History is important to Coco Montrese—and now she’s part of it. Montrese is a permanent cast member at the Flamingo Resort in St. Petersburg, and also performs nationally. The Miami native never considered a career in female impersonation until studying theater and education at Alabama State in the 1990s. That’s where she met drag mentor Mocha Montrese.

“I was in the crowd…just amazed by her,” Montrese says. “But she walked up to me and said I was beautiful and that she wanted to put me in make-up.” The next thing Montrese knew he was in a gown, in makeup, getting tips from everyone in a nearby Alabama bar.

“I had never had a job,” Montrese said. “I focused on school. I saw this as an opportunity to make some money and not interfere with…school.” Montrese has continued to perform while holding down a day job as a performer with Walt Disney World the last 11 years. But her Disney job won’t make Coco Montrese go down in the history books. Being the 39th performer to wear the Miss Gay America crown will.

On Saturday, Feb. 27, Montrese was crowned Miss Gay America 2010—nearly four months after the annual pageant was held in St. Louis, Mo. Alyssa Edwards of Mesquite, Tex., was initially crowned and Montrese was named first alternate. Shortly after the New Year, Montrese learned the title had been stripped from Edwards. “I was driving when the owners of the pageant called to tell me I was Miss Gay America 2010,” Montrese remembers. “I had to pull over. I had tears in my eyes.” Montrese partner of two years, Alfonso Hestele, immediately asked what was wrong. “I’m Miss Gay America,” Montrese exclaimed.

The Miss Gay America Pageant hasn’t officially released details surrounding the removal of Edwards’ title, but Montrese was able to say some business dealings conflicted with Edwards’ reign. “I knew there was a possibility that I would be Miss Gay America,” Montrese says. “You have to put your other endeavors on hold. She had other things lined up already.”

Before the pageant, Montrese spoke with her Disney supervisors about her plans to pursue the title. They were very supportive. She will still perform at the Flamingo Resort, just not every weekend, she tells us.

My parents knew I was gay—kind of,” says Montrese, who lives by day as 35-year-old Martin Cooper. “My father was a Pentecostal minister and he and my mother caught flak because they didn’t cast me out because I was gay. They were never ashamed of me.”

It wasn’t until later that the elder Coopers, who have since passed away, learned their son performed as Coco Montrese in the evening.

“I was hesitant at first because I wanted to make sure they were ready for it,” Montrese says. “I’m headstrong, so when I told them about Coco, I said, ‘You are either with me or against me.’

Fortunately for Montrese, the entire Cooper clan was supportive. When Montrese told family members about her performances, she says she learned a lesson that she lives by every single day and plans to share throughout her reign as Miss Gay America 2010.“My parents told me that it’s all about love,” Montrese says. “You don’t have to understand ever facet of somebody, you just have to love them.” Montrese has met several people during her career that just don’t get the art of female impersonation, she says. But part of obtaining equality, she believes, is accepting things we may not completely understand.

Montrese hopes to build on the momentum of her crown and begin a production company in the next few years. She has several potential business partners are lined up to support her future endeavors. One thing she won’t do, however, is pursue another crown. “In a relationship, I’m monogamous,” Montrese says. “I’m Miss Gay America and I don’t need anything else. This is my happily ever after.”

This article courtesy of Watermark, Orlando’s GLBT publication. For the full version please visit Watermarkonline.com