New York City always has a significant amount of drag to choose from nightly, but there are some events that bring the entire drag and nightlife community together for one fantastic cause, and that’s Miss Hell’s Kitchen. The brainchild of New York City event planner Shane Terenzi, the legacy of MHK is lofty; from New York City dynamos like Bootsie LeFaris (2012), Tina Burner (2013) & Brenda Dharling (2014) & Vita Summers (2016) to pre RuPaul’s Drag Race superstars Monet X Change (2015) and Peppermint (Honorary MHK) to the current 2018 winner, Lady SinAGaga, the bar has been set beyond high for the year’s contestants. As the competition gets ready to kick off on Saturday May 4th, I caught up with Terenzi to talk about how the idea for Miss Hell’s Kitchen was born, how the community involvement in the event keeps MHK so unique, and why there is “no better brand than Miss Hell’s Kitchen”
Michael Cook: Shane, tell me what sparked the idea for you to start Miss Hell’s Kitchen in the first place?
Shane Terenzi: The idea for Miss Hell’s Kitchen began because I decided to participate in AIDS LifeCycle, a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to raise money for HIV/AIDS research and prevention. To ride, you needed to raise $3000.00 by encouraging people to host fundraisers in your community. At the time, I was living in Hell’s Kitchen and working at Therapy Bar. Hell’s Kitchen was my community and I knew that I wanted to involve my community in my fundraiser. What better way than to bring the best entertainers together, to raise money for a great cause, and see a fabulous show?!
Between the first and second year, I lost one of my best friends to HIV complications. Kyle was there helping with the pageant in March and tragically taken from us in September. This is what keeps MHK going. We need to find a cure for HIV/AIDS and I will do whatever I can to continue to fight until we do.
(Honey Davenport MHK Evening Gown 2018)
MC: What about your pageant did you want to be sure to recreate from other pageants? Conversely, what about other pageants did you want to be sure to not recreate?
ST: Pageantry was relatively new concept in the NYC scene. Of course, there were the national systems and some smaller bar pageants, but not a charity pageant. Knowing of the national systems, I wanted to bring the same element of prestige and class to the pageant. I also wanted to make sure the level of production was like none other around. That is why, after the first year, we moved to an off-Broadway professional theater. It allows the contestants to bring an unedited package – giving them the platform to truly express themselves. These queens are donating their time and effort, and putting a lot of money into their presentation. They deserve to have it in a grand space.
The one thing that I have seen in some other pageants around the nation is it being political or having favoritism. With MHK, there is no predetermined winner or favorite. Whatever you bring that night determines who wins. The judges are a diverse panel – not only in the nightlife scene – allowing a clean slate to be judged. You bring an amazing package, you win!
(Brenda Dharling/Shane Terenzi, MHK 2013)
MC: How do you promote sisterhood, be it for the girls on your stage or in your own community?
ST: We are part of an amazing community. Within that community we need to support each other and be there for each other. That is the intention of MHK – raising funds for the people that need it the most. Although the pageant is a competition, our queens are all there supporting each other as they chose to do this on their own. Our prize package isn’t the grandest, but our title is among the most honorable. We do fundraisers throughout the year in the community that involve past contestants, winners as well as people who just want to lend a hand.
(Miss Hell’s Kitchen 2018 Lady SinAGaga, Photo By Preston Burford)
MC: What does it take for someone to snag the crown of Miss Hell’s Kitchen? What are some of her responsibilities during the year?
ST: To snag the crown for MHK you better bring your “A” game! These queens are at the top of their profession and all have proven themselves on their own. Understanding that each category: Presentation, Beachwear, Talent, and Evening Gown, hold their own challenges and figuring out where your strengths lie within them, prove to bring out the front runners.
During the year, MHK is a representative of our organization. She will attend several HIV/AIDS fundraisers, encourages community involvement, and will be there for the community. She is supportive, helpful and inspirational. For the past three years, we have donated the money we raise to Cycle for the Cause – so being an advocate for The Center is also a critical role.
(MHK Opening Number 2013)
MC: So how hard was it for you to orchestrate an entire pageant? Was it anything like you dreamed it was when you first had the idea?
ST: Although there is a great feeling of accomplishment at the end of the pageant every year, I would not say it’s the easiest event to produce (and I am an event producer for a living)! The first year, my close friends came together and helped with whatever was needed. When I decided to move it to a professional theater, I definitely needed to bring in more help. So, I developed a board of producers. Everyone donates their time and works together to produce MHK. We have had professional producers, past MHK contestants and people who just wanted to help! This year the amazing producers are Richard JMV, Tina Burner, Logan Fletcher, Peter Kontos, and Chad Sapp. Without them, this event would not happen.
(Richard Schieffer & Shane Terenzi On-Stage W/Aids Life Cycle Representation)
MC: What inspires you as a creative person in your community?
ST: As the drag world continues to evolve, I draw inspiration from the queens that perform every night. Watching their craft is truly amazing. From the looks they create, the songs they perform, the audience they draw – the drag community is one artistic explosion.
MC: This is your own love letter to the community of Hell’s Kitchen. What about the HK made you fall in love with it enough to promote it as a brand of its own?
ST: MHK is a community like no other. It is comprised of people from every walk of life. It has the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It is real. I see friends come together on the regular to support one another. Right now, more than ever, we have to stand together and stand up for what we believe in. That happens every day in HK. What better brand is out there than that?
(Group Shot, Miss Hell’s Kitchen 2018)
MC: Any plans to branch out from Miss Hell’s Kitchen?
ST: Not as of yet! MHK continues each year because of the community that it is in. I would love for other communities to take the idea of MHK and run with it. Contact me and I’ll tell you what we do! The more charity pageants out there, the better. A crown is beautiful, but what you do with it can be even more beautiful. We have raised over $25,000 for our LGBTQIA+ community – let’s see how much more we can.
All Photographs Courtesy of Jeff Eason