Homeless at age 16 after his parents kicked him out for being gay, Justin Natvig was looking for answers as to what to do with his life. He found his purpose while watching a show at a gay bar.

He was going to be a drag queen. And he was going to be one of the best.

Eighteen years later, Natvig, who is better known by his stage name Vivian Vaughn, fulfilled the dream as she won the Miss Gay North Carolina America pageant last August.

Vaughn will be in Charlotte Aug. 10-12 to help crown her successor at the 36th Miss Gay North Carolina America pageant at the Scorpio nightclub. The winner of the state pageant will go on to compete in the 44th annual Miss Gay America pageant, the world’s first and longest running female impersonator pageant.

Vaughn has had a busy year with pageant competitions, but also with charity work. She is chair this year for the Crape Myrtle Festival, one of the oldest non-profit organizations in the area which supports HIV/AIDS testing and service initiatives. She is very proud of the fact that through various fundraisers such as drag brunches, raffles and date auctions, the organization is expected to raise nearly $100,000 this year.

She also got press coverage this year when she was tagged in a Facebook post by a young 19-year-old woman who was at Duke Hospital awaiting a heart transplant. The young woman said she had been taken to Pride festivals when younger and would be so glad if a drag queen would come visit her.

Vaughn worked with three other drag queens and organized an event at the hospital and spent an hour or two with her. But Vaughn said the opposite occurred. “We tried to cheer her up, but the gift was more to us. She was inspiring. I realized I have things so much better than I thought.”

One of the best things that Vaughn said has come out of being in the pageants is the relationship with former winners. “There are amazing people to look up to,” Vaughn said. “The sisterhood between Miss Gay North Carolinas is amazing! It’s like you have been inducted into a family.”

That fellowship has been one of the many things that has helped Vaughn. “I have had a lot of tragedy in my life,” she said, “but it was worth it. Miss Gay North Carolina gives you structure.”

For Vaughn, participating in pageants came naturally once she found out about them. “Since I was a child, I used to go into my grandmother’s attic,” she said. “There was all of this vintage clothing, shoes and hats, and I used to lock myself in my room, dressing up in the clothes and doing shows for myself in the mirror.”

Moving to North Carolina at age 11, Vaughn knew she was different. After the confrontation with her parents, she was kicked out, dropped out of high school and began working to take care of herself. She also began to visit gay venues. That fateful night at CC’s nightclub in Raleigh, N.C., she was captivated by the show. “I had always enjoyed dressing as a woman, and I realized that others did, too,” Vaughn said.

Shortly after that she began to take her baby steps as a drag queen, but was mostly self-taught. “I would stare at their faces, and then try to imitate them using drugstore makeup, but it wouldn’t work. I didn’t realize that you needed professional make-up,” Vaughn said.

She learned to make her own hair and wigs, but quickly realized that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. “I knew then I wasn’t ready to be in a pageant,” Vaughn said. “But for me, it has always been the America system. I set my sights on it. I helped others with the pageant. I learned as I watched.”

The Miss Gay America pageant system is modeled on the Miss America pageant, Vaughn explained, with a focus on old Hollywood or Broadway style of entertainment. It is the only one that requires that you be a man and prohibits the use of female hormones or having undergone any feminizing surgery. In fact, the first element of the pageant is a male interview, where the contestant goes dressed in a suit to sit down with the judges. “The judges want to see how you have integrated female impersonation with your male life,” Vaughn said.

Photo Credit: D.J. Bonet V’lentino & After Six Photography Studios.
Photo Credit: D.J. Bonet V’lentino &
After Six Photography Studios.

Vaughn found quickly that he was very good at the male interview section, and has won that part of the pageant a number of times.

The other elements are done on stage, including solo talent, with a three-minute presentation of something you can do by yourself. Contestants may sing or dance or do other talent, but many lip-sync a piece of music. Then comes the evening gown competition which Vaughn said demonstrates simplicity and modeling, showing off how closely the contestant can impersonate a woman. Then there is an on-stage question where there is a brief answer while wearing the evening gown.

The biggest and final element is talent, which is a seven-minute presentation which can be anything you want. It is typically lip-sync, Vaughn said, but may include backdrops, scenery, props and dancers leading to a crescendo finish, much in the Hollywood or Broadway style.

Inspired by what she saw in the pageants, Vaughn set her sights high, and recognized that she could do anything she set her mind to. So she moved to Greenville, N.C., where she got her GED and then an associate’s degree at a community college. She also entered her first city preliminary there, finishing 13th out of 14 contestants.

Undeterred, she aimed to do something no one else in her family had ever done: graduate from a four-year college. She was accepted as a transfer student to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then graduated from there in 2010. She eventually ended up getting the job where she currently works, for a logistics company that ships a large amount of humanitarian aid around the world.

As the years passed, Vaughn did not give up her dream, knowing she had so much to learn, so she waited for the right time. “I wasn’t going to go back until I could hold my own,” she said.

That right time came in 2014 when she entered the Miss Gay Raleigh America pageant and won. Vaughn finished in the top five in the state competition, but then took a year off to deal with health issues. She also took that time to watch the various pageants and began to plan carefully.

The planning paid off as she worked all year and easily won the preliminary event, then was named Miss Gay North Carolina last August. The cost was high, however, with Vaughn estimating that she spent $20,000 on props, costumes and dancers.

By the time she reached the national event, she was exhausted, and finished 22 out of 50 contestants. But she is not done.

She is planning on going to a regional pageant in the near future and seek to qualify one more time with her goal to be Miss Gay America. And she believes it will happen.

“I’m living proof that anything you want for yourself you can do. Who thought I would be a graduate of the University of North Carolina? And who thought I could be Miss Gay North Carolina?”

“You just need to believe in yourself.”