In the so-called “golden age of drag,” kings are frequently notably absent from the narrative.
March 8, 2018Culture
By Nicole Phelps
Photographed by Stef Mitchell
In the span of a week in January, the New York Times declared this the golden age of drag (with a few caveats), put RuPaul on the cover of the magazine, called Drag Race “the most radical show on TV,” and began posting weekly recaps of the third season of Drag Race All Stars. Drag has gone mainstream, and it’s been a long time coming: RuPaul’s first show started airing on VH1 back in 1996.
But where are the kings? When I asked that question, more than a few people had their own for me: What’s a drag king?
Historically, drag kings have been female performance artists who wear masculine drag and personify male gender stereotypes. But as understandings of gender have become more fluid in recent years, so too has this definition; now, there are trans men kings, nonbinary kings, and even cisgender men who perform as drag kings—just as there are cisgender women who perform as queens. “Today’s drag is more expansive, gender-bending, and really pushing the edge from all sides,” says Murray Hill, a veteran of New York’s downtown scene who appears in this portfolio. “It’s a raw, kinda messy, fuck-you, anything goes vibe.” Rain Dove, a model and activist who also posed for Vogue, doesn’t consider what she does drag at all; on Instagram, where she has 215,000 followers and counting, she calls herself a “gender capitalist,” meaning she opts to code as a woman or a man depending on which will get her the most out of any given situation.
Even as the world of drag kings expands, it remains more or less absent in pop culture. Solving that riddle is complex, but a good place to start is women’s underrepresentation in front of and behind the camera (only 11 percent of movies are directed by women, as Jimmy Kimmel reminded us during his Oscars monologue on Sunday night). More knotty: When women assume male characteristics they deny the patriarchy what it sees as their traditional roles. For certain parts of society, that’s threatening.
Nonetheless, these drag kings persist. “Drag is therapy,” says Ivory Onyx, a California-based king who frequently impersonates Bruno Mars. “You can have a rough day, and go out in front of a crowd and the energy they give you can pull you out of whatever you have going on.” Putting on a David Bowie costume and performing his song “Time” changed Gene Jeanie’s life in the profoundest of ways. “Drag is what sent me on the path to discovering my queerness. I don’t know if I would’ve found this aspect of myself otherwise.”
Titles: “Mister USofA MI 2013 and Mister USofA MI Classic 2017; I have my stepdown for Mister USofA MI Classic at Club Masque in Dayton, Ohio, on March 24.”
Regular gigs: Every first Friday of the month at Hamburger Mary’s Ontario, California; every second Saturday at Hamburger Mary’s Long Beach, California; every fourth Wednesday at VLVT Lounge, Santa Ana, California.
When did your life as a drag king begin?
I began 19 years ago in 1999. I started in Northampton, Massachusetts, at a little club that was a staple in the community called the Grotto; it no longer exists. I’m from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and the Grotto was the only gay club that I knew of. I started performing when I was just under 18.
That’s a long time. Why has the world been slower to embrace drag kings than queens?
Being involved as long as I’ve been, I’ve seen very intense growth. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen it go leaps and bounds in the quantity and creativity of the kings all over the world. But drag kings have been around since the beginning of time; it’s not something new. Historically, the queens get more attention. There are many different perspectives on it. Some say it’s still the patriarchy even if it’s in drag. So, there are the inherent characteristics that men are born with and nurtured with that carry over into the drag community.
What makes you say that the drag king community is growing?
When I started, every drag king wore a suit or jeans and a T-shirt. Your facial hair was a goatee or a chin strap. It was very bland. Your job as a drag king was to emit the most amount of masculinity. Now you look at drag kings—kings like Landon Cider, Spikey Van Dykey—there are all sorts of different spectrums. You have more effeminate drag kings, you have people who portray genderless drag kings, you have people who play with their makeup, their costuming; they integrate music, dance, art, fire-breathing, and different things that are giving drag kings more depth. Now, people are becoming more confident; [thanks to] more exposure with social media, people are gaining inspiration from people trying new things. You’re getting a lot more depth and we’re gaining a lot more traction than before.
How do you describe your drag style?
