Rhode Island’s Imperial Court Celebrates 25 Years of Excellence

State Crown of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island

Photo by Josh McKenney of Modern Revolution Photography

By Bradford Greer

The Imperial Court System began in 1965 when the Tavern Guild of San Francisco joined together in solidarity against police harassment.  They produced the Beaux Arts Ball – the largest drag ball in history.  In its third year, José Julio Sarr, a World War II veteran and the first openly gay candidate for public office, was declared the Queen of the Ball as The Widow Norton.  She promptly declared herself Empress.  With that declaration, the Imperial Court System was born and the charitable organization grew across the country, embracing the formality and protocol of the English monarchy.  Their camp titles underscore a joyous spirit to accomplish their goals, which are to raise money and social awareness.  The Court is governed by a nine-member board of directors who are in charge of the activities.  The Widow Norton was honored in Providence with a Ball on her 90th birthday and passed away in 2013.

Ralph Martino, left, and BB Hayes, right, are crowned the first Baron and Baroness of Rhode Island,1991.  The ICRI had not been formed at this time, but instead the titles were under the Connecticut Court reign.

Ralph Martino, left, and BB Hayes, right, are crowned the first Baron and Baroness of Rhode Island,1991. The ICRI had not been formed at this time, but instead the titles were under the Connecticut Court reign.

The mission and purpose of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island is to raise charitable funds and perform noble deeds for the community at large, as well as offer an outlet for social interaction among those who share the same interests.

BB Hayes (Brian Leguerre) was the drag protégé of Lee Daniels (Brian Perico).  He was friendly with Ralph Martino when both worked the RI Pageant Circuit.  They decided to attend an Imperial Court event in Connecticut to see what it was all about and were impressed with the pageantry and dedication to fundraising.  They became the first Baron and Baroness of Rhode Island under the Connecticut Courts reign.

The two Brians teamed with Ralph Martino and Fitzgerald Himmelsbach, who owned Union Street Station and was the gay liaison to Mayor Cianci, to give the Court the proper organizational structure it required.  They became a 501(c)(3) organization, then put together the applications and sponsorships required to open the first reign of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island in 1992.

BB Hayes, center, is crowned Her Imperial Majesty Empress I, the Underwire Empress, at Coronation I, 1992.

BB Hayes, center, is crowned Her Imperial Majesty Empress I, the Underwire Empress, at Coronation I, 1992.

It was AIDS in the 90s and people were afraid to shake hands or kiss on the cheek, much less anything else without significant protection.  Ryan White had died and Matthew Shepard was murdered.  We were Acting Up!

The gay community needed serious money.  No one was funding AIDS research.  Our friends, our lovers, members of our chosen families, and members in our community were dying.  They were losing their jobs, their homes, and their motor skills.  Money was needed for necessities such as expensive pharmaceuticals, housing, food, and utilities.  No one had the time or temperament for dilettantes.  Not in fundraising.  Not in the Imperial Court.

The newly minted Court threw the first Coronation Ball by the seat of their pants.  They really had no idea how to put one together that would honor all the majesty and protocol that was required.  The Stephen Sondheim lyric, “Never Judge a Book by its Cover” sung by Cleo Lane was the song BB Hayes sang to win the title Her Imperial Majesty Empress I, the Underwire Empress.  Ralph Martino was crowned His Imperial Majesty Emperor I,  Raffeale Domenico DeAngelisio Martino:  The White Orchid and Diamond Emperor I. 

Kenneth Cote, left, and LaDiva Jonz, center, are crowned Emperor and Empress V, 1996.

Kenneth Cote, left, and LaDiva Jonz, center, are crowned Emperor and Empress V, 1996.

It was a prophetic song for an organization that seemed frivolous to those had never heard of it.  The organization raised enough money to turn heads in astonishment.  The ICRI was able to bring financial relief to many of the suffering within the gay community of Rhode Island. There were many who wrote checks which were greatly needed and appreciated.  The ICRI  were the people who got the people to write those checks and contribute copious amounts of cash.

While HIV/AIDS is not the vitally urgent crisis it was in the ‘90s, people are still contracting the disease. AIDS Care Ocean State and AIDS Project RI are still disbursing funds to those affected by it.  The ICRI has extended its work further into the community to help other organizations in need such as Options Magazine and Interweave at Channing Memorial Church who sponsor the Born This Way Prom, both beneficiaries of this year’s Coronation.

