By Andy Armano
This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Antonio Edwards is a professional singer, title-winning pageant contestant, and the music director for his church. He finds that the confluence of music and spirituality has the power to heal, and has a place in the LGBTQ community.
Andy Armano: How did you get started in the entertainment business?
Antonio Edwards: Growing up in my church, my father was a Baptist minister, my grandfather, my mother’s father, my father’s father, and two of my brothers, all Baptist ministers. So there was no way I was not growing up and singing in church.
AA: You mention that the church figured prominently in your youth and your love of singing. Does it still play a role today?
AE: Yes. The world needs change. I think you can outgrow your upbringing. At a certain point, you decide to be a decent person. And that’s who I choose to be. I choose to be a decent person. I choose to be a respectful person. I make that choice every day.
I discovered a more spiritual road to the divine as opposed to a religious road. I like spirituality, as opposed to rules that tell you that you can’t do this, and if you do this, you’ll be punished. I can honestly say that when I was growing up, that is the type of God I believed in. I believed in a God that sat on clouds and looked down at me and judged everything I did. Now that I discovered a more spiritually-based church, I know that that’s not the case. At least that’s not the God that I believe in.
And the thing about that is, not to pass any judgment on any other churches, but sometimes when you go to a church, you feel pressured to do something, or you feel pressure to become a member, or pressure to give, or that sort of thing. When I invite people to my church, I say, “Hey, come to the church, see if you like it. Or just come in and enjoy the music, or enjoy the talk, enjoy the message, and that’s it. And, if it resonates with you, come back and see us.” I think it’s a way to bring the community together, and I see a lot of people from this community, specifically in Wilton Manors, that have come to my church and stayed, and that’s kind of a cool thing.
When I was a teenager in high school, I dabbled in songwriting and I knew I always wanted to be a vocalist or a singer, but I didn’t really pursue it that actively because there’s no formula to becoming a recording artist. I started off as a manager for different companies, just regular jobs, but I always sang on the side. It was something I always did because I enjoyed it. I also sang in nightclubs and bars.
AA: You have had a very successful run at the Alibi. How has your singing career evolved?
AE: When I came out around the age of 18, the only people I ever saw on stage were female impersonators or dancers, which was great. I loved them, but I was like, there was no representation unless you were wearing a wig or wearing a jockstrap. Those are the only ways you’re going to get on stage.
I quickly learned that the drag queen scene has a pageant circuit. And I was like, well that’s interesting, but they don’t have anything like that for boys. Then, one of the drag queens said that of course they do. There’s Mr. Gay America. So I contacted them and asked when the next pageant was. And they said, “Mr. Missouri is in a week.” So I had literally six days to prepare. I got myself together, went to the Mr. Missouri pageant. I didn’t win, but I was first runner up, and the winner and first runner up get to go to nationals.
I kind of got bit by the pageant bug. I entered another preliminary for Mr. Gay America. It took me seven times to win it. It was September, 1997 when I won the title of Mr. Gay America. And I was like, “Oh wow, this is amazing.” With that title, they will pay for you to travel across the country. And so I did and that was great. After that national title I wanted more. The next year I went to Mr. Gay USA. I was in the top five, and then the following year I won. That was 2001ish. Then I captured the title of Mr. Continental in 2005. Leading up to today, there is a national pageant called All American Gent, which is a division of the All American Goddess Pageant. I competed for all American Gent two times prior to winning on my third attempt. That was this past March.
AA: Did the pageant circuit help your singing career?
AE: I gained a lot of notoriety through the pageant circuit as a singer because a lot of the contestants weren’t live singers. But prior to that, I literally would go to a director, and say, “Hey, can I sing?” They’d say, “We’re not gonna pay you, but sure.”
When I got to Fort Lauderdale, I was impressed with the performers. At that time the singer Jennifer McClain was going out of town and she kindly asked me to fill in for her on a Saturday. That was really successful. Later, after four weeks of filling in for Dame Edna, I was approached by management to start my own show.
AA: How was coming out for you? Did you suffer any major repercussions?
AE: I’m very fortunate that I didn’t have any backlash with my family about that. I’ve heard too many stories about kids being thrown out of their homes and disowned by their family. My family was very accepting of me. I pretty much kept my lifestyle quiet at first. After I was with my partner for three years we decided to get married, and I invited my mother to the wedding. Not only did she come, she sang at the wedding. I wasn’t expecting her to be quite that accepting. But she was. I am very blessed.