I perform more of a sex-driven performance. I portray a ladies’ man. The body, the presence, the GQ. That’s my style; I use accessories, rhinestones like nobody’s business, color, and things that pop off. I impersonate Bruno Mars. I’ve been dancing since I was 3 years old, so in just about every performance, I do a dance, whether it be lyrical, hip-hop, jazz. I also have a knack for production, so I put on productions with large dance groups that I choreograph. I perform pretty much weekly. But I’m also a two-time national title holder, the first and only one in my system to have two national titles, so I go all over the country. I perform in just about every state up and down the East Coast: Texas, Louisiana, Ohio. I create pageants. There are three categories: a personal interview, an eveningwear category where you have to create and model eveningwear, and a talent category; the person with the most cumulative points wins. You reign for a year, you travel to the other preliminaries as a national representative for the pageant, the competition happens again, you get to crown your successor, and that’s your stepdown.
How did it feel to win?
It was absolutely incredible. I competed with 13 people and any one of them could’ve been the one whose name was called. And I was able to travel around the country and help people not only in their drag career but also in their pageantry career. You’re a coach, a mentor. I have 17 contestants this year. One of these 17 contestants will achieve their dream and get to be part of that. It is really awesome.
What does it take to win?
Every year, the spectrum gets wider and wider. You don’t want to be exactly like anybody else; you want to be your own person. If you want a career as a king, you can’t be somebody else. You have to have something that identifies you: That is your mark. It can’t be what somebody did before you.
What’s your mark?
My mark? My mark is class. I hold myself to a very high standard. When I say class, it’s not just how you dress and how you look, but also how you act and present yourself. No matter what show I do, whether there are two people in the crowd or 2,000, they get the same level of energy; it’s still going to be the best show I’ve ever put on. That’s what’s enabled me to have a career 19 years later: I’m constantly challenging myself to continue on with that class act and to always deliver.
Do you think the world is ready for Ivory Onyx’s Drag King Race?
Absolutely! There’s so much noise and excitement around drag kings. If a network would open their eyes and see what we have going on, it would be a winning show. The following that some of these kings have, the people who follow them on any sort of platform . . . it would be a winning deal. And I would love to see it just because it would challenge everybody to keep growing. It would give people inspiration. Drag is therapy to some people. You can have a rough day and go out in front of a crowd and the energy they give you can pull you out of whatever you have going on.
Is drag therapy for you?
It is. When I was a kid, my mom put me in dance class, and—because I was a girl—I had to learn all the girl parts even though I found the guy parts more interesting. I learned them on my own, but when it came to the recital, I’d have to do the girl parts. I enjoyed it to an extent, but I would’ve had so much more fun in those glittery outfits rather than the glittery tutu.
Pageants aside, what keeps you at it 19 years later?
What I’m really passionate about are kids and youth. I grew up a very sheltered person. My parents were very protective. I didn’t know what the world was, and I was bullied all the way through my senior year in high school. Because I dressed like a boy, they called me a lesbian or a dyke, or shoved me in my locker. I wanted to play football and they were rough to me on the field because I was a girl and [they thought] I shouldn’t have been there. Something that has always been with me is to show that it doesn’t matter how you started out and it doesn’t matter what you’re going through now: It does get better. One of my drag nephews was 13 when he started drag, so, very, very young, and he was also someone who was getting bullied. If you’re an entertainer—it doesn’t matter if you’re a drag queen or king—there’s someone looking up to you, and you have to spend the time to share your story; otherwise, it’s all for naught. Sometimes it’s difficult. But if my difficulty can help somebody else get through theirs, that’s what gives me meaning and turns something negative into something positive.
Greatest hits: “Club Swizzle at the Sydney Opera House, Dita Von Teese national tours, the Murray Hill Christmas show, and I just got the New York Voices grant from Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, debuting in Edinburgh this summer and in New York at Joe’s in September.”
When and where did you first perform in drag?
My unofficial—I didn’t know it was happening at the time—debut was in fourth grade; I was about the same height as I am today! I dressed up as Schneider from One Day at a Time—mustache, tool belt, denim vest, and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in my sleeve. I stole a pack of Salem Menthols from my dad to make it authentic. Fast-forward to the Lower East Side NYC in 1997, and I first performed as Murray as the puffy, sweaty, over-the-top, glitter-jumpsuited Elvis. This was about 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday at a little hole-in-the-wall club called Cake. On the same night, eight blocks up and two avenues over, I was hosting this party 99999’s at Flamingo East with Penny Tuesdae and Fancy. It was there that I started wearing tuxedos and was the fun guy in the room who would jump onstage every now and then. My first song, which I butchered, was “New York, New York.” To this day, I never sing that song the same way twice . . . showbiz.
