All hail Briana Venskus, the first queer queen of the Azalea Festival!
Venskus -- a bisexual actress of color known for her roles in The Walking Dead, Good Trouble, Nashville, and Grace & Frankie -- made LGBTQ herstory Wednesday when she was crowned the Azalea Queen.
As queen, the North Carolina native presides over the Azalea Festival -- a weeklong celebration of North Carolina's artwork, history, and culture. Founded in 1948 and held in Wilmington, it is the largest festival of its kind in the Tar Heel State. It includes a parade and a festival with concerts, fairs, and other forms of entertainment.
Past queens include Kelly Ripa and Phylicia Rashad, who made history as the first African-American Azalea Queen in 1985.
The Azalea Festival is known for its Southern traditions -- including tours of the Airlie Gardens led by "belles" dressed in antebellum attire of hoop skirts and lace parasols. The queen also usually wears this garb, but Venskus opted for a modern red dress at her coronation.
The choice of Venskus as Azalea Queen in North Carolina -- the birthplace of "bathroom bills" and other anti-LGBTQ legislation -- was not without controversy.
Prior to the festival, some local outlets questioned whether the 31-year-old actress was "a suitable role model" by highlighting a 2018 Instagram post in which Venskus gives a middle finger. In the text, Venskus criticized Hollywood for bi erasure, recounting how she was told she was not "LGBTQ enough" for a queer role.
"One finger can not negate 20+ years of positivity, activism, and donations of time, energy, and resources to the betterment of this country and world we live in," responded Venskus, who said she was proud to join "the bird flipping ranks of Dolly Parton, Betty White" and other trailblazers in a recent Instagram post.
Venskus also highlighted the "double standard being placed on me as a female," pointing to two male performers at the Azalea Festival who had also "publicly utilized their middle fingers."
"For people to accept their presence yet contest mine is exactly the reason it is important for someone as 'unique' as me to attend this event in the position of Queen," Venskus said.
At her Wednesday coronation, however, Venskus, who grew up in Wilmington, celebrated her royal homecoming in front of the packed crowd at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
"It's so incredible to be back in Wilmington," said Venskus in her acceptance speech, according to the Star-News, the state's oldest newspaper. "It's such a crazy thing to think that I was born right over there and now I'm standing here."
"The beauty and celebration of Wilmington that's here is absolutely incredible," she said. "I think what it's about is celebrating the people of Wilmington."