea. Luckily, I qualified in March, so that gave me time to cover costs and raise money.
MLF: Sponsors also provide financial support for contestants. Would you like to mention some of your supporters?
DT: Equitas Health is a major sponsor. In Good Hands Group, a black-owned assisted living facility; David Robins of Creative Foundations, Inc.; and Dayton Black Pride. I also have a host of family and friends who support me. I felt like people really believed in me.
MLF: What will you be doing for your talent?
DT: I have a Broadway number with a video behind me. It’s the same production I did for Miss Gay Ohio America, but elevated. You need to lip sync, and your talent needs to tell a story. You can do what you want, but it has to be polished and entertaining.
MLF: How do you choose a talent?
DT: I pick talent that represents who I am as an entertainer. I am not a professional dancer or a trained dancer; I have two left feet! We staged it so I am a star. I’m Diana Ross and my dancers are The Supremes! They have talent, but everyone is looking at me!
MLF: What song will you be performing?
DT: My song is A Big Black Lady Stops the Show. It’s a Broadway tradition that a black woman gets that show-stopping song.
MLF: How about the interview? I heard it’s an important part of Miss Gay America. How do you prepare for that?
DT: That’s the problem. People try to prepare for it. If you want someone to get to know you off stage, you need to walk in and not sound rehearsed. The answer has to come from the heart. Being unapologetically you is the best thing you can do. You still have to be professional, but you have to be honest. There is no right or wrong answer when someone is asking you about your life experience.
MLF: The Miss Gay America website says, “It takes much talent, creativity, glamour, elegance, sophistication, and desire to entertain, to successfully create the illusion in which the judges will approve.” Whew! How will Cherry tackle that?
DT: With confidence! You can have a $5,000 gown, but if you don’t have confidence, the dress doesn’t matter. By the time you get to the pageant, you have already chosen what you are going to wear and do. Stand in them and own them! That’s what will shine through to the judges.
MLF: What happens when Cherry steps on the stage?
DT: Cherry and Danny are two different people. Cherry is a lot more outgoing. I’m outgoing, but Cherry will sit on your lap and say, “Hi, nice to meet you!” She commands any room she walks into. I like to be very big, because it’s a character.
MLF: And her name? Cherry Poppins?
DT: When I decided to do drag, I had to pick my stage name. I was thinking about all these elegant, non-campy names. Then a friend said, you need to be Cherry Poppins. I said NO! But then I was at a show, ready to go on stage, and they asked me for my name. I said, uh, Cherry Poppins! And here we are, 15 years later!
MLF: Will you still be performing locally between now and the national pageant?
DT: Absolutely! I’m not turning down any bookings! It’s helping me get ready for nationals.
MLF: The winner receives a prize package of cash, jewelry, and other gifts. I get the sense it isn’t about the prizes and money for Cherry?
DT: If it was about the prizes, I wouldn’t do it. For me, to win is to be a part of that legacy and add my mark to that history and community. It is a chance for me to show Black entertainers that a dream delayed is not a dream denied. We can be whatever we want to be.
MLF: You have a big year ahead. First, the Miss Gay America Pageant and then your ongoing work as Miss Gay Ohio America.
DT: One of my big goals as Miss Gay Ohio America is to give back to the community. All the love and energy I receive, I want to pay forward. I’m really, really excited. I get to merge the Equitas Health and Miss Gay Ohio America platforms and continue to do the work I do—community outreach and community service.
MLF: Is winning Miss Gay America the ultimate goal for you and Cherry? If you win, what happens next?
DT: I would take a nap! After finishing a national reign, you’re going to want to sleep. I’m really excited for Miss Gay America 2023. It’s going to be a tough competition, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.