The Beaver Queen Pageant is not a beauty pageant with a twist. Rather, it's a beauty pageant with a lot of twists. More twists and turns than its longtime beneficiary, Durham's Ellerbe Creek Watershed.
For starters, its contestants dress up as beavers. In drag.
Still with us? Good. Now note that points are taken off if contestants' tails aren't at least partially, um, functional. Engineering is essential.
Contestants assume various alter egos. This year's winner was a comer named Scarlett O'Beavah. Ostensibly, the lovelies are judged on the quality of their tail, evening wear, stage presence, something called wetland-ready wear and talent—which almost invariably involves pop songs rewritten for the occasion. (One year featured a mysterious contestant known only as Belvis.)
But at this pageant, the judges are gleefully on the take, available to the highest bidder—once, that is, they've bought their way into their seats. The more budget-conscious vote-riggers can help fudge the selection process by stuffing the ballot box with the perfectly good votes they've paid for. With their own (or other people's) money.
In the tradition of the other kind of voter-financed elections that have marred North Carolina politics for too long, this exercise in civic representation isn't merely pay-to-play: It's strictly cash-and-carry.
Over the past six years, the pageant has substantially raised the visibility of its namesake—the beavers that have now made an unlikely lodge in a wetland behind a Roxboro Road strip mall. "The attention they've drawn has cleaned up that natural resource," notes Duke Park resident Bill Anderson. "I can remember the Cub Scouts coming down to that marsh and pulling out five tons of trash in the early days.
"You go there now, it's just amazingly clean, when in the old days it was a dump zone."
But the Beaver Queen Pageant has done more than exhort neighbors to clean up an environmental eyesore. The $15,000 they've raised over the past half decade has helped the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association buy the wetlands the beavers call home this past year, as a part of their land trust efforts in acquiring and protecting ecologically significant areas in Durham's urban environment. Their philanthropy has been "an enormous help in mobilizing the community to steward and maximize the benefits of the Beaver Marsh and our other preserves," says Diana Tetens, the association's executive director.
Still, this family-friendly neighborhood party and environmental, philanthropic endeavor started out as something significantly different. Picture an underground, after-hours drag pageant in 2005 led by activist Katherine O'Brien.
"Actually, it's mainly your fault," O'Brien told us during our interview. "The Independent Weekly used to host the Queen of the Triangle competition. To compete, I think you had to have been crowned something."
At the time, O'Brien and her compatriots in a group known as Beaver Lodge 1504 were starting to play with the whole idea of what drag is. "Why couldn't anybody be a queen? So we were like, let's have a pageant and crown a Beaver Queen so we could have our queen compete in the Independent's pageant.
"And so," she continued, "25 to 30 of us snuck into Duke Park at night with a karaoke machine. I think there were five contestants. And under cover of darkness, with pirated electricity, we held the first Beaver Queen Pageant in 2005."
What was originally planned as a one-shot gradually took on a life of its own. In its second year, the pageant's first "celebrity judge," Sgt. Dale Gunther of the Durham Police Department, was surprised—or ambushed—when, after taking his place on stage in uniform, as requested, he found himself surrounded by the other judges. "The first one was dressed as an Indian," Anderson says. "The second was dressed as a biker dude. Suddenly he finds himself part of the Village People—whether he likes it or not."
That was also the year the festival's charitable donations began—when a contestant's father offered to bribe the judges if they'd select his daughter as Beaver Queen.
"The light went off," recalls festival blogger and 2010 judge Barry Ragin. O'Brien says, "Suddenly we had this little pile of money, and someone said, 'Give it to Ellerbe Creek.' Because the beavers were there, close to the greenway, and Ellerbe Creek was a small organization that touched a lot of our neighborhoods."
But serious fundraising requires serious organizational chops, and that's where Tetens says O'Brien has been formidable. "Fundraising is typically dry, and of course there are a lot of onerous chores involved in coordinating it all together," Tetens says. "[O'Brien] makes it fun, full of spirit and enjoyment."
Ragin concurs. "She's the heart and soul of what we do," he says.
The next year, the group decided to grow the philanthropic mission—in the most improbable manner. "We said, 'Well, it's always been a little corrupt—why not play with the notion of corruption and corrupt politics?'" O'Brien says.
In the time after Gore, Bush and hanging chads, the organizers "pitted the people against the judges—passing out ballots, saying people had to poke through them to vote—but not giving anyone the tools they needed to do it. So it became corrupt," O'Brien cheerfully recalls.
"Now the contestants' teams are like lobbyists: giving the judges booze, giving them food, singing to them, giving them shoulder massages."
"I think the kids need to learn about the political process too," O'Brien says." I like to think we're educational—keeping it real for these kids."
Of course, the children at this event may be too focused on the kids' pool and other diversions to pick up on some of the finer points of civic corruption—or the social satire that's this contest's bread and butter. "They're absolutely having a ball," notes Anderson. "And they just can't understand why their parents are so hysterical; the double entendres go just straight over their heads." Architect Ellen Cassilly, one the nominators, agrees. "The idea is it's a family event. The kids are just having a great time on a hot summer night."
Corrections (July 21, 2010): The print version of this story included two quotes without proper attribution; the above text has been corrected.