From March 30 to April 2, Rhode Island will host an impressive list of Imperial Court Emperors, Empresses, Lords, Ladies, Princes, and Princesses performing and on display.  They will come from New York, Canada, Boston, DC and across the country to celebrate Coronation XXV.  It is a Silver jubilee celebration for an unorthodox organization that has come to the financial rescue of so many in our community for so many years.

“It is a Silver jubilee celebration for an unorthodox organization that has come to the financial rescue of so many in our community for so many years.”

From left to right, Emperor XVIII “Big Daddy” Austen Daniels, Ms. Lesbian RI 2010 Tara Gianfrancesco, Empress XVIII Jacqueline DiMera, Mr. Gay RI 2010 Benjamin Huber at Coronation XVIII “Gangsters, Girdles & Glitter,” April 17, 2010.

From left to right, Emperor XVIII “Big Daddy” Austen Daniels, Ms. Lesbian RI 2010 Tara Gianfrancesco, Empress XVIII Jacqueline DiMera, Mr. Gay RI 2010 Benjamin Huber at Coronation XVIII “Gangsters, Girdles & Glitter,” April 17, 2010.

 


Organizing the celebration will be Austen Bourassa, perhaps more popularly known as Emperor XVIII, Big Daddy Austen Daniels.  Austen, a past president and four-time vice president, will be coordinating the festivities for the ninth time.  May will mark his sixteenth year as a member of the court.  During that time he has also been a Lord, twice an Imperial Crowned Prince, and a Prince.

According to Austen, planning for the Ball takes over a year.  It has happened that the dates for one ball are finalized before the current ball takes place.  Preparations happen throughout the year to create a solid theme, plan the food, design and put together the ball book, and handle performance requests for the weekend.  Later, planning rehearsals and the essential set-up and break-down of the ball itself become quite time-consuming.  As the day draws nearer, it is truly an all-hands-on-deck situation for members of the Court.  The excitement and sense of collegiality is so contagious that when visiting dignitaries from other courts arrive, some can be found behind the scenes helping each other out.  They all know how difficult it can be when you’re entertaining visiting royalty for the weekend.

And what a weekend it is.  It begins with cocktails Thursday at The Village to meet and greet, followed by the Out of Town Show at the Dark Lady Friday night.  Saturday morning sees more hospitality. 

Saturday evening brings the much anticipated ball.  It is a strictly formal event held at The Biltmore with dinner, the crowning ceremony, and the presentation Protocol to be presented to the outgoing Monarchs.  An Empress being crowned must wear a white gown that touches the floor and white gloves are required.  The men must wear a tux, military dress uniform, kilt, dress leather or equivalent, and dress gloves.  The Court is investigating a gender neutral line of dress which would be just as formal as the men’s and women’s style. 

Despite his evening’s busy schedule, Austen makes time to see a bit of every performance and tips every entertainer.  Most meaningful for him is the announcement of the winner of the $1,000 scholarship that he created along with  Empress XVIII Jaqueline DiMera.  The scholarship supports an LGBT college applicant or one who was raised by a parent or guardian who identifies as LGBT.

On Sunday there is the Victory Brunch for handing out titles and making proclamations.  That is followed by a relaxed wind-down party at The Eagle.

Empress XII Jade Love, left, and Emperor VI & XVII Scott Connery, center, of the ICRI, with Empress IV Verna Turbulence of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts, right, at Coronation XIX,  April 16, 2011.

Empress XII Jade Love, left, and Emperor VI & XVII Scott Connery, center, of the ICRI, with Empress IV Verna Turbulence of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts, right, at Coronation XIX, April 16, 2011.

The ICRI bestows a crown to winners. It must be returned but they may keep the scepter.  The cost of the jewelry and the extensive wardrobe needed for performances and appearances during the year are the expense of  contestants and winner.  This can easily exceed a monthly mortgage or car payment.  Travel to other Coronations around the country is also on their tab, attendance at no fewer than three other events is required.  Being a member of the Imperial Court is an extensive commitment of time, finances and fashion, all for charity.  And glamour.

What is underneath all that pomp and pompadour?  The heart and soul of the men and women of the Imperial Court

“What is underneath all that pomp and pompadour? The heart and soul of the men and women of the Imperial Court”

Angela Soprano-Butana, left, being crowned Empress XXIII while Empress I BB Hayes, center, holds the state crown and Emperor XVIII “Big Daddy” Austen Daniels, right, leads the ceremony at Coronation XXIII, April 18, 2015.

Angela Soprano-Butana, left, being crowned Empress XXIII while Empress I BB Hayes, center, holds the state crown and Emperor XVIII “Big Daddy” Austen Daniels, right, leads the ceremony at Coronation XXIII, April 18, 2015.

