Her late-night post on Facebook said it all. “So history has been made,” Jenelle Hutcherson wrote after becoming the first openly lesbian contestant in the Miss Long Beach (California) Pageant. “No crown and sash tonight, but doors opened that will never be shut again, many new friends and a whole new respect for the pageant world and what guts it takes to get up on that stage. On to Miss California USA!”
Hutcherson, a 26-year-old master hairstylist who works at Den Salon in the California coastal town of Long Beach, was the center of a media whirlwind surrounding the pageant, and unlike previous pageant attention when it comes to LGBT issues, this wasn’t because of a gaffe. Everyone embraced the woman who sports a mohawk, five tattoos, and piercings. Her press photos feature her with a No H8 motto and duct tape, and true to butch form, she made history by doing something else: wearing a tuxedo instead of a gown in the formal part of the pageant.
The attention and hard work wasn’t for naught. Even before the pageant began, Donald Trump, who runs the Miss California USA Pageant, had his office phone Hutcherson and invite her to compete on the statewide level. She didn’t even pause before accepting the challenge. The Bakersfield native, who is also a mentor at the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach, will carry her message of love, tolerance, and ending bullying to the Miss California Pageant, to be held this weekend at Palm Desert’s McCallum Theater. And whether she wins or not, she’ll make history. Even better? Besides those hundreds of new LGBT fans, her mother and stepfather (her dad died of AIDS when she was in grade school) are among her biggest supporters.
So many queer folks were excited to hear about your run for Long Beach. What was that like?
Jenelle Hutcherson: So many, I couldn’t believe it! It has been a humbling experience; I did this because Justin Rudd left me no reason to not participate but also because I could be myself. I, of course, have naysayers on both sides, though. You cannot make everyone happy. If anything, I did this for me, to make me happy. Turns out a whole bunch of other people thought it was a great idea too.
Did you wear a pantsuit instead of a gown? What was the reaction?
I wore a tuxedo. I bought a basic suit and tailored and added the tuxedo embellishments and my own style to it. The crowd went wild — absolutely insane.
What got you into pageantry to begin with?
It was decided over a random conversation with pageant director Justin Rudd. I asked how I could get involved after he told me about last year’s event, which was coming up at the time. And I was thinking hair, did he want a salon sponsor? To my surprise he ... said if I wanted to join I could. My wild hair and tattoos would be just fine. The only question for me at that point was that I’m not wearing a dress — it's not happening. Justin asked what I felt comfortable in and I said a tux. Justin’s reply was a shocker, one I will never forget. He said, “OK.” Justin believes his pageant to be fashion forward and accepting of all.
Hutcherson with Monique Villa
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Tell me about your copilot.
I have a wonderfully supportive belly-dancing journalist girlfriend, Masa Zokaei. She has been a part of all of this from the get-go. Even writing the first in-depth article on me for GreaterLongBeach.com [Editor’s note: Zokaei did a series about falling in love with Jenelle and learning their relationship would include a pageant, which can be read here.]
Everyone was riveted by the fact that you have tattoos, piercings, and a fauxhawk. Tell me about the tats.
I have five tattoos. The nautical stars on my wrists stand for my human choice to use my power for good and to help or hurt people. The lips on my neck are my mothers; I lost my dad at a young age, and it’s my kiss from an angel. The tattoo on my left forearm, reading “What goes around comes around,” shows my belief in karma and how what you put out there is what you get back. And my right forearm is an eye with a wooden stake, an eye for an eye, you reap what you sow.
You said they all reflect what you were going through at different points in your life. And the hawk?
I have had a huge back-combed hair-sprayed Mohawk for almost 10 years. My 16-year-old picture from my driver’s license has me with a hawk! [Laughs]
Pageants have been painted as un-feminist bastions of male oppression. You must feel differently. Tell me how you see pageants.
What I have experienced behind the scenes with these girls last Sunday was something I will never forget. Yes, there was a mirror borrowed or using someone else’s hot curling iron every once in a while, but overall there was a sense of camaraderie between all of us that I would have never expected. No tux or gowns ripped, no hair pulled or catfights. Like what an ignorant skeptic like myself before almost expected. It was a relieving and educating experience. The guts it takes to get up on that stage and intimidating runway is unreal.
No matter what happens on Friday, any regrets?
I am proud to have gone on this journey. I learned a lot about myself, the world around me, pageants, and what it takes, and I’ve helped people along the way and given hope to youth and peers. And most of all, I learned what it is like to take a walk in someone else’s shoes — or at least a walk into a foreign place where fear of vulnerability is your worst enemy. The girls that won worked their bloody heads off for the title. They deserve it.
Hutcherson and Masa Zokaei
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When did you first come out?
I came out when I was a junior in high school. It was the hardest time to, but I just couldn't hold it in any longer. However, I knew I was gay but did not understand my feelings when I was 5 years old. I had a crush on a girl in first grade. I would pick on her. I wanted her attention and that was the only way I knew how to get it, by being mean.
I read that you got a call from Donald Trump’s office.
I about fell over when I finally heard the message. I had been at work all day and it was 9:30 at night when I finally had a chance to listen. That's when I knew I was doing the right thing by following this journey and learning more about who I am, and along the way making a difference.
You were the first openly gay Miss Long Beach contestant. Have you heard of other openly lesbian pageant contestants?
I was the first “open” contestant and I had not ever heard of someone being gay in the pageants to be honest. Until doing this myself I didn’t know that apparently there are girls who are gay but just do not bring it up or blend right in with gowns and heels. I don't see what the big deal is to talk about it first. If these pageants really are about strong, young women helping their communities and embracing who they are… then I am exactly what they are looking for. I am strong and I want to help my community and I am doing exactly that.
You and Mollie Thomas will be the first openly gay Miss California competitors.
From what I understand, yes. It is hard for me to fathom that no one has challenged this yet. In a society that is so diverse we really do stay in our own comfort zones and don't try to blend lines that keep us apart and from better understanding one another.
Every Miss California contestant has a platform. What’s yours?
I am bringing a platform of anti-bullying and equality within a diverse community. I want every adult to think to themselves about a time they felt inferior or thought that who they were was not good enough or they were bullied. I want to ask them, how did it make you feel? I know for myself. It was when my father died of AIDS, when I was 10 years old; shortly after that I went into a dark depression, unhappy and angry and unhealthy. I didn't care about anything and put on a lot of weight. Then I grew up into high school and came out that I was gay.
That experience inspired you?
This all drew me toward wanting to be there for the youth today. So I became a mentor. Everyone has been bullied at a point in time and it never felt good then nor does it now. So we have to decide together as a society — all people — that we want to work together to create a better future for these kids. So equality within a diverse community is my understanding of “world peace.”
Is there a swimsuit competition? What do you wear for that?
Yes and not sure yet. [Laughs]
What do your parents think of all this?
They love what I am doing. I have had their full support from day one. My mom was my escort at the Miss Long Beach Pageant.