Klondike Kates rock the winter carnival

A tease from Darice
Darice Koepke, the 2007 Klondike Kate winner, teases the crowd with the sash for the new Klondike Kate.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Show Kim Tsoukalas an old bald guy, and she'll show you a man ready to be kissed.

"If they don't have hair, that's even better," said Tsoukalas. "I love baldheaded men. I've had so much fun with little old men, I just can't even stand it."

First-class floozie
Barbara Jungbauer auditions at the Klondike Kate pageant at the Prom Center in Oakdale. This is the fifth time Jungbauer has tried out for the role. She describes her outfit as "first-class floozie."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Tsoukalas was taking a break between songs at a rehearsal in West St. Paul. The Klondike Kates were scrambling to learn new music for their carnival cabaret. The concert kicked off the first weekend of the St. Paul festival.

The fact that they were practicing in a Lutheran church chapel did not cramp their style. The women burst out laughing over the thought of incorporating g-strings -- and a chair for stradding -- into one of their routines.

But the first thing you notice about the Klondike Kates when they're away from the spotlight is how normal they look.

When they're not donning feather boas and too-tight dresses, you don't notice their larger-than-life personalities, or even their plus-size bodies. These seven women could easily pass for moms and grandmas singing in the church choir.

Newly crowned Audra Weier, center, practices the songs she'll need to master over the coming year with the rest of the Klondike Kates.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Paula Berends was wearing a baggy lime green V-neck. She said she's naturally shy. In her normal life, she works in a brokerage call center answering questions about IRAs. Yet, Klondike Kate has a way of seeping into her personality.

"I'm at work, and then all of a sudden I'm like, I got to get ready. I'll go to the bathroom, and 20 minutes later I'll come out with the makeup and hair, the feathers and the costume," said Berends. "People are like, 'Hey how you doing?' And it's like, 'How YOU doin', honey?' It's like, 'Who am I and what just happened to me in the bathroom?' It's like Superman putting on his alter-ego."

Klondike Kate was a real woman. She was born Kathleen Rockwell in Kansas, and she grew up to become a flirtatious dance hall girl who entertained inebriated miners during the Alaskan Gold Rush.

Her namesakes in St. Paul say they draw inspiration from the true Kate. Tsoukalas and her so-called sisters are flamboyant, but so far their antics haven't landed them in trouble. The same can't be said about their male counterparts, the Vulcans.

The group
The Klondike Kate alumni pose with their newest addition, Audra Weier (front row, center). Weir, 33, of Woodbury beat five other contestants for the title.
MPR Photo/ Laura Yuen

"We like to say that we're a little naughty, but we're very nice," said Tsoukalas. "You've got to have a little sugar, but you definitely have to have some spice. There's a line that you just don't cross."

Achieving the title of Klondike Kate isn't easy. Every January, wannabe Kates audition at a pageant attended by hundreds in the carnival community. Think "American Idol" meets two-for-one-karaoke-night ... for mostly women in their 40s in the east metro.

The youngest of the contestants is Audra Weier of Woodbury. She's a baby-faced 33-year-old who remembers watching a group of Kates float by in the Payne-Arcade Ave. parade when she was a little girl.

"I've always been a little chubby, and they look like real women. They don't look like your ideal princess. And they sing cabaret music, and they're real sassy. And I enjoy sass, so it really fit my personality," said Weier. For three rounds, the contestants sing mostly numbers about men who done them wrong, or about being large and lovely.

Audra Weier
Audra Weier takes a call from the media after being crowned Klondike Kate 2008.
MPR Photo/ Laura Yuen

But this was not all fun and games. People have complained that the annual contest is rigged. Last year, one spectator wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She said all the contestants need to do is show up four years in a row and sing the same sub-par songs to win the title.

When it's time to announce the new winner, the outgoing Kate holds a pageant sash above her head, teasing the crowd. The woman she places it on will be the 2008 Klondike Kate.

This year the sash falls on Audra Weier, the newcomer. The Kates welcome her with a serenade. Weier is shocked. Her cheeks hurt from smiling too much. With her bouquet of roses, she's been transformed into a princess, who also happens to look like a real woman.

And in the back of the room, there was an older gentleman enjoying the music. On his right cheek is the unmistakable mark of magenta lips, no doubt planted by a mistress of fun.

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