How do you see drag as having changed since you started in the mid-’90s?
My liver is about to give out and I have another chin on top of the double chin I’ve had since birth . . . and the drag I was part of in the ’90s has now changed quite a bit, too. Back then, we didn’t have the language, the words, the visibility we have now. Today’s drag kings and the drag that I see in Brooklyn is more expansive, gender fluid, gender-bending, and really pushing the edge from all sides . . . a raw, kind of messy, fuck-you-anything-goes kind of vibe.
Drag has been mainstreamed, but it seems to me that the stories I’m reading are about queens, not kings. Why do you think that is?
It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. My main mission when I first started 20 years ago was to raise the visibility, to take up space, and to even out the playing field. Much progress has been made, but, as you’ve noticed, especially with the recent media coverage, there is a lot of work left to do. Why is this happening? Well, that’s a loaded question. There are so many tides turning right now, and the “others” are getting a chance to tell their stories. I think we are close to change . . . and for different representations of drag to break through. I’m still pushing every day. Also, we cannot underestimate the reach and impact RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race has had for performers, audiences, the queer community, and pop culture. Think about it, Ru’s first TV show on VH1 was in 1996! It was one of the first national television shows in the U.S. hosted by an openly gay and drag host. That was a long time ago, and now, Ru is back and has conquered the mainstream. RuPaul has been in the game since the ’80s; this was in no way an overnight sensation. It’s taken decades to get to this saturation point.
How do you describe your drag style?
Showbiz-meets-schtick-meets-Spanx. Also, whatever suit fits at the time is the one that I wear. My suits are custom-made and I wear them with big lapels as a nod to The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in the ’70s.
What is Murray’s defining characteristic?
Showbiz, of course.
How has drag, or being Murray, changed your life?
Murray has given me life. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be traveling around the world making people laugh. Through Murray, I get to meet so many incredible people and learn so much about life and living and what’s possible. He got me out of the suburbs. I like to say, to anyone who will listen, if you don’t see yourself represented, then go out and represent yourself.
What’s your dream gig?
Having my own talk show like my hero, the best who ever did it, Johnny Carson.
Upcoming gigs: Mother: Bowie Tribute With Raja!, Dandy Drag King Cabaret: Dandy in Space, March 10 and 11 at SF Oasis, and Drag King Project launch tour, March 17 at Queen of Hearts Art Gallery, San Francisco
How did Gene Jeanie come to be?
A few different things came together to start it. A few years ago, I made a David Bowie costume for Halloween. I was interested in re-creating some of his costumes, but at that point, I hadn’t made the connection that I could perform in them, too. Then, I started going to local drag shows and started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race; I was probably doing that for about a year when David Bowie died. That’s when one of my drag queen friends, Katana Rei, who hosts a show in Stockton [an hour north of where I live], invited me to do a tribute performance. She said, “Try to come up with a name you like because if you like this, you can keep doing it.” And that’s basically where it started. I went into it with one costume and a wig. I have a visual art background and a BFA, but I literally had no performance experience. Basically, I’m learning to sew by doing drag.
Describe your act.
It’s a pretty straightforward impersonation of David Bowie. What’s really hard is that Bowie wasn’t performing traditional masculinity; there were aspects of his performance that were very feminine. He would oscillate between the two constantly. I know I’m nowhere near close to capturing that, so I study. Most of the looks and songs I do are from the early- to mid-’70s; those songs and those looks lend themselves the most to drag, and a lot of them have really good narratives. One I really like a lot is “Time”, off of Aladdin Sane, and I like “Jean Genie,” which is where I get my name. What’s challenging about interpreting the characters he did is that those characters were very androgynous. Also, so many of the outfits are so revealing that I can’t really hide the fact that I’m a woman. I try to choose outfits where I can hide or minimize my breasts. And sometimes I pack to give myself a bit of a bulge, sometimes I don’t. But I’m not trying to pass. There are some drag kings I know who make very convincing men. I’m not trying to do that.
What attracted you to David Bowie’s music in the first place?
