The sexy, the sultry, Miss Shannon DeVaughn!
How many times have you heard those words? Club-goers of the ’80s and ’90s still see a vision of blonde loveliness and that dazzling smile when her name is mentioned. After 28 years onstage – many of those as Show Director at the Carousel II – Shannon reflects on her career and our journey as a community.
Beginning in the mid-70s, her show career rocketed her to a seat on the throne in Knoxville. Her distinctively feminine presentation was not always a plus in life as it was onstage.
“My big problem was that I didn’t want to be one of the guys after the show ended,” states DeVaughn in her usual throaty voice. “They gave me hell for it, destroying my gowns and other tools of my trade. Nobody acted professionally.”
Her fame grew in the ’80s as Knoxville claimed her as one of its own. The club-going community knew and loved her almost ethereal presence, coupled with her physical beauty and raw talent. She was widely recognized in Knoxville and beyond as a showstopper of boundless energy and mega-charisma with her signature radiant smile.
DeVaughn had an unprecedented win in the Miss Bronze Knoxville of 1990 sponsored by Tantrific Sun. She competed as the only transgender candidate for that crown. In the end, she won the title and received the award as her supporters roared their approval. That night was a memorable event for many Knoxville community members. It somehow signified a triumph, not just for Shannon, but also for the entire community. Our beloved beauty could hold her own as an openly transgender contestant when pitted against heterosexual lovelies. Somehow that knowledge gave us all hope.
“I loved going to the Tri-Cities, hanging with the gay women, and watching softball,” muses Shannon who added that she loved to blend in with the crowd. Her down-to-earth attitude is yet another reason for her long-term success.
However, her reflections were not completely positive. Realistically, she recants the days of violent women, who believed that violence was the path to leadership and who routinely assaulted people they did not like. The tales of raids at the Carousel and the two-inch deep water in the women’s bathroom gave depth to her story, pleasant or not. Those things became memories when the club changed hands in lieu of unpaid back taxes. Rumor has it that the previous owner got caught up in activities that cost him the club, resulting in the subsequent sale to current well-connected owners that may soon lose their death grip on the location. The business is surrounded by University of Tennessee-owned properties and is dwarfed by comparison.
“The ’Sel,” as it is called by newbies, touts itself as the longest-running show bar in the Southeast. Young patrons often brag that their parents knew people from the club’s long history. Indeed a visit to the club only cements the impression that the atmosphere and the people have remained fairly constant in the 30+ years of business. University students, GLBT or not, form a large part of the regular club-goers, primarily because of the on-campus location.
Nearly a decade after leaving, DeVaughn reflects calmly on a work environment that has had serious health consequences. A non-smoker, she is nonetheless plagued by respiratory ailments undoubtedly related to 28 years of work in a smoke-filled environment. But despite that and other health issues that would overwhelm those of lesser spirit, she looks forward to her golden years with optimism and hope.
“Labels only limit our human potential,” says DeVaughn today. Her legacy is only superseded by her incomparable ability to see the best in every situation and strive to not only overcome obstacles, but also to have a bit of fun along the way.