Valerie Taylor heads to New Orleans for a shot at the crown

On July 9, Valerie Taylor was crowned Miss Gay Ohio America — the culmination of about 2.5 years of hard work in the local drag scene. But over a decade ago, a career as a professional female impersonator was a distant dream for Taylor, born Velden Benton Linn III, who worked as a television reporter for a small-market station in Bluefield, West Virginia.

“I did a lot of coal-country stories,” said Taylor, who will go on to compete in the Miss Gay America pageant in New Orleans beginning on Monday, Oct. 4. “There are a lot of counties that are very, very deprived and very poor there and so you're … talking to people that really don't have much.”

Taylor worked for another television station in Bristol, Tennessee, before leaving the broadcasting industry altogether. “It was a grind on me emotionally and physically, and, on top of that, I wanted to be [performing]. I wanted to be expressing this entertainer that's inside of me and I knew she was there … [but] I wouldn't ever be able to do that if I continued to be in the news business because they own your image,” she said.

So Taylor moved to Columbus in 2011 and took a temporary job with J.P. Morgan Chase, where she has since worked her way up to a high-level position in the communications department. Returning to Parkersburg, West Virginia, where she grew up, wasn't an option.

“I love my hometown,” she said. “[But] it's not the most liberal city. … There's not really an LGBT scene there.”

Taylor found a supportive drag community in Columbus, which she publicly entered via high-profile performer Nina West's “Think You Can Drag” competition at Axis Nightclub.

“I had a blast and ever since then it's been a whirlwind of trying to express this person inside me,” said Taylor, who first created her drag persona in college before taking a hiatus during her journalism career. “I'm very, very fortunate to have a lot of people around me that have helped me grow … and now I'm Miss Gay Ohio America, which is crazy.”

Taylor's first attempt at winning the crown took place last year. She won best male interview — other categories include solo talent, evening gown, onstage interview and a big production number — and placed as second alternate overall. “I fell in love with it,” said Taylor, who returned at the insistence of others in the industry, including 2016 winner Mary Nolan. “They continued to encourage me that this is something that I could attain if I worked really hard at it,” Taylor said.

“I didn't have the right gown choice last year,” she continued. “[And] I didn't have the right talent. … This year, I feel like I made better decisions. It took a village of having the right people in the right areas. … We built a very, very strong package.”

That package, including a “Mary Poppins”-based musical number, swept each category for the MGOA win at Axis.

“It was just so validating this year when she won,” said Taylor's friend and makeup artist, Brett Gunn. “I was in the crowd. I was screaming. I was crying. … Just to watch how much she has grown from where she was a year ago. She's really stepped it up.”

But Taylor has had little time to rest; preparations for the Miss Gay America pageant have been long and rigorous.

“Every day, as soon as I get home from work, I try to get done with one thing,” Taylor said. “From going to people in New York that do professional gown hair, to flying out to Vegas to get alterations to gowns … to rehearsing every Thursday night with a crew of eight people, [to] having people build props for me for the set.”

For the national competition, Taylor is keeping most of her presentation the same — with a few tweaks, including an expanded talent number, a slightly altered gown and a different hairstyle.

“I'm ready to go compete and just let the chips fall where they may,” she said.

Following the pageant, Taylor will return to Ohio to help find the next Miss Gay Ohio America. “It's important to me that we continue to build up the best [pageant] system in the state,” she said. “I'm very blessed to get to hold that mantle for the next year and show everyone why it's so special and why people need to come … and be a part of the sisterhood.”