Sparkly dresses, high heeled shoes, a tiara and sash, all items that conjure up images of one of Atlantic cities most iconic events. I’m talking of course about the Miss’d America pageant. If you don’t get yourself down to Atlantic City this weekend you will have Miss’d (see what I did there) one of the most glamorous and glitzy events of the year. 

Hosted by Carson Kressley, this year’s pageant will take place on Saturday, October 23, 2021 at 8 p.m. in Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena and will feature lavish sets, incredible numbers, and a “Queens” night at the opera theme led by this week’s portrait, reigning Miss’d America 2020-2021, Sapphira Cristál. 

A classically trained composer and operatic singer with a 5+ octave range, Cristál is an award winning entertainer who performs in New York City, Philadelphia, and all over the Northeast. We snuck in a zoom call between voice lessons. 

So do I understand that you’re from deep in the heart of Texas?

Yes, I was born in Bryan, which is right outside of College Station where my mom attended school at Texas A&M. My parents were from Dallas and I was raised in Houston from the age of three. I had a lovely little life, just me, my mom & my dad. My dad very recently passed away from complications from Covid. He was a world renowned trainer, mostly for the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). They actually called him the Godfather of Texas MMA. He has about 15 champions under his belt. 

My brother did tough man fighting for a little and it was terrifying when he went into the ring, even though he won his fights easily. Was it scary for you as a kid to watch your dad do MMA?

My dad was in it before it got as big as it is now, but I remember traveling around with him and he would go to what basically were garage fights when I was about 4 or 5. I’d see this huge bloody fight right in front of my face and my dad would go outside, bloodied and I’d be like, “Dad! Are you okay? Here’s some water!” So I got used to that kind of thing at an early age. Competition was something that I also got used to at an early age, so me being a competitive drag queen wasn’t a far stretch. 

Did you learn any fighting skills?

I grew up taking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai. 

And what did your mom do?

My mother is one of the smartest people I know. Currently, she is an insurance claims adjuster, but she’s been a real estate agent, a loan officer, anything having to do with real estate or finance. She’s a computer whiz. She also wrote a book about campus safety, which I believe was motivated by her own experiences in school where she was not so safe. You name it and she has or can do it, and she’s a great mom. 

And what were you like as a kid?

[Laughing] I was one of those kids who didn’t realize that they had ADD until I was an adult! My mom recently told me that my teachers wanted me medicated and she refused, but because of that, I got into a lot of crazy things until I found music and that became my thing. I love singing, I love all different sorts of music and went to the high school for the performing and visual arts, where I really started to focus on it. I discovered that I loved to write and learned how to take the music that was in my head and put it on paper. I went to school as a voice major, and ended up going to college as a composition major. 

Meaning you studied to compose your own songs?

Yes, writing your own songs and orchestral works, operas, whatever you desired. I leaned more towards opera and classical music but I’ve written string quartets, solo pieces, opera, I did a lot. I ended up going to the Eastman School of Music which is in Rochester, NY. It’s rated one of the top 20 schools of music in the world. It was a difficult challenge moving from Texas to New York. I’d never even seen snow before facing a Rochester winter. Not having sun in my life for so long I suffered a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). On top of that I missed home, especially as my father was facing a tough situation at home. Not only did he train fighters, he was also a promoter, and at one of his huge productions one of the fighters was hospitalized and then died. After that, he didn’t want to deal with anything any more and that included my tuition. So that was stressful and took me to a place that was difficult to overcome. I eventually transferred to the Longy School of Music in Boston. 

Where did the drag come in?

When I was in Rochester, I had a boyfriend and started hanging out with his friends and hanging out with some drag queens and decided, “Hey, I really wanted to do this thing.” I found a drag queen who I adored and asked her to be my drag mother. She painted me for the first time, and I looked just like my mom. My first show was at a place called, “Muthers” where the drag bug bit me and I haven’t looked back since. 

That’s beautiful. Who were some of your music icons growing up?

I listened to whatever my parents listened to. I was also raised in the church so I have a lot of gospel roots: Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams (who’s from Houston), Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond. From there I went to music school and really got into classical music, especially opera, so I loved Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Pavarotti of course, and Grace Bumbry. 

Do you know Philly Drag opera singer Cookie Diorio?

Yes, I take voice lessons with Cookie. I just left her house to go home and do this interview! 

Get out! I live just a few houses down from Cookie, you probably walked right past my window. Had I known, we could have done the interview in person!

Cookie’s great. We’re doing a show together at the Penn Museum. 

Small world! So what was an early sign that you were gay? 

I’m not gay. I identify as pansexual. But an early sign that I was open to anyone, not just who I was told to? Hard to say, I was sexually active at a very young age. But I’ve always just enjoyed what I enjoyed and never held back. When I was about 18 I identified as gay, because it was easier to say then pansexual, but it didn’t really cover me. 

So back to drag, I understand that, surprisingly to me, there’s a big drag scene in Rochester. 

Oh yeah, 3 or 4 of the girls from RuPaul’s Drag Race were from Rochester . There’s a real root in music and theater there, and that translates into some exceptional drag.

I was there for their film festival and it was a lovely town.

I know; when I first got into college, I was afraid to go to New York. All I knew in Texas was that New Yorkers were fast talking and by the time they’re done talking to you, you’ve been robbed. Then when I got there I realized that Rochester was far different from the streets of Manhattan. Of course I learned later that was in New York City and that even that was an exaggeration.

