By Laura Latzko, September 2018 Issue.
When Michael Dutzer and Rob Mansman, owners of the Miss Gay America pageant, announced the return of the Mr. Gay America Contest for 2017, it opened a new door for male entertainers aspiring to showcase their talents before new audiences.
Originally established in 1983 as Mr. Gay All-American, the contest was discontinued after the reign of Rasean Montrese in 2009.
“When the national owners brought back Mr. Gay America, I thought it’d be a good thing to have here because the male entertainers here in Arizona are so different. They’re so fresh,” said Daniel Eckstrom, Mr. Gay Arizona America Promoter. “I thought why not bring that and give them another avenue?”
The success of Miss Gay Arizona America, Arizona’s longest-running and most-prestigious female impersonation pageant, prompted Eckstrom to start a statewide Mister system.
“We want[ed] somebody who’s going to fulfill the duties, who’s going to represent the community, who’s going to represent the America system,” Eckstrom said.
On April 22, George “Geo” Johnson became the first male entertainer to earn the Mr. Gay Arizona America title.
According to Eckstrom, it was important for the first Arizona titleholder to be someone who is already established in the community.
“The thing with Geo is that he’s been part of this community for such a long time … It’s good for the community to see what he’s doing. I think he’s doing a great job being visible,” Eckstrom said.
Next Stop: Nationals
For Geo, performing on a national stage isn’t a new experience. In addition to the local pageants he’s won – including Mr. Phoenix Pride 2016 and Mr. Gay Arizona USofA – he has also earned the title of Mr. American National Star and placed in the top 12 at Mr. Gay USofA.
His first experiences in national pageantry, however, came as a backup dancer at Miss Gay America. And he credits the queens he danced for with teaching him how to pay attention to detail and how to conduct himself professionally at a national contest.
Geo returned to the national stage at Mr. Gay America June 30 to July 1 in St. Louis for what he described as an experience much different than his previous contests.
“You definitely have to impress the [judges], either with something they haven’t seen or just by being funny. There’s got to be an element of creativity in there,” he said, adding that he designs most of his own costumes.
With any pageant, he summarized, it’s important to stand out.
At Mr. Gay America, Geo competed against 16 other contestants in the categories of talent, presentation, red carpet fashion, onstage question and interview.
While he has always found talent to be one of his strongest categories (he slayed a Bruno Mars impersonation on the Mr. Gay America stage), Geo said interview has always been a challenge because he never knows what to expect. During his interview for nationals, he talked about his plans to serve the Arizona community on a local level.
At the culmination of the pageant, Geo didn’t place as close to the top as he’d hoped to, but he said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I didn’t do as great as I wished I [had], but I was very proud of what I did. I had a great time … That’s the only way you’re going to want to go back,” he said. “If you don’t have a great experience, it makes it harder to find the motivation to go back.”
His hard work paid off, however, and he received the coveted Mr. Congeniality Award.
During this year’s Mr. Gay America Pageant, Judas Elliot, a male entertainer out of Florida and former Mr. EOY, won the national title.
“Any one person can win, but you always have to carry yourself as a winner,” Geo said.
Making Local History
As the inaugural titleholder for Mr. Gay Arizona America, Geo is tasked with growing the system throughout the next year.
Not only will Geo serve alongside Adriana Galliano, Miss Gay Arizona America 2018, Eckstrom said the two titleholders will make appearances together and hold events together throughout the year as the first Arizona America couple. (Editor’s Note: Galliano will compete in the Miss Gay America 2018 pageant Oct. 3-6 in St. Louis. Stay tuned toEcho for more.)
“It’s one more person they can lean on, one more person they can depend on. I’m really excited to see what they do together,” Eckstrom said.
The Miss and Mr. Gay Arizona America pageant systems aren’t that different, according to Geo. In both, the titleholders are expected to be a “symbol of excellence.” This is something that Geo has always set out to do, both professionally and personally.
“I’m always working to be a ‘symbol of excellence,’ not because I think of myself as a great person but because I aspire to be the best I can be,” he said.
Geo plans to grow the system by opening up more opportunities for male entertainers to perform and develop their craft.
“I want to outreach to people that I already know are very talented … and get them out there [to] start performing before they decide to go for a pageant,” he said. “I think it’s good to get as much experience as you can performing here and there before you actually hit the stage for a competition.”
Geo credits the titles he’s held throughout the years with helping him better learn how to use his platform as a male entertainer to serve his community.
“I feel like I am more aware of the good things you can do to help the community once you have a title. When I was Mister Phoenix Pride, I was able to see a little bit of that,” he said. “I’ve always been willing to help, but now I want to be a little more of that wheel that starts something going.”
With each title, Geo said he grows as a performer and as an individual, and he plans to continue to improve while not straying from his own personal style.
“You have to get better, and you have to always stay true to yourself,” he said, “ ... you don’t want to lose [your] identity.”
Geo's experience as a dancer and a fashion designer are also important parts of his identity – and success. In 2013, he competed in the M.A.D. Couture Challenge, where he won a Top Designer Award, and he's been designing costumes for himself, other entertainers and local dance companies since.
"I try to make sure my costumes don’t look like something I’ve bought off the rack, but look like something that’s meant to be onstage," he said.
Throughout the coming year, Geo plans to use those skills to pay it forward by teaching fashion design classes at one•n•ten.
“One of the things we see with the kids at one•n•ten, is that they don’t always come from the perfect home, and structure is one of the things that is really needed for them to cope when they go out in the real world,” he said. “I believe a program that gives them more than one class to be able to complete something will give them that feeling of achievement ... [t]hen, they get to see their own design come to life.”
When he's not fulfilling his titleholder responsibilities or designing wearable masterpieces, Geo can be found dancing with Desert Dance Theatre and Dulce Dance Company.
“I’ve never been a shy person, even before I started competing," he said. "If nobody was on the dance floor, I’d be the first one getting out there."
While his background is in modern dance, he recently began teaching ballroom for Dance Starz AZ and said he hopes to incorporate it into his performances and pageant packages in the future.
At the Mr. Gay Arizona America Pageant, he performed a modern dance number dedicated to his mother, who was recently diagnosed with early onset dementia.
“I choreographed it based on the fact that my mom had always been this strong pillar, and I always looked up to her," he explained, adding that she's also been his greatest source of inspiration. "We get to have a role reversal, where me, my brothers and my sister, we’re the ones who take care of her … She was always very independent ... She was very much like me, nonstop."
This is just one example of Geo's personal commitment to excellence. In the coming months, Geo said he's looking forward to showing his home state what being Mr. Gay Arizona America truly means to him.