People: Mary Nolan finds 'new beginning' in Miss Gay Ohio America pageant

Erica Thompson

Ben Nolan, who performs as "Mary" onstage, knew he wanted to be a drag queen when he saw the movie "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar."

"It was like the first VHS I ever bought," said the Medina native. "I had to wait until I was 16 and could drive myself to Summit Mall in Akron."

After moving to Columbus to attend Ohio State, Nolan got his start in drag at AWOL. "We used to perform on a pool table," he said. "They would put plywood over it and they'd pull up one of the picnic tables to make a runway."

Now, after several years of perfecting his show, Nolan will compete in the Miss Gay Ohio America female impersonator pageant at Axis on Saturday and Sunday, July 9 and 10. He and the nine other competitors will be judged in five categories: male interview, solo talent, evening gown, onstage interview and a big production number. The winner will advance to the Miss Gay America pageant - the first and longest-running national drag competition - in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nolan has a custom-made, hand-beaded, hand-stoned dress for the evening gown segment. For solo talent, which can't include props or dancers, he will perform a comedy routine. For the big production number, he will incorporate a backdrop, comedy, a storyline and dancing.

Citing his past performing with the avant-garde "Glamazon" drag troupe at Wall Street nightclub, Nolan admits he doesn't come from classic "glamourous drag roots." And some doubt his chances of winning the pageant, he said.

"[Nolan] wants to prove that he is more than what we see out in the bars," said Nolan's best friend and choreographer Brent Fabian. "He's a dynamite emcee and I think he's out to kinda show a different side of himself."

Nolan also sees the pageant as an opportunity for "growth and new beginnings" after recent hardships. In 2013, he fell through a plate glass window and severed two bicep muscles, the median nerve and brachial artery in his right arm. With three reconstructive surgeries and extensive physical therapy he has regained use of the limb - although he has lost a lot of feeling.

Then, in 2015, his younger brother committed suicide, a good friend died and Wall Street nightclub closed.

"I just decided that 2016 … needed to be about something different," Nolan said.

If he wins Miss Gay Ohio, he will be considered a "symbol of excellence," which has a special meaning for him.

"Excellence, to me, is always putting your best self forward, no matter if you're doing a Saturday night cabaret show with three people in the crowd or a national-level pageant," he said. "You're only as good as your last performance. And you never know when that last performance is gonna be."


8 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday, July 9 and 10

775 N. High St.,

Short North