RuPaul's Drag Race star Coco Montrese on St. Pete Pride, the Pulse shooting and compassion from police

Posted June 23, 2018 12:07 p.m. EDT

Coco Montrese is best known as the RuPaul's Drag Race Season 5 lip-sync queen who came back a record four times to win with fierce performances. But longtime Tampa Bay drag performer Kori Stevens just calls Coco a "hometown girl."

As head of entertainment for St. Pete Pride, Stevens had been trying to book Montrese for years, and finally got her as host of Friday's free SP2 concert in North Straub Park. The local music and drag acts lead up to Saturday's Pride parade, one of the largest in the Southeast.

Montrese rose to prominence in Orlando, with the backing of the Pulse nightclub, to become Miss Gay America, which led to Las Vegas and RuPaul calling. But fans at Tampa's Honey Pot, Hamburger Mary's, the Flamingo and Suncoast resorts know her act well, especially her stellar Janet Jackson impersonation.

We caught up by phone with Montrese in Las Vegas, where she has had a residency since 2011 in the famed drag show Frank Marino's Divas Las Vegas.

What are your memories of the Pulse nightclub?

It was one of the most inviting places. It was a safe haven. … I worked at several of the clubs in Orlando, but at Pulse, they allowed me to create the persona of Coco Montrese and all the different characters I wanted. At other clubs I had to conform to a certain look, but at Pulse they were like, "Be it. Sway it. Have fun. You do you." When I got ready to go to Miss Gay America to represent Florida, Pulse was the only club that said, "Hey we really want to throw you an event and sponsor you." They always stuck by me.

Where were you when you heard about the shooting?

I had just gotten back home in Las Vegas from Gay Days (at Disney) and my phone was just blowing up and everybody was saying don't turn on any news, because everything was actually happening at that time.

So I called (fellow RuPaul's Drag Race alum Roxxxy Andrews) back, and she was on the phone with someone who was stuck inside the restroom. Oh gosh, it was unbelievable to say the least.

Did anyone you know get hurt or killed?

Unfortunately, yes. A lot were friends of mine and also people I knew in passing who had supported my career.

There was one guy, I can't remember his name, but I will remember his face forever in my mind. I was hanging out at Universal the week before and he worked the rides there and he saw me and called my name. I was there for Gay Days at Disney and he said, "I live for this time of year because you always come back and you always come by and see us."

So then when you see the pictures of these people pop up on the screen who you know, but indirectly you know, you don't want to even process it in your head.

You were on the New York City Pride float soon after the shooting. Was there a different atmosphere?

Because of the shooting they had the FBI involved and they were contacting me about how they had to take all these precautions. My first instinct was don't go, it's not safe. But I can't allow this madman to deprive people from going out. They had so much security on me, it was almost like I was Lady Gaga.

I've never had to have that much contact with police before and they kept reassuring me, telling me, "We are here to protect you. Go ahead and perform. We've got your back. We are your eyes and ears."

Did you appreciate the irony that Pride was born in New York as a reaction to harassment and arrests by police?

Yes. It was almost as if the tables had turned. I was thinking, "Wow, we are living in a different time now." Of course there are still some places you go where it's not that, but at that time, the support and love from law enforcement was incredible. They were telling us, "Don't be ashamed of who you are. We are here to protect you." We felt like we mattered.

Was it painful to return to Orlando after that?

It was very, very painful. The first time I returned was in December that year with my husband on a vacation. For the longest time I thought I couldn't go by there. But we decided to pay our respects to get a little closure. It was very intense. Going back somewhere that launched your whole entire career and these people supported you and this is no more. And 49 people who lost their lives. It was really intense.

We stood there and we just held each other and we talked about love and acceptance and what we could do to never let this happen again. It was then I decided I would always go back. Whenever I come to Orlando or even if I'm in St. Pete, I drive over to Orlando. Every time. I have to do it because I don't want anyone to forget them.

How does all that makeup hold up in the June heat of Florida?

I've just discovered this wonderful spray that I pray doesn't give me cancer eventually. It's Kryolan makeup setting spray and you can go underwater and your makeup will not move. And I can't live without my Neutrogena wipes. No matter how much is caked on, and I wear a lot of makeup, it gets all the makeup off in one swipe and leaves my face hydrated.

I've been told to ask you about the video with the pizza and the strippers backstage at the Honey Pot in Tampa.

Oh no! What did I do? That video has been floating around. Well, there was this pizza and I wanted to eat the pizza but I didn't have a plate. Let's just say I didn't have a napkin or a plate and leave it to your imagination.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.