We’ve all heard of drag queens. Whether it was Mitzi and Felicia conquering the desert in Priscilla, The Kinks’ Lola, walking like a woman and talking like a man, Australia’s most famous lady, Dame Edna Everage, or even The Lion King’s Timon, dressing in drag to do the hula, we’ve all seen a dancing queen. But what about a dancing king?
Drag kings. Just like a drag queen only the opposite. Is that what you’re thinking? Comparing a queen to a king in this way is almost like saying: “Women? Aren’t they just like men, only in reverse?”. To some extent it works, and can operate as a loose frame of reference, but the reality is much less simple. In reality, drag kinging has enough subtleties and complexities that bring it out of the realm of ‘same-same-but-different’ or the ‘women’s version’ of an existing genre, and create a new type of performance that stands alone on stage. Let me take you to one such stage.
It’s Wednesday night. The ladies of the inner west are making their weekly pilgrimage, from The Bank, The Courthouse, or (a new addition to the Wednesday family) Birdcage at the Zanzibar, up Enmore road to The Sly Fox. The bouncer waves through the familiar faces, they were here last week, they’ll be here next week. Two girls with bubblegum coloured hair are refused entry; one too many beers at The Courthouse. The bouncer stops me, I’m not regular enough to be recognised. I show him my ID, a three year old relic displaying my rounder face and longer hair. “Is this you?” he asks. “Yes,” I respond. And that’s it. I’m in.
Inside, the DJ is playing something generic and poppy with heavy bass, a line of girls with asymmetrical hair cuts are ordering long island ice teas, two women in singlets are kissing against the wall. I see the bubblegum haired girls slumped in a dingy couch, eyes half closed. It seems a friend let them in through the back door. I turn my attention to the stage: a black wooden structure, about 80cm high, forming a space about three metres by three metres. The show should be starting soon.
Tonight’s host, drag queen Prada Clutch, emerges from a room behind the bar to pick her way through the crowd and take the stage. The eager girls up the front take a seat on the beer-and-who-knows-what stained carpet, everyone else stands. Prada Clutch rips through a Lady Gaga medley with so much sass you feel cooler just watching it, and everyone cheers her final, graceful pose. “Welcome, welcome, ladies, ladies and lesbians!” she screeches into the microphone. More cheers. This is only the place they are greeted like that.
Prada doesn’t waste any time. She knows who the ladies are here for tonight. So after one quick, crude lesbian sex joke, she introduces the man everyone wants. A grinning Sneakers takes the stage. He’s wearing a purple shirt with a dapper vest and tie, baggy jeans, a fedora low over his head so we can only just make out his eye liner moustache and goatee, and his signature item: sneakers. Tonight they’re purple, to match his shirt.
A quick crotch grab and thrust before the music starts. It’s Chris Brown and the Biebs, with “Next To You”. Brown is one of his favourite performers. As he mimes along the words, he completes a totally polished hip hop dance routine, occasionally pointing and winking at screaming girls in the crowd. The music ends, he holds his final pose, before bowing, and running off stage.
I’ve seen what I came to see. I make my way to the exit, passing the same singletted couple, still against the wall, and the bubblegum girls, now asleep.
When he is a she, Sneakers is Danica, a RailCorp train guard. She’s been Sneakers for six years now. For her, it’s just another mode of performance, another form of theatrical expression, albeit one that’s less well known. She’s used to explaining what a drag king is, and how it differs from drag queens. According to Danica, the primary difference lies in the level of excess in performing to a masculine or feminine stereotype. “Queens seem to put a lot of effort into really looking like the opposite sex,” she says. “Whereas I find that kings still want you to know it’s a girl. That’s what people find attractive about drag kings, they look like a guy but you can still tell [it’s a woman].”
The clothes that Sneakers wears are from Danica’s everyday wardrobe. The only difference in Sneakers’ and Danica’s appearance is her painted on beard, the latex singlet she uses to strap her breasts down, and the sock down the front of her jeans. Rather than a separate identity, he is a version of her. “Sneakers is more like certain traits of mine that are exaggerated for that character,” she says. “He’s a lot more cheekier, and he’s definitely a lot more cocky!” He’ll sometimes hang around after a performance, flirting with his fans, showing off, and apparently, getting Danica into trouble.
Sneakers is a cruisy, cool and collected ladies man. However, this is only one type of masculine stereotype. I’m sure you’re aware of others. Just as there are different types of men, it’s only sensible to assume there are different types of drag kings.
Hermann’s is not the first place I think of when I think of places to see a drag show. Yet, courtesy of our USU queer coordinators, earlier this year I finished class, and wandered down to our friendly student bar to partake in a queer subcultural experience. As you do. After getting some pizza and some free beer, I settled into my piece of floor space to enjoy the show.