Tell me a little about Sapphira. How is it pronounced, Sah-Fear-uh or Sah-Fire-uh? 

Sah-Fear-uh, it’s Sapphire in Portuguese. She and I are the same person basically; she’s a loving, effervescent, full of energy personality. I host a lot of events, and I’m always about having fun. I’m also a little bit like your mean aunt, who you love though. The one where you’re like, she’s so cool, but I would never fuck with her because she’s not the one, do not try her. [Laughing] That’s me! But mostly I like to entertain and I do a lot of charity work. If I can entertain and do good at the same time, I’m all for it. 

As the reigning Miss’d America I’m very proud of a few things I’ve been able to change. In the past, you had to be a cis male to compete. But since I was crowned, we’ve had a lot of conversations about it and I’m happy to say that trans women are now able to participate in the show and pageant. I consider that one of my crowning achievements. I think it was just some people missing the nuances between drag and trans and not understanding that trans people can be drag queens as well. We’ve come a long way since the rigid LGBT boxes that we were once put in. I remember when I was told that I couldn’t be bisexual, that it wasn’t a thing, never mind pansexual. Fortunately, these days, people can be whoever they want to and everyone was on board right away. I was proud to walk people through the process so that we were all in the new promised land where no one has to be one thing or the other. 

The other thing I’m proud of is that for the first time, we’re going to be doing a show with all the Formers, from the past. Miss’d America was started in 1994, but in 2005 it was disbanded and there was a long gap before starting again about 5 years later. I was happy to get the show with the originals as an official event for Miss’d America on Friday. Next year we hope to do a drag brunch on Sunday, so it will be a whole weekend event! 

And do you primarily do lip sync or live singing?

It’s mostly lip sync. I’ve won best artist in Philadelphia twice. I have a 5 and a 1/2 octave range, 6 on a good day, but my singing is mostly classical. I don’t sing pop, so for performances, I usually lip sync and bring my personality to it. I’m a very dramatic performer, so I live in my music. I try to make it come alive through my experience. My training allows me to connect with the music. You may have seen other people do a song, but when you see me do it you go, “Oh, okay.” Because of my training, I’m listening to every beat, every note, every breath and where it comes in and interpreting the song in a new way. 

What’s the biggest show you’ve done? 

I was on Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live.” But the biggest live show was probably Miss’d America. I got to sing, “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!“ from Madame Butterfly and Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” It was so much fun. I got to sing with a live band and dance and sing opera and do all the splits and dips and all the tricks I love to do on stage. It was phenomenal. For my step-down on Saturday I’ll be singing an aria and doing a little Donna Summer as well. 

What else can people expect at the Pageant?

A lot of what you’d expect; contestants are judged in the categories of swimsuit, talent, and evening gown and they have to do a Judges’ Interview. The winner gets $5,000.00 in cash but has to be available for multiple appearances throughout her reigning year. The proceeds are distributed to various LGBTQ supportive charities and over the years, the pageant has donated over $450,000.00 to multiple organizations.

Impressive! Okay, an important question. Jennifer Hudson or Jennifer Holliday? 

Hudson. I love Holliday, and Hudson wouldn’t have been able to do it without having Holliday to emulate, but she’s just cleaner. And Holliday’s from right down the street from me in Houston. We had a lot of talent around. Beyonce and Kelly went to the same school as me, and Beyonce went to the same church. 

Did she sing in choir with you?

No, her parents already had her on a different trajectory. 

A favorite celebrity encounter?

When I lived in Boston, I went to a Master Class with Grace Bumbry and got to meet her at the end. She was at the edge of the stage and put her hand towards me and I turned into a blubbering mess, “I just think… you’re just the most beautiful… you mean…” My body got overheated and I started crying and I turned away slurring like I was drunk, “I gotta go!“ [Laughing] She was just like, “Um, okay then.” I grew up around billionaires and celebrities and I’ve never had that experience before in my life. I fan-girled out hard!

What was your biggest mishap on stage?

I try to be a perfectionist, so it’s hard to think of something. [Laughing] I’m also good at forgetting things I don’t like! Okay, I’ve been sober for almost 3 years, but at this point I was not and I was feeling a little over enthusiastic about life. I was learning how to do splits, and I was not there yet but on this day, I was feeling good and I was like, “This is it! I can do it” and I did a jump split, never had done one before, and I came down hard! I felt my right butt cheek hit the floor and thought, “Huh, I don’t think it’s supposed to feel like that.” I got up to bow and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even say bye at the end of the show. I’d stretched my hamstring so far, I couldn’t walk for 6 weeks.

Yikes, let’s switch to something happy. What’s a song that makes you smile when you hear it?

I listen to a lot of gospel, still. And one of my favorite songs is “Blessings on Blessings.” My life has been very favored, and even the things that seem like they might not have gone the way I wanted always end up being positive. The song is about appreciating blessings. There’s no need for complaining; when you’re going through stuff, be grateful for what you do have and praise God to start to cultivate that positive energy you need. It hasn’t been 2 months since my dad passed away and I’ve been struggling, but my faith tells me that everything is going to be okay.

Something you’re known for?

At the end of every show, I make everyone hug themselves and I asked them to say out loud, “I truly love and accept myself.” I want them to know that no matter what’s going on in life, as long as you learn to do that, you’ll be okay.