Nationally recognized pageant promoter gears up for 2023’s Kentucky Regional Entertainer of the Year

by Sydni Hampton

Each year, hopeful contestants from Arizona to New York, descend upon Louisville in hopes of being crowned the next National Entertainer of the Year. Winners include the likes of Maya Douglas (1997, F.I.,) Erica Andrews (2006, F.I.,) Nina West (2008, F.I., RuPauls Drag Race,) Mokha Montrese (2012, F.I.,) and Trinity “The Tuck” Taylor (2014, F.I., RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars) to name just a few notable winners in the system’s long and diverse history. 

To get the opportunity to compete on the national stage, each contestant must compete in a preliminary competition. One such preliminary competition, or simply, ‘prelim,’ is Kentucky Regional Entertainer of the Year and one such promoter is Russ Lemons. Lemons is a celebrated promoter within the system, having won SEVERAL awards for Promoter of the Year alongside his co-promoter Anson Klaber during his long legacy with the system. We discussed this year’s competition, his hopes for the system and why he is so passionate about pageantry.

Sydni: Russ, thank you so much for joining me today. I wanted to know, what are your hopes for Kentucky Regional Entertainer of the Year 2023, as well as for Nationals?

Russ: Obviously, our goal is to produce winners. We have a history of producing winners and, in fact, we’ve never had a contestant who didn’t place in the top 5. What we’re trying to do is find talent, preferably local talent, that we can give them the tools to build their brand and take it to the next level as national figures.

SH: How is it that this prelim accomplishes this?

RL: We want to help position them as entertainers in a way that gives them access to the opportunities to market themselves and their brand not only in Kentucky but nationally.

SH: Shontelle [reigning National Entertainer of the Year] is an excellent example of someone who’s been able to use their reign to travel and grow not only their own brand, but the awareness of the system.

RL: I was telling someone recently that outside of being well known in Kentucky and in Florida, there is no place in this country where people don’t know who Shontelle Sparkles is. This is because of her own work, of course, the effort she’s put in, but she was able to put in that work because she was put in a position to win the national title and become a national figure.

SH: Now she gets to travel from state to state, prelim to prelim, meeting other promoters, event organizers, club owners, she gets to make her appearance at these prelims representing the system and her own brand. I’ve seen there are a few new prelims that have started up during her year as well. Getting those new prelims set up and going is tough work, but getting those to be successful make you look REAL good during your reign. 

RL: There are a total of 26 prelims for F.I. and 14 for Mr. This will be the largest national pageant in the country this year.

SH: That’s really impressive. What do you say to people who feel that drag pageantry is dying out? I know there’s a lot of folks who feel that because of social media and RuPaul’s Drag Race that the culture around pageants is dying.

RL:  I don’t believe pageantry is dying. People are still paying attention to pageants. If you look at many of the contestants on Drag Race, many of the most successful queens have come from a pageant background. Trinity “The Tuck” Taylor, Alyssa Edwards, Shangela, Brooke Lynn Hytes, Sasha Colby… all queens who’ve competed and won many pageants.

SH: Pageantry is a skill, one that lends itself very well to televised drag competitions. Pageants such as EOY require contestants to be able to speak eloquently, have an eye for minute details. There’s a self-awareness that pageantry teaches you, which is evident when you look at the former winners throughout the many systems that exist today.

As a promoter, what is it that you do to better the system and support your competitors so they can develop all of these skills?

RL: Our goal is to develop relationships. My job is to support them and to bring them into this family. As a promoter, my goal is to develop strong relationships with my competitors and to support them in their journey. Whether you’re a title holder, whether you do well or come dead last, you’re part of this family. 

Shout out to Russ Lemons for taking time to talk pageants with me. We usually only get to do this at the bar during pageants, so it was nice to sit and gossip about BTS happenings going on in the pageant world. We spoke more about what needs to happen for pageantry to evolve and Russ had this to say, “we must become more tech savvy, have an online presence to be visible,” and one way I feel like we can see pageantry evolve is to capture the attention of performers who don’t believe they would fit into pageant culture or that it’s not for their ‘kind’ of art. I’m a pageant collector, I buy the DVD sets or digital copies of different EOY years to study and share with friends when we’re all having a girls day. If these were as easily accessible as Drag Race and Dragula are, I think we’d see more interest in being a part of these competitions, from a much wider range of subsets within drag culture, much like we see with Drag Race and Dragula.

If you would like to see what all the fuss is about, come see the competition firsthand when Kentucky Regional Entertainer of the Year honors Shontelle Sparkles and Jericho Habib, the reigning Miss F.I. and Mr. National Entertainer of the Year 2022. The competition will be hosted by Former Miss NEOY, F.I., 2021 Paris Campbell and Louisville’s own Tova Ura Vitch of Need for Bling and will be held at Art Sanctuary on May 28, 2023. For more information visit the Kentucky Regional EOY Facebook Page.

National Entertainer of the Year will be at the Melwood Arts Center July 21-23. Tix are available at

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