The drag king scene in Britain is fast gaining a huge following. Minnie Stephenson meets the stars of this gender-defying world
Photography: Sarah Brimley
Backstage, in a basement bar in neon-lit Soho, Richard is staring intently in the mirror. His short hair is combed into a quiff, a smart suit jacket hugging his broad shoulders. Drawing a deep breath, and puffing out his chest, he reaches into a bowl and takes a handful of hair clippings, before meticulously applying them to his chin in the shape of a goatee beard.
Look a bit closer at those shoulders and you’d discover that, rather than the result of a gym regime, they’re actually just plastic inserts to exaggerate his ‘manly’ physique. Because, beyond the stage that he’s about to perform on, Richard doesn’t officially exist. By day, Richard is actually Zoe, a 22-year-old health and safety worker from Essex.
Richard is a drag king: part of the gender-defying performance art scene fast gaining a huge British following. Drag kings are, as you would expect, the opposite of drag queens – a display of hyper-masculinity, prosthetic packages and ego. They’re bold and often sexual, though being a drag king has little to do with sexuality – the women who portray these male alter-egos can be straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderfluid and non-binary (not identifying as just male or female).
In fact, in this illusory world, the lines of gender are purposefully blurred and social constructs are obliterated. On stage, the singing, dancing, miming, lip-syncing entertainers are whoever they want to be. And that freedom is perhaps why drag king culture – which has been around since the late 1800s and became a movement in its own right in the Nineties – is currently more popular than ever.
“The current growth is born out of younger generations of women,” explains Dr Meagan Tyler, an expert in gender and feminist theory. “They are less bound by traditional paradigms of gender conduct in the wake of various feminist movements. Social attitudes in this country are undergoing tremendous changes when it comes to acceptance of otherness.”
Add to this the number of celebrities now talking about being gender fluid – such as Ruby Rose, and Lady Gaga’s drag alter ego, Jo Calderone – or even transgender and it’s not hard to see why drag kings are gaining popularity. Some acts are accumulating more than 50,000 hits on YouTube. And while five years ago, there were just three or four drag kings getting regular work, now there are around 60 working in the UK. Brighton’s The Marlborough Theatre runs an annual drag king competition and last year saw the opening of the UK’s first karaoke bar for drag kings in Blackpool – while east London’s Man Up contest, at The Glory in Haggerston, is the biggest in the country and sees 12 acts per week battle for a £1,000 prize.
“At its heart, drag is about exploring elements of your personality that you’d never usually get to express,” continues Dr Tyler. “In a stage performance you’re not being limited. It could be a way for women – on and off the stage – to think about what these outrageous displays of masculinity look and feel like.”
In London, Boi Box, a drag king night celebrating its third birthday next month, is held every last Thursday of the month at Soho’s She Bar. Considered by many to be the “mother ship” of the city’s lesbian community, the bar has also become a mecca for drag kings. When Boi Box began in 2013, the drag kings would rarely see more than 15 people turn up regularly – now, it’s closer to 100. And on the night Stylist arrives to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse it’s no different.
In fact, it’s uncomfortably packed. The crowd in the basement, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, are skin-to-skin, and it’s stuffy with heat. Everyone is drinking and laughing; I can already feel the threat of 80-plus hangovers burgeoning ahead of the morning. When the drag kings take to the stage at 8pm to uproarious applause they have a boyband-esque presence. What the audience don’t know is that they’ve been preparing for hours.
Behind the scenes, the drag kings – as many as five or six might perform on one night – rifle through overflowing suitcases and huge make-up boxes. “I always get ready at the venue,” Benjamin Butch (real name Bethan Rainforth), a 22-year-old sales assistant originally from Lincoln, tells me. “Being in drag on public transport is not a pleasant experience. I start with make-up, which my fiancée does for me, then hair (it’s short, though some people use wigs), then body – binding [to strap down the chest] before contouring my abs with make-up, though some people use Sharpies for darker lines. I find binders annoying, so I use sports tape on my chest; it’s comfier. And then it’s the package – a prosthetic penis – and the right outfit. Because, of course, the clothes maketh the man…”
The performances vary, but most are combinations of lip-syncing, dancing and singing. Adam All, who runs Boi Box with his girlfriend, Apple, is a singer and considered to be one of the godfathers of the drag scene. By day, 32-year-old Adam goes by the name of Jen Powell, a Great British Bake Off fan living with Apple (or Ellie as she’s known when not in character as Adam’s girfriend) and working as a joiner and decorator in Stoke Newington. Tonight, Adam has gone all out: dressed in a gold satin suit, with a fake moustache, side-burns and a bow-tie, he wouldn’t look out of place on a futuristic game show.