I’m 29 now and I really got into Bowie during my freshman year of college [at California State University Stanislaus]. People had warned me that the Central Valley was really different from the Bay Area where I grew up, but I didn’t realize how different and how isolating it would be. Just physically isolating: There’s the city and it’s surrounded by miles of farmland. Freshman year is when I started listening to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory, and The Man Who Sold the World. I think a lot of David Bowie’s music is written from this point of view of someone who is isolated and alien; that’s what I’ve kind of related to my whole life, but especially that first year of college, moving to a place that was culturally and politically conservative. It’s something I still struggle with living here.
Did you have any awareness of drag kings before you started performing?
I really didn’t. The club I had been going to in Stockton—it’s called Paradise Night Club—it’s this little, tiny bar. That’s where I first started going to drag shows. They used to have a monthly drag king show. Some of the queens there encouraged me to start performing. One downside to RuPaul’s Drag Race . . . It’s really a groundbreaking show in a lot of ways, but it really only represents a small slice of what’s out there. My perspective as a drag king is that of a queer, cisgender woman, but not all people who perform as kings identify as women. There are many kings who identify as trans and non-binary, for example. There are also a lot of drag performers who don’t fit neatly into either the queen or king categories. It’s not always about passing as the opposite sex; that’s not the ultimate goal. And honestly, some of the best drag queens I know are women, like Jillian Gnarling and Crème Fatale.
Do you think a drag king competition show has any chance of making it on TV?
I would hope so. Everyday people know about drag now. I hope that the better awareness will help open the door for people who don’t fit into the categories you see on Drag Race. But I do feel like drag king relationships and communities can be a bit different than the queens. I’m not sure how helpful a competition-based show would be. Maybe a documentary-based show would be more interesting.
Has drag changed your life?
Before I started doing drag, I was a straight-identified person and I am no longer. In the last year, I started the process of coming out as queer to family and friends. I really feel like getting involved in drag and spending time in queer spaces . . . Drag is what sent me on the path to discovering my queerness. It’s been this amazing artistic journey and experience. I don’t know if I would’ve found this aspect of myself if it weren’t for drag.
Do you call what you do drag at all?
I call what I do survival. Gender capitalism is the term I use. I observe the world around me and try to figure out what will get me the most out of it. Sometimes you’ll get the exact same thing being perceived as either gender. But for the most part, there’s a pretty clear line. What it means to look like a woman or man changes regionally—from mannerisms to clothes to posture to makeup to even your vocals—so I just observe, and I replicate. It seems to be working out pretty well.
So, is it performance art?
It’s definitely a performance. The me that is me is not my body. It’s an awareness and an experience. Everything I’m doing, it’s a show. Maybe one of the most dangerous shows you can put on, because if you get it wrong, there can be dire and violent consequences. I do it because I don’t believe we should have to have a specific costume or we should have to be perceived as having specific genitals or a specific type of birth certificate to get the best out of the people around us. We should get it based on our own merit. And so, I do a lot of documentation, a lot of social experiments; I’ll go out into the world and document my experience being perceived as what we consider to be male or female in the same situation, and I’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages I experience.
Tell me about one.
I just did an experiment at a bunch of barber shops and salons, about 200 in New York, L.A., and London. I asked them all for the same type of haircut, short on sides and long on top. The women’s haircut cost about 40 percent more than going into men’s barbershops, and the most common answer was, Well, women want a luxury hair-care experience, and that’s what they’ve been taught, so we can charge more. The barbershops say, Men already get charged so much, so giving men a good price on a haircut is the least we can do. I find when I’m perceived as male in society, there is an enormous amount of pressure, but it comes with respect, so it’s a balance. People expect you to die first, they expect you to have your shit together, and they expect you to be intelligent. These are both privileges and burdens, and I think that men feel like there aren’t a lot of safety nets for them. There’s not a lot of margin for error. A lot of people don’t like me talking about the oppression of men in society because we have a lot of focus on the oppression of women. I believe everyone should be seen individually because we all experience our own struggles, but, unfortunately, we don’t look at people as individuals. We look at people on a binary scale. Still, people hate it; they’re like, “Men are fine,” but they’re not. They have a higher rate of suicide, addiction, and violence. A lot of men feel like they can’t live up to the standards we put in place for them.
Most days, how do you identify?
