Walter Cole is lounging on a lawn chair in his backyard, digging into a packet of Cheetos. Every now and then, he switches between enjoying quiet moments with his family and imparting wisdom to drag queens, who enjoy a drink or two nearby outside. It’s the day after this year’s edition of La Femme Magnifique, a pageant show that celebrates different aspects of drag culture in the heart of Portland. However, this little backyard party is not just to commemorate this year’s winners and participants, but it’s also to mark the pageant’s 40th anniversary.
Forty years might seem like a long time for most, but for 92-year-old Cole, who also embodies Darcelle XV – the world’s oldest drag queen performer, it’s like “sand in a bucket.”
While the next edition of La Femme Magnifique will happen in the latter half of 2023, Cole and his team are currently producing a show to ring in the New Year. The three-hour-long show on Dec. 31 will include the cast of Darcelle XV & Co. There will be copious amounts of glitter, chilled champagne and hot breakfast served at midnight. While it won’t be as elaborate as the annual La Femme Magnifique, the show will, however, draw different elements from the pageant.
La Femme Magnifique’s 40-year-long history began as Cole’s mission to “find the most qualified glamorous female impersonator that was out there.” In the past few decades, the contest location moved a spectrum of sites including Erickson’s Saloon and Montgomery Park, before landing at the Oregon Convention Center. “Thank God we found the Convention Center,” Cole wrote on La Femme Magnifique’s website.
On Sept. 4, 2022, La Femme Magnifique once again welcomed about 20 drag queens from all over the Pacific Northwest. The pageant also saw drag queens from countries like Iran strut it out for this year’s crown at the convention center.
The pageant crowned winners in four categories – Enhanced, Classic, Plus and International. While the overall winner is crowned La Femme Magnifique International, the Plus and Classic categories allow drag queens who are plus-sized and more mature in their careers to compete respectively. The Enhanced category welcomes transgender people to participate. September’s competition marked the pageant’s comeback after a two-year-long hiatus triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cole’s namesake Drag venue, Darcelle XV Showplace, was shuttered for nearly five months. The club had never closed its doors before, recalls a teary-eyed Cole. “We had some tough times… But you know what was so wonderful? My staff stayed with me, and when we reopened, they were all there. I love them.”
Cole’s life and business partner Roxy LeRoy Neuhardt also never left his side. Neuhardt passed away in October 2017. And it was Neuhardt who helped develop the persona of Darcelle XV. As a former featured dancer and performer in Las Vegas, Cole says it was Neuhardt who brought in “all the feathers and rhinestones” to the Darcelle XV showplace.
Together, the couple cultivated a safe space for Portland’s queer community — especially the performers who’ve kept Darcelle XV audiences entertained for decades.
”I think it is important for us to be authentically who we are and what we do, and that’s what I applied to this pageant,” says BinKyee Bellflower, the winner of this year’s La Femme Magnifique International. Bellflower, who identifies as “unapologetically Asian” describes herself on and off stage as “mostly Malaysian Chinese heritage.” It was not just the glitter and sass Bellflower brought to the runway, but also snappy, red fans that kept the audience’s attention. These colorful, clapping fans, for Bellflower, were not just a prop to swoosh her right to the top of the favorites list, but rather a nod to her roots as a young queer person of color. “It’s the most freeing feeling to know that you can create what you want to be, but most importantly, you create it with so much authenticity of who you are.”
It’s a mantra Cole has founded an entire bejeweled empire upon. “There’s no sense in getting dressed up as a drag queen and not be in a show or perform. It’s not that comfortable,” Cole told OPB. “You have to find out who you are and what you want to do,” he said. “Without happiness, you’re not good. You never leave it up, because if you want to be anybody, you have to work at it. It is not just automatic. You are either an entertainer or not.”