Unless you've been a hermit for your entire life, the chances are you'll know that drag queens exist and you may have seen a few performances. But how many people can say they've seen a drag king performance? Possibly the most famous depiction of drag king life in the British mainstream media was, and still is, the BBC's adaptation of Sarah Water's novel Tipping the Velvet released in 2002 - fifteen years ago! I'd like to let you know that drag kings are alive and well in the UK - they're just not as prevalent or not at all prevalent in the media.
That said, bit by bit the scene is gaining more exposure, Lucy Le Brocq, a Brighton photographer who recently unveiled a photo exhibition on the drag king transformation process. Dragging Gender explores gender in all its beautiful forms and covers the grey area between male and female. I'm a huge fan of this project as it is an ode to the incredible creativity and art that goes into being a drag king. I've chosen some of my favourite pieces from Dragging Gender and scattered them throughout the article to give a more intimate perspective.
Ollie, Lucy Le Brocq
For this blog I spoke to some incredible drag kings about what being a drag king means to them, why they think they're not as prominent in the public eye and whether or not they actually want the recognition.
In the 1800s up until the early 1900s, drag kings were celebrities. Women such as Vesta Tilley and Hetty King were renowned for their music hall performances and adored by men and women alike. Today, pantomimes are a popular place to see women performing in men's roles - such as Dick Whittington and Prince Charming. Drag king performer Katrina Clifford, stage name Richard Reckless, elaborated a bit more on this, "I don't think drag kings are as prevalent in the media because although drag kinging is a profession that goes back to Victorian times and vaudevillian theatre with the likes of Vesta Tilley, we haven't had as much coverage in television and film in recent years. I also believe there is a possibility that in a patriarchal society women taking on masculine roles and identities may be perceived by the media as threatening as they like to keep us all in our little boxes."
Drag kings are usually exaggerated male characters and can often be found performing in mixed drag nights alongside drag queens where they are the sole king. Could this be the reason why drag kings are seemingly not as 'popular' as drag queens? Is our LGBTQI+ entertainment catered more for gay males than our community on the whole? Donnamarie Carol, who performs as drag king Eli Buck, said:
"Maybe it's because our community is male orientated. Kings have always been around we've just maybe not been as loud as our sisters, so to speak. I find that clubs and nights will always book a Queen over a King because maybe they think it'll get more butts in seats, that they'll sell more tickets. I myself have been rejected from entering competitions and pageants purely because I'm a King. So to be told "Sorry, but this is only for Drag Queens..." it can be more annoying and frustrating than anything. Because for me, I'm over here like "I do what they do. I put on a show, A drag show, I entertain and I've become bloody good at what I do."
The people who perform as drag kings come from such a diverse background - including hetereosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer and non-binary. Typically, a drag king will dance, lip-synch, sing live, act or perform stand-up comedy - or a combination of any of these. This is what makes the drag king community so fantastic - everyone is welcome to come and have a go...in fact it's encouraged. It isn't uncommon for drag kings to start out with some kind of mentor or inspiration.
Ollie, Lucy Le Brocq
Pauline Harrison, going by the performer name Ringo Taurez, has been a drag king for six years. She explained, "I became a drag king after my partner of 14 years left me. I was at an all time low as she broke my heart and I thought my life was over, till I met Valentino King [well-known performer in drag king circles] who encouraged me to be myself and I attended one of her workshops in Aug 2011."
Pauline then joined a drag king 'boi band' called Draglife and toured Salford, Warrington Manchester and Liverpool. She, then became a solo performer from 2013. She told me, "I enjoy performing it makes me feel loved. Being a drag king means a lot to me as it saved my life and when I am Ringo I have no problems for a short time. I could not imagine my life without Ringo in it."
"We do not get the same press as drag queens and can't understand why. I have posed for students who have been doing photography - but that's about it really."
Donnamarie found her drag king persona by chance. She said, "One of my local gay bars opened a drag night called The Rabbit Hole and had a competition called Wig Wars where anyone who was anyone could enter. So I did. I had been debating whether or not to enter. The thought of getting up on stage for everyone to see terrified me! But I'd watched the acts do it and was always completely blown away with what they did on stage entered anyway. And I am SO glad I did."
"Apart from seeing show's and being friends with a few Queens, I knew nothing about drag. I entered a drag competition, I didn't expect to fall in love with it. Although I didn't win, the host approached me after the show and told me that she had Queens but no King...and offered me residency there and then. I happily accepted and have been performing ever since."
Sammy Silver, Lucy Le Brocq
Katrina actively researched whether or not drag kings actually existed, "I started doing drag because I had always been very interested in drag queens such as Divine from watching films such as Polyester by the great John Waters. This interest grew and I wondered if there was a version for women and if there was... why it wasn't as publicised. I discovered drag kings were a thing from my research and thought i would give it a try! I have always been quite androgynous and I really enjoyed going full throttle and becoming my drag king self Richard Reckless!"
So what does the future hold for drag kings all over the UK? Donnamarie thinks that the advent of mainstream shows such as RuPaul's Drag Race can work in the favour of drag kings too. "People are used to seeing Drag Queens perform but not a drag King. I think that because of the likes of RuPaul's Drag Race becoming more mainstream. More people are venturing out to their local gay bars and catching drag shows and wanting to know more and more about drag. And while this is great for getting people to support their local drag, it's really starting to thrust Drag into the Social Media mainstream. I see more and more people especially on all social media platforms becoming more and more engrossed in the drag scene. And it's only recently that I've seen people get into the King thing. Which is wonderful!"
Calvin Decline, Lucy Le Brocq
Katrina said, "I think it would be a good thing if more drag kings gained exposure in mainstream media because I think many people don't even realise we exist which means they don't know there is an outlet for them to explore their own gender identity. Although, on the other hand, I do believe that by being more niche and underground there aren't so many rules or expectations to adhere to when performing drag."
Donnamarie said "As a King I think we deserve just as much recognition as the Queens. I know a fair few Queens that think this too. It can be hard, again speaking for myself here and from personal experience, being a King in a Queens world. Not just because you're introducing something to a crowd that might not have seen a King before but because sometimes..... the drag scene can be a little scary. For all the wonderful things I've seen, learned, know and experienced in and about the drag scene, it can also be one hell of a bitchy and negative place. Same with any scene I imagine. I've performed at places that was, shall we say a lot less accommodating to me because I was King. Not all drag acts are treated equally sometimes."
Calvin Decline, Lucy Le Brocq
Despite the inevitable 'scene drama' which you'll find in pretty much any collective consisting of any type of people, drag can be a magnificent way to discover who you really are. This is even the case when the drag king is playing a 'character' and not necessarily portraying a 'male' version of themselves - the latter of which is quite uncommon among kings!
"Before doing drag I identified as a lesbian but I've been doing drag now a little over a year and I've found more out about myself in that year than I have in my entire life," enthused Donnamarie, "I've learned that I'm actually gender fluid. Not that that matters, but y'know, I never knew that about myself so that's cool. When I become Eli, I am confident. I can actually talk to people, perform for them.... I'm starting to ooze confidence when I'm in drag. On and off the stage. And that's a wonderful feeling I've never had before. Plus, I get to make people smile and laugh. Which, for me, is the best feeling in the world."
I certainly hope drag kings get the recognition they deserve and, fortunately, it's starting to look that way. All we need to do is make sure these performers are given a platform to raise awareness that, yes, they exist, they're fabulous and they're sure as hell here to stay!
Benjamin Butch, Lucy Le Brocq