Utah was represented at the widely respected national Mr. Gay America pageant — the first time in its 40 years.
The organizers of the event, the country’s oldest gay male entertainment competition, indicated they could not recall a previous entrant from the Beehive State.
And it was a very admirable representation. Utahn Johnny Hebda qualified to advance at the very competitive California regional pageant, one of many nationwide with hundreds of competitors. At the Las Vegas national event on Oct. 4–5, he was recognized in the top ten within 19 vying for the national crown.
The achievement is even more notable, considering it was his first pageant. Nearly all of Hebda’s competitors had the experience of being judged at several pageants, with many winning similar titles in the process.
“Making top 10 in nationals on my first try for Mr. Gay America and first at the first night’s Red Carpet Fashion division is something I can be proud of,” he said. “I have a lot to learn still, but it has been a growing experience. My performing abilities, my confidence, my stage presence, my personal branding and fashion, my ability to communicate, interview, think on my feet, and creativity have all improved.
“I will be back with more knowledge, better prepared, and ready to move those scores up when I return to compete in 2024.”
His category-winning red-carpet suit was designed by Sebastian Cruz Couture with a nod to “The Great Gatsby” era in royal blue colors to invoke authority, trust and confidence.
For the talent portion, Hebda sang portions of five Elvis hits with trans dancer Mia Beverly Hillz and drag dancer Hoe Shi Minh, in glittery period-suggested costumes, and Hebda in detailed Elvis outfits. The message the trio conveyed was protecting trans rights in the current divisive political climate.
The final song in the medley was “If I Can Dream,” adapting lyrics from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. When Colonel Tom Parker heard the demo of the protest song, he said, “This ain’t Elvis’ kind of song,” and there were other naysayers. Famous lines are “If I can dream of a better land / Where all my brothers walk hand in hand / Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true?”
To perform this song, Hebda was outfitted in a custom design of Elvis’ iconic white jumpsuit, but with large rhinestones in the colors of the trans flag and “Trans Lives Matter” emblazoned on the back of the cape in large pink and blue letters.
“Elvis was frequently targeted by politicians for his threat to racial integration,” Hebda explained. “I feel politicians and conservatives are unfairly using the trans community as a target as well right now to raise fears and rally their base.”
Kevin Carlson, the first runner-up in Las Vegas, said, “the exceptionally diverse group of contestants made the event a complete joy. There was no shade, no shenanigans, no cut-throat behavior; only a complete bond over spirit and helpfulness.”
It required several months of rehearsals — with a large cash investment — and coaching sessions in several categories for Hebda to be competition-ready.
“It has been an absolutely incredible experience being mentored by Salt Lake showgirl Gia Bianca Stephens,” he said.
Gia previously competed at Mr. Gay America’s sister competition, Miss Gay America, and has been crowned Miss Fire Island, Miss Gay New York America, and Utah’s Miss Great Beehive State.
“She has been an amazing coach and mentor, helping me navigate this journey for the very first time,” he added. She is a true inspiration and a captivating beacon, not only for me but for countless other leaders within the LGBTQ+ community in Salt Lake City.”
Gia responded: “Johnny, making the top ten at your first national pageant is a major accomplishment.”
Additional talents assisting him in his quest were choreographer Julie Rasmussen Nygard, music director Anne Puzey, costume designer M’Lady Wood, and hair and makeup designer Kate Loveland, he said. In total, Hebda drafted a team of 15 to help him prepare.
Hebda is no stranger to the Salt Lake City queer community. Along with raising funds for the state’s gay non-profit groups, he initiated the popular Skyfall Circuit Nights and Loud & Queer nights, presenting Todrick Hall and Thelma Houston. He was the founding artistic director of Utah Repertory Theater Company, which boldly produced several infrequently staged gay-themed shows such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Angels in America,” “Afterglow,” “Bare: A Pop Opera,” and “Straight.”
Five Husbands Vodka sponsored Hebda.