For twenty-five years they have pledged themselves to raise money and promote social awareness from monarchy to monarchy, each in their own unique way.  The glitter and glamour, music and dance are the make-up that enables their generosity to come out in larger than life form.  That’s important when you’re raising larger-than-life money: nearly $500,000 according to their website.

There is not a current candidate for Emperor.  The court will canvass the regents of Past Emperors for a willing and suitable candidate to appoint.  However, for the first time in over ten years there are two candidates running for Empress.

INTRODUCING GINGAH RAYLE

3--GingahRayleJeremy Giroux was terrified of drag queens when he was a bartender at The Loft.  In 2001 he met Kitty Litter at a fundraiser there who talked him into a dress and some hair. Another bartender made fun of his RI accent and christened him Gingah Rayle.   Kitty Litter and Jade Love made her their drag-daughter and Jeremy embraced  a whole new adventure.

Back in 2005 there was an uproar concerning the accuracy of the results of RI Pride’s Triple Crown Pageant, where she was competing to be crowed Miss Gay RI.  A recount of the votes became necessary and Gingah sashayed off with her first crown.  The drama later turned into a soap opera farce when Gingah declared she was pregnant and registered at Babies R Us and Target.  She announced that her water broke at the Who’s-the-Baby-Daddy shower; incidentally, the triplets were fathered by the reigning Emperor of the ICRI.  The scandal played out in monthly installments written by Gingah in Options Magazine.  The attention and publicity were another brick in building the bridge between RI Pride and the Imperial Court.

Lee Daniels and Jade Love brought her into the house as The Lady Gingah Rayle and from there she became Empress XV: The Dizzy-Fizzy, Fuzzy Slipper, Effervescent, Pink Diamond, Girl Next Door Empress in 2007.  This time around she is hoping to invigorate the court, improve visibility and give a boost to the membership as HIM Empress XXV. 

PROCLAIMING LORD KEVIN

IMG_0154Roxiie Van Cartier is an iconic amalgamation of characters from Kevin Camara’s two favorite movies: Roxie from “Chicago” and Delores Van Cartier in “Ghost.”   Emperor I Ralph Martino gave him his first costume for the “Rome Invades Egypt” event.  It was a toga; Ralph cut it too short and it looked like a dress.  Kevin had such a great time that he joined and was later proclaimed “Lord Kevin.” He was just 18 – the youngest member of the court when he joined.

Kevin traveled with his job and under the cover of anonymity decided to try drag. He placed first-runner-up in the Miss Gay Philadelphia contest.  Since, Lord Kevin has been a member of the Court for the last ten years, he thinks the time is right for him to step up and give more to the community. 

Sojourner House has a special place in Kevin’s heart.  They have opened their doors not just to gay men who have been in abusive relationships but to straight men as well.  He is also looking into substance abuse charities in an effort to help members of the community embrace better health.  He would like to expand the charitable hand of the ICRI to include more housing and providing food.  He has been inspired and supported by Gia Devereaux who started doing drag at about the same time.   Kevin’s boyfriend Antonio has also been a main support for him.

STEPPING DOWN

IMG_2171Regent Empress Gia Devereaux, The Black Diamond Bombshell Keeper of the Silver Jubilee, joined the court in 2009 when he worked as a host at Club Gallery.  He was encouraged to join because of his talent and it turned out to be a great fit.  He and Vi’let used to perform duets together.  Eric Cimochowski became Empress XXI prior to turning age 30.  As a young drag queen he has had some uncomfortable moments in dress shops where he was told they didn’t have any gowns in a size larger than a 10, or awkwardly refused service at all.  Others were more kind or embracing and offered a private dressing room.  The ICRI has given him close friendships and the family he never had. Gia was tapped as a regent to step in as Empress XIV.  Keep it simple was Gia’s advice.  Compromise.  Focus on the community.

Regent Emperor Belle A Pellagrino, the Lion King Emperor of Fetish and Pleasure, Keeper of the Silver Jubilee, was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president.  She has never had a stage name, has been mistaken for a man for most of her life and has been one of the only two Drag Kings of the ICRI for 13 or 14 years.  Ryder Hard, Emperor XXII was the other.  She has always been active in the community as a member of SAGE, a speaker with the Metropolitan Community Church, and one of the original 76ers: first participants in the first RI Pride Parade.  Her first song was the Battle of New Orleans, a hit from 1959.  She was Emperor XVI and had  not expected to do it again, but it has been a good year.   With the change in Washington politics, Belle has decided  that she would still like to continue working for the community.