I identify with my body, but I don’t identify it as male or female, I just identify it as a vehicle to help me bring my awareness around the world. I see myself as an experience, and I have this awesome vessel. It functions in a particular way. I’ve got tits and that’s pretty cool, I’ve got ovaries that are working overtime half the time, but I don’t see them as being comparable to any particular individual’s because my body doesn’t function exactly like other people’s with tits and ovaries. If we were meant to be comparable to other people sexually, then we’d look more like ants. But we don’t; we’re all unique vessels. I don’t really feel male or female; I just feel like me. But if someone says, “You have a vagina, doesn’t that make you a woman?” I let them define me. So, I’m like, “Sure, yeah, of course.” And if they’re like, “Hey, you look like a man, are you a man?” I’m like, “Of course.” I just go with it. Other people’s perception is their reality. I just want the best from the world around me and whatever I have to do to get it, that’s what I’ll do.
How did you get to be so free-thinking?
After taking a lot of time and observing why I felt so ugly and so down and alone [when I was younger], I realized that I had been born into a prison that I didn’t sign up for. That prison is language. I was letting language define me. Now, I just look for good intentions. Instead of listening to the history of sound—ooh, what does a she mean? what does a he mean?—I just look at body language. That’s the language that I listen to. For some people, language is so important, they’ve died or lost their families or careers or home for the right to be able to identify with the history of the sound. Like a trans person who’s fought for the right be called she. I just let everyone do their thing; I don’t get offended. We’re in a really complicated place in the world. There are more labels than there have ever been, and yet this is the generation that’s fighting against labels. It’s very confusing, but I believe we’re heading in a profound evolutionary direction. It’s going to be exciting to see what the next 10 years are going to be like for us, but it’s messy right now.
Where did your 200,000-plus Instagram followers come from?
People see a lot of content and people know when you’re doing something for yourself and when it’s honest. What I do is activism. My hashtag is #educatenothate. I don’t want to talk to an echo chamber. I mean, I do want to talk to the people who say, “I love you, you’re great, marry me, masturbate on my photo, or whatever.” [Laughs.] I feel like I have this privilege of having a career because I’ve been put into a place of visibility, so I feel very obligated to speak to those who would die for who we are. I do a lot of work talking to the people like the Westboro Baptist Church, I just talked to the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull about how to further LGBTI rights, I’m getting ready to go to Jakarta to fight illegalized homosexuality, and I’ll be doing some activism there. [Following me,] it’s not about buying Givenchy, it’s about buying a lifestyle, and that lifestyle is a better future.
So, what about your wardrobe?
When I open up my dresser, it’s like I’m opening up a toolbox. I see every garment as a tool and it helps me access the world around me. I think, What kind of day do I want to have? What kind of people am I likely to encounter today? How am I likely to get more out of them? Then, I put my outfit together like an architect. It’s almost like a blueprint for the experience I’m going to have that day.
Is it the clothes that code you as a guy or as a girl? Could you be in a man’s suit and coding as a woman?
Absolutely. It’s multiple layers. You have to look at posture, vocals, mannerisms. I went down to North Carolina to fight HB2 [the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act], and I stood in front of the bathrooms in a dress and asked which one I should go into and everybody said, “Sir, just go into the men’s room, you’re fine.”
Does the activist community take you less seriously because of your modeling?
I get “You’re a model, just shut up and look pretty” all the time. While I make most of my impact doing activism and I’m known mostly for modeling, I actually make most of my money public speaking. I travel all around the world and talk about identity and diversity and how to get the people who want to hurt us to a place where, even if they don’t agree with us, they’ll at least keep their hands to themselves. “The Business of Being You,” that’s essentially the talk. You know, how to turn ourselves into our own sustainable place, emotionally and financially.
In one of your pictures, you’re wearing a shirt that says Gender Is Over. Is it?
It says gender is over, if you want it. I told them it has to have that little clause at the bottom because I don’t want to upset people. Some people, that concept, the history of he or she, it means so much to them. Who am I to say, “Everything you are is a lie.”
Any parting thoughts?
I always say, “If you’re in a place in your life where you’re underage and you feel like you can’t be yourself, if you’re in a conservative or dangerous environment, remember that this time period in your life is temporary. You will be an adult and you’ll have the freedom to go anywhere in the world you want to go.” I always say: “You’re not alone. There are people in the world who will love you for who you are, and I am one of them.” Too many people give up before they find their tribe in the world, and their tribe is waiting.
Casting: Olivia Horner
Visual Producer: Elizabeth Yowe
Special thanks to Joe's Pub (Murray Hill portrait); The Standard Highline, Jenni Hensler
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