Bonnie Latoosh is up first, a queer performer who does a pretty fantastic and creepy dance to Katy Perry’s California Girls. Then it’s my man, Antonio Mantonio’s turn. Wearing silver booty shorts, with a tennis ball stuffed in the crotch, a blue ‘poolboy’ tshirt, runners, a blonde bowl cut wig, and glittery facial hair, Mantonio is quite the image.
He runs out, all hyped up on this weird mix of machismo and camp. ‘Pornstar’ by semi-obscure Aussie pop-rock band Amy Meredith begins, and he commences a loosely choreographed routine full of air humping, John Travolta ala Saturday Night Fever finger pointing, and tonnes of energy. For the duration of the song, Mantonio is running to stage right, humping the air, running to stage left, doing some finger pointing, rinse, and repeat. The extreme amount of energy (and pre-pubescent face, despite the glittery facial hair) makes it seem like someone just gave a 12 year old a lot of red cordial and pushed them on stage. Nevertheless, it’s this camp over-performance that audiences love Antonio Mantonio for.
I try to find Antonio after the show, but he’s disappeared. I stay on, drink some more free booze, and indulge in campus life.
Later, when I catch up with Olivia, a university student and Antonio’s alter ego, I find out why he disappeared. “I feel very uncomfortable with people interacting with Antonio off stage,” she says. “Because he’s a theatrical construct, he doesn’t really exist, he doesn’t really have his own personality outside three and a half minutes on stage.” Olivia sees Antonio as completely separate from herself. “There’s a very clear distinction between where I begin and where Antonio ends…that’s very strictly delineated.”
According to Olivia, the main distinction between drag queens and drag kings is their performance mode, and this is mainly due to their audience. “There is a lot more sex and a lot more androgyny [with drag kings], whereas with queens it’s more of a humorous thing and a camp thing,” she says. “In the lesbian community we don’t have that campness [sic], or that appreciation for that, so the only way as a king that you’re going to appeal to lesbians is through sex, basically.” Antonio’s performance and costume changes for his audience. When he performs at The Sly Fox, he amps up his sex appeal, and tones down his “campness”.
Olivia believes that while drag queens are certainly far more well known, the visibility surrounding drag kings is increasing as lesbians become a more vocal part of the queer community. “They’re [queer event organisers] starting to include more drag kings, because the lesbians get annoyed when there’s not enough of us, which is great. But, I always wanted to get shows because I’m just as good as a queen, not because I happen to be one of the few drag kings.”
Drag queens have been recognised as such, and associated with the gay community, since the early twentieth century. While women have been impersonating men in theatre for over a hundred years, the term “drag king” did not come about until the 1990s, when the impersonation began to be associated with a lesbian subculture. This delay could explain the difference in popularity of the two types of drag.
Kerryn Drysdale, an expert in drag kings, says this has a lot to do with the invisibility of lesbianism as a whole. “Within a lot of the gay and lesbian liberation movements [of the 1960s and 70s], the primary term of reference is the gay male,” Drysdale explains. “So a lot of lesbian culture is either just conflated or ignored. It’s either considered to be identical to gay male culture, therefore not worthy of any kind of unique study; or it’s just simply forgotten that it exists.”
Drysdale is certain the drag king mode of performance is associated firmly with the lesbian subculture, while drag queens have been able to break free of their subcultural bonds and enjoy mainstream recognition. This is partly due to the differences in performing masculinity and in performing femininity. She claims drag queens play on the “excess around performing femininity”, creating a caricature of the woman which is more “visually appealing” in all its camp theatricality.
Theorists like Judith Halberstam will argue that drag kings do not have that same camp aesthetic. She coined the term “kinging” to describe the mode of performance of a drag king, one which is less about being camp and comical, and more about performing to a certain male stereotype, like Sneakers and his cool, ladies man demeanour.
It’s hard to know if the popularity of drag kings will catch up with queens over time. Perhaps the two are too different to both enjoy mainstream popularity. Perhaps “kinging” will never be as visually appealing as camp performance. “I wonder, whether it would simply be a matter of exposure that would change drag kinging and let more people in on the joke, so to speak,” Drysdale says. “Or whether the fact that it is a subcultural phenomenon can’t be divorced… perhaps you really have to keep it as a subcultural phenomenon for the joke to work.”
And then it becomes a matter of whether the lesbian subculture will want to share their “joke” with everyone else. Drysdale isn’t sure. “There’s something nice about going to a predominantly lesbian subcultural space and seeing a drag king show, and knowing that there is something you have in common with all these people here. It’s a lot different from the experience at any mainstream club. It’s special.”