By Erin Stover Sickmen
For 29 years, Fantasy Fest has been ruled by royalty, courtesy of AH Monroe (formerly AIDS Help Monroe), a local nonprofit. The annual event is more than a festive scramble and grab for a crown — the campaign, since its inception, has raised over $5 million to provide health care, prevention training, research funding and housing to community members affected by HIV/AIDS. Of course, Fantasy Fest itself is perhaps the most famous party east of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.
Would-be Fantasy Fest king and queen candidates have their work cut out for them. Each person who has stepped up over the years has agreed to meet minimum fundraising goals and to host numerous events over an eight-week period. At the end of the run, the top male and female fundraisers are named King and Queen of Fantasy Fest. Credit is given to everyone who works so hard in this endeavor, with the runners-up being named the Duke and Duchess of the Fest. Since 1989, 55 men and women (in 2000, the Key West Bitch Sisters shared the title of Queen) have worn the crown.
After a two-month marathon, the campaigns culminate in the Coronation Ball, the official start of Fantasy Fest. This year, in keeping with the Fantasy Fest theme of “In Tune but Off Key”, the Ball has deemed itself the destination for “Rock and Royalty”, with the annual event taking place at the amphitheater at Truman Waterfront Park on Friday, Oct. 18. Revelers can get in on the action for just $10 for general admission, or shell out for the full royal treatment — a seated three-course dinner for $100.
Oct. 18 is still several weeks away, leaving plenty of time for the myriad candidate events that serve as a perfect training ground for Fantasy Fest. Weekly Aqua Idol events put candidates and their political supporters center stage for an ongoing singing competition, while a down and dirty Drag Queen Bingo game livens up every Sunday between now and the 18th. Candidates of years past will also be celebrated at the Key West Art and Historical Society’s Royal Retrospective, an exhibition highlighting the history of the campaign.
Once new royalty has been crowned, the main party can commence. Over 10 days, Fantasy Fest encompasses roughly 100 individual events, all of which contribute to the original 1979 goal of the festival — to spur an uptick in visitors to the island and to provide some economic stimulus to local businesses after the slow summer months. The 2019 celebration is expected to attract nearly 75,000 party-goers while revealing some new innovations, a heightened focus on local arts and creativity, and enhanced green efforts.
All in all, Key Westers can count on two months of royal events followed 10 straight days of Fantasy Fest madness. And it all starts with four tireless individuals…
Kevin “Woody” Wood
Life’s been a whirlwind for Kevin “Woody” Wood — and this is the perfect culmination. As a high school freshman, he was the top fundraiser for the Cleveland AIDS Walk. Six days after his 17th birthday, he signed up to spend the next four years in a Navy submarine at the height of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” era of military life. He also attended Le Cordon Bleu hospitality and culinary school and owned his own restaurant. He has played a number of roles in Key West, including dressing the iconic windows at Fast Buck Freddy’s. Post-Irma, he shopped and cooked for hungry locals at Poinciana Royals, and his current push to help is spurred by memories of his late HIV-positive boyfriend. In 2009, he returned to Key West from Hawaii to accept a position at AH Monroe (then AIDS Help). Eager to effect change in his community, Woody is excited to run a campaign with “Legacy. Integrity. Fun.”
Valerie Edgington (Val) wanted to run for Queen of Fantasy Fest when she realized it was a way to help her community. “It’s personal now, it’s not just names — it’s faces, it’s people I love.” Her slogan “Choose Love” promotes her belief that in every situation, there’s a choice — people can either react out of fear or out of love. Along with her partner Laura, Edgington has raised two children, Samantha and Cody. The couple landed in Key West in 2014, the day after that year’s Royal Kickoff. That year, and each year since, Edgington remained involved with the candidates, helping raise funds for AH Monroe. After nabbing the title of Queen of Xena Fund, winning Womenfest’s “Real Women Do Drag,” she’s now ready to make a run for the title of Queen of Fantasy Fest.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Frank-Noll, beyond her ever-present smile, is her stride — her walk is forceful and full of purpose. While she freely concedes “I’m no good at sitting still,” it’s ironic that she also considers herself an introvert. The butterfly symbol she’s chosen for her campaign logo reflects her own metamorphosis. Frank-Noll left Wisconsin, and an unhappy marriage (that gave her two wonderful daughters, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren) for the brighter shores of Key West. “It was only down here that I found my voice again.” She met her partner, Jerry Hughes, 13 years ago, on a fateful karaoke night. Frank-Noll has spent her years in Key West giving back to the community she loves. Each year, she rides with the Key West Mile Markers cycling team, raising funds for the SMART Ride — something she’ll do again this fall, while juggling her campaign.
“When I see someone in need, if I can somehow make their life better, I’m there.” That sentiment launched Acker onto a campaign for Fantasy Fest King. Originally from Lansing, Michigan, he lived in St. Thomas before returning to the U.S. for a job opportunity in Key West. Shortly after his arrival, Bourbon St. Pub approached him. It was there that Acker became experienced in the art of raising money for causes that matter. He worked to help a friend faced with a medical crisis and then to generate funds for funeral costs following the unexpected death of a fellow bartender. He’s assisted on previous campaigns and carries his own crown as the King of Mardi Gras 2016 (Sister Season Fund). King of Fantasy Fest feels like a natural progression, he said. “I consider my campaign a joint effort because that’s how it’s done in Key West — as a team.”