Has The ‘Golden Age Of Drag’ Forgotten About The Kings?
“We’ve got a lot more in common with queens than things that set us apart”…
Internationally, we’re experiencing “the golden age of drag.” At least that’s what the New York Times says, which means it must be true. (Right?) “I live in constant fear that the Drag Race thing will end,” Eureka O’Hara, a queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race, told the paper. “I don’t want to go back to driving everywhere and working for no money, when you put so much love and money and time into this craft. I know what it feels like to struggle every single day to do this.”
Yet, that is the reality for drag kings: the women (be they trans, non-binary, biological, etc.) who dress and perform in masculine drag on stage, personifying male stereotypes. Even cisgender men perform as drag kings, just as cisgender women perform as queens. Like their royal counterparts, drag kings often incorporate an eclectic mix of dancing, acting, comedy and singing (either live or lip sync) in their routines.
“We’ve got a lot more in common with queens than things that set us apart,” Cyril Cinder, a 26-year-old drag king based in Ottawa, tells IN. “I think there’s a wider of spectrum between drag kings themselves than there are between kings and queens. Some kings are dapper crooners; others would fit right into the lineup of a boy band. Some are creatures from an alternate dimension that you’ve never seen before. You find the same diversity within queens as well.”
Despite these similarities, kings don’t get booked like queens do. “I lived in Toronto, a city with one of the world’s most vibrant gay villages, for two years and was only welcome to two venues as a performer,” Cinder says. “There are countless bars with drag shows on every weekend that pack their rosters with queens and you won’t see a king among them. I’ve also had more than one house queen (a queen responsible for hosting and booking shows at a venue) flat-out tell me, ‘I don’t book drag kings.’”
RuPaul’s Drag Race, the program primarily responsible for the golden era of gender bending (especially since the series moved from Logo to VH1), possesses a similar, daft attitude towards kings. While the show has undoubtedly increased the visibility of drag in the zeitgeist and has allowed many queens to earn a lofty, full-time living (few kings pull in the $5,000-$15,000 booking fees that Drag Race alum get), the show has never once acknowledged the existence of drag kings, with the exception of Pandora Boxx making a quick joke way back in Season 2. So while more people are definitely discovering drag kings, that happens only if people dig into what existsoff of RuPaul’s stage – and most people don’t investigate to that level.
The unfortunate reality for kings is that their stunted popularity has little to do with their talent. “When queens perform femininity, they are seen as expressing a gender that is inherently more performative in nature,” Cinder says. “We have this idea in society that women are putting on a show to be women, with their hair and makeup and shoes and jewellery, but real men just…are. It’s not accurate – look at the meticulousness in your local barbershop! As a culture we don’t acknowledge how much of a performance masculinity is, and that’s a bit of a barrier for kings, who are often openly challenging that by performing masculine gender.”
Considering this, the process of visually transforming into a king may logically sound like a less daunting task, but the reality proves otherwise. “While I can do my makeup in 20 minutes, I prefer to take 2½ hours, or more, to get into optimal drag,” says Goldie Peacock, a 32-year-old drag king from Brooklyn.
To complete his transformation, Peacock slathers “a whole lot” of foundation on his face; contours his eyes, cheekbones and jawline with powder eyeshadow; applies liner and mascara; and draws on a deliberately fake moustache, eyebrows and sideburns. Occasionally, he chooses to wear lipstick and a lot of feathered, sparkly clothes to confuse his audience. “I’m a glamdrogynous king, unbothered by adhering to the stereotypical trappings of the gender binary,” he says. Peacock then uses a binder to flatten his chest and seals his look with powder and setting spray so he doesn’t sweat off all of his hard work.
With such mainstream exposure, many drag queens have noticed heterosexual individuals in their audiences. At a drag king show, however, audiences are almost exclusively queer, skewing towards queer women, AFAB (assigned female at birth) genderqueer individuals and transmasculine people. Regarding performances, Peacock says anything by “the Justins” (Timberlake and Bieber) are popular among kings, as is Ginuwine’s “Pony.” In Cinder’s experience, she finds kings are inspired by boy bands and artists that have challenged gender roles themselves, such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Adam Lambert.
Both Cinder and Peacock agree kings aren’t getting the same respect as queens (not yet, anyway), but they acknowledge drag kings are experiencing a renaissance on a smaller scale. While a great number of venues and spaces for kings have been lost over the years, a growing number of media outlets – including Vogue,theBBC, Buzzfeed(and now, us!) – have featured drag kings on their platforms, furthering international exposure.
“The age of the internet means that isolated people who might have never otherwise seen a drag or gender performer in their lives can now learn about this world and explore what it might mean for them,” Cinder says. “There are tons of kings demanding that the so-called ‘golden age of drag’ not be without us, saying we more than deserve our seat at the table. I hope more people are starting to see that.”
BOBBY BOX is a prolific freelance journalist in Hamilton, Ont. He currently works as contributing editor at Playboy.com and has had the privilege to speak with the world’s most recognized drag queens including, most recently, Trixie Mattel and Alaska Thunderfuck. While proud of his work, Bobby is not above begging. He asks that you follow him on Twitter @bobbyboxington.