“When I’m Adam, I feel powerful and liberated,” Jen, who started out as a drag king 13 years ago, explains. “The first time I dressed in drag I was 17, and my first public appearance on stage was at 19. It was quite nerve-wracking; I didn’t know how people would react. Yet the audience loved it. It felt so free to be appreciated for myself, or the part of myself that I previously had to keep hidden away all the time.
“People mistook my gender from as young as four-years-old. I never fitted the typically feminine stereotype and I found it really hurtful. I struggled with gender identity between the age of 18 and 22, and considered transitioning to male at one point, but in the end it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”
Being Adam means being in control of other people’s perceptions says Jen, who is non-binary. “I get the last laugh now. The way we define gender is stupid and limiting. But with Adam I can express my masculine side and feel confident. Performing Adam – I sing and do comedy – is like having an outward discussion with myself about who I am. My family are supportive – my dad even let me borrow his cuff-links for my first show. When I’m in drag, I have no `fears about what people think.”
Like most drag kings, Adam has a back story. He’s a‘lad’ – brash, full of bravado and obsessed with women. Adam All has ‘had them all’, but in reality he rarely pulls.
“Being Adam comes naturally to me,” Jen adds. “He embodies an exaggerated, theatrical version of the masculine side of me. He’s like a caricature.”
Brave new world
Creating a character I learn, as I chat to the kings while they prep their looks and listen to music before the show, is a huge part of this world. Take Richard (surname Von Wild): he’s an Essex guy with a mundane nine-to-five job, who is wild-at-heart with an impetuous nature. He has helped Zoe Wild, who created him, become more confident. “I take elements of Richard into my daily life,” Zoe says. “Mostly his bravery.”
Zoe found drag after coming across Adam All on YouTube: “I was hooked immediately. Being Richard is a huge part of who I am. Day to day I suffer with anxiety and I have had depression. Being in character enables me to forget all those things: Richard doesn’t suffer with anxiety. He doesn’t get nervous.
“I’ve had partners who have been fine with it, and partners who have taken issue with it. But I’ve learned that I have to do what’s right for me – all of me.
“Through Richard I’ve also been able to become a lot more feminine than I was, because previously I didn’t have a way of expressing my more masculine side. That’s not the same for all kings; we’re all different. But it’s true for me.”
As I watch the acts perform one after another, Zoe’s words ring in my ears: no two are the same. Some are brassier, some emulate pop culture characters, like Captain Jack Sparrow. They talk to the audience and soon, the women watching are screaming back. Sammy Silver is “camp and sassy,” – the opposite of his creator, Sally Paskins, 23. She gave up a desk job to focus on drag, and found it eased her anxiety and body issues, such as body dysmorphia. “I’m very shy when it comes to dating people but when I’m in drag I’m suddenly this very confident, vivacious person. Sammy is someone I want to be… I’m just not quite there yet.”
For Chiyo, 20, a student from Tottenham, and many others in the community who are trans, having drag as an outlet is a lifeline. Chiyo wishes to transition to male in the future, but is currently living a double life. “My mum doesn’t know that I’m a drag king or that I want to transition,” Chiyo explains. “She would think it’s just a phase. When I’m in drag I just feel so empowered. It’s not the fact that I’m a drag king that gives me these feelings: it’s because I’m being my true self.”
Chiyo says the community saved him from suicidal thoughts, and it’s clearly empowered hundreds of others to embrace and explore the different facets of their beings. However, kings are still less accepted than drag queens in society – and recently there was an outcry when kings were excluded from TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. When I catch up with the drag kings after the show, they tell me they have been treated with nothing but kindness and support from the drag queen community – but there is a definitive gap in how often kings are booked compared to queens, and presumably, how much they earn too, though the kings themselves are reluctant to tell me their rates.
The drag gap
Still, it strikes me that in a sub-culture that supposedly renders gender and gender-constructed power futile, female acts are still a minority and therefore, potentially marginalised. “But that is changing,” Jen explains. “As visibility of drag kings becomes more prominent, we get booked more and the gap begins to close.”
Dr Maria Jaschok, a gender specialist at Oxford University, adds that drag artists are actually doing us all a favour when it comes to gender equality. “In drag, performers are destabilising the cultural corners of where existing gender roles lie,” she says.
What’s more, the shows are genuinely entertaining. No matter what their act, all of the kings whip the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. The drag scene is fun, it’s explorative and exciting. It’s inclusive. Underneath the sports tape and Tupperware full of beard hair, every drag king I met had one thing in common. Whether they were gay, straight, bi, non-binary, black, white or perma-tanned, they had found a movement where they finally belonged. Amen to that.
Boi Box Event Photography: paulgrace-eventphotos.co.uk
Additional make-up: Jess Whitbread at S Management