The blurring of gender boundaries has allowed for more freedom in online pageants — and soon, it's hoped, back in the clubs.
It should not be a big hairy deal that a 32-year-old Chicago-based drag performer named Tenderoni will be vying in a virtual talent competition Sunday, and yet it is truly a reason to wig out.
The pageant is called Drag Queen of the Year 2021. But despite a penchant for lip-syncing to Missy Elliott, Tenderoni isn't a drag queen. He's a drag king, which, generally speaking, means a performer born female who takes the stage in men's clothes. He is what was once called a "male impersonator," pencilled-on moustache, compressed chest and all.
Tenderoni, his creator says, "is a mashup of Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Prince, George Michael and Boy George."
It's drag, it's cosplay and, he hopes, it's enough to win.
While androgynous costume in this direction is hardly new — Marlene Dietrich famously set libidos afire in top hat and tuxedo in the 1930 movie classic Morocco — drag kings tend to be the lesser-exposed and underappreciated segment of drag. Casual fans who get their drag from TV or with a side of waffles at brunch, in fact, may never even have heard of this particular practice.
"In the past, many of our audience members didn't understand the concept of drag kings," said Chad Kampe, a producer who has been staging popular drag brunches in Minneapolis since 2012. "We often got questions."
Chief among them: "What the heck is a drag king?"
But now that drag has gone mainstream — the Season 13 premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race premiered on January 1 drew 1.3 million viewers, its highest-rated episode ever — performers who exaggerate and explore the tropes of manhood are getting a closer look.
Although a king has not yet been featured on Drag Race (a trans man named Gottmik who performs in female drag has), drag kings at last are getting more exposure elsewhere, and surprisingly, the pandemic may have helped.
The closing of bars and restaurants has hit most performers' pocketbooks hard, but the mandated move to online entertainment may have helped level the playing field.
"Covid made everyone have to go digital," said Tenderoni, who developed his act at Berlin, a club in Chicago. "That has made the audience for all kinds of drag so much bigger. I've done shows and heard, 'I'm from Brazil,' 'I'm from London.' It has opened the floodgates."
'A seat at the table'
The Drag Queen of the Year pageant takes such diversity as its mandate.
"We've worked with trans men and trans women and drag kings and all these different kinds of performers our whole lives," said Alaska 5000, 35, the RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars winner who founded the competition with a fellow drag queen, Lola LaCroix, in 2019.
Why, they wondered one sleepless night flying home from a gig, shouldn't such performers all compete against and celebrate each other? "Everyone has something to prove, and everyone brings so much," Alaska 5000 said. "What they do isn't just valid, it's fierce."
To that end, Tenderoni will go up against seven other disparate drag artists — some bearded, burly and burlesque; some Jessica Rabbit curvaceous; some known for their lingerie-clad muscles — for the Drag Queen of the Year crown in a show to be seen on the Sessions Live platform.
Whether he wins or not, it doesn't really matter. "This gives us a seat at the table," said Tenderoni, who started performing in drag less than five years ago. "Drag is a buffet. I don't need to be the main course — I just want to be included."
By appearing that night, he will earn a spot in a brotherhood of drag kings that, under various names, has been around for centuries.
Male mimics Vesta Tilley and Hetty King were widely celebrated on British music hall stages of the 19th century. Stormé DeLarverie, a Stonewall activist who preferred the term "male impersonator" to "drag king," passed for a man while touring America with the Jewel Box Revue in the '50s and '60s.
In the '80s, comedian and actress Lily Tomlin played Tommy Velour, a Las Vegas lounge lizard with more chest hair than talent. He lives on, in all his hirsute glory, on YouTube.
In a June 2000 episode of Sex and the City titled Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…, prim Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) is photographed in a moustache and a man's suit, and her portrait is featured in a gallery show. The show used real drag kings, but only as background players.
More recently, Vida, a Starz show about two Mexican American sisters, featured drag king Vico Suave, the creation of Vico Ortiz, a nonbinary actor. Tanya Saracho, the show's creator, said she wanted to include drag kings in the cast because they're an "underrepresented initiative" in queer entertainment. "The artistry is there," she said, asking, "Why are they not part of the mainstream wave that's happening right now with drag?"
Twenty-five years ago, fans had to venture far beyond their living rooms to underground clubs late at night to see drag kings perform. In New York back then, that meant a watering hole like Flamingo East on Second Avenue, in an East Village much rougher than it is today.
"Those early days in the clubs were electric, uncharted and riveting," said Murray Hill, 49, a New York comedian known as the "hardest-working middle-aged man in show business" since his emergence as a young drag king in 1995. His earliest drag performance was as a "fat sweaty Elvis," to use his words, at 2am on a Sunday at a party called Club Casanova at a venue called Cake on Avenue C. "It felt very underground," he said.
Mo B. Dick, 55, the drag king who ran Club Casanova before decamping for the West Coast in 2004, said that in that era, "it was more about drag king realness. You were passing as a male." Kings were spirit-gumming their own hair clippings to their chins and chests in the name of entertainment. The illusion worked well enough, but such makeovers would be considered underwhelming today.
Thanks to the special-effects-grade prosthetics and precision paint jobs seen on RuPaul's Drag Race, drag performers of every stripe have had to up their game. "Now when folks go to their local drag bar, they expect to see what they saw on television," said Kampe, the Minneapolis producer, which encourages artists "to continually invest in new looks."
Dick thinks standards have gone up. "These kids today, I'm pleased at how extraordinary they are," he said. "Now, there's more artistry and more makeup. Being a king is more 'draggy.' The showmanship is phenomenal." At a good brunch, he noted, "Performers now go through three or four costume changes during a one-hour show."
A 2018 all-drag-kings tribute to boy bands Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, held at a venue in Minneapolis called the Union Rooftop, was so popular that Kampe said he had to do six shows to meet the demand.
Dick recently created a website, dragkinghistory.com, to help new audiences learn about the art form's past. On February 21, he celebrated veteran drag kings with an international online event called Drag King Legends. The pay-what-you-can show featured stalwart performers like Fudgie Frottage of San Francisco, Flarington King of Toronto and Ken Vegas of Washington, DC. All have been drag kings for 25 years or more.
Hill, who is perhaps the RuPaul of drag kings, headlined the night. In the coming months, he will appear in roles on three high-profile TV series: Amy Schumer's Love, Beth on Hulu, Bridget Everett's Somebody Somewhere on HBO, and the American reboot of the British sitcom This Country, on which he will play a magician. "A regular character on TV is something I've wanted since I started over 25 years ago," he said.
Paul Feig, the producer-director of Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks and Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, wrote in an email that "I've been a huge fan of Murray's for a while. When Jenny Bicks and I sold This Country to Fox, one of my first goals was to get him on it. I love talented people who have their own unique take on the world and will do whatever I can to get them opportunities to shine."
Most drag kings, though, are still fighting an uphill battle. "Kings are rising in popularity in many large American cities, but they aren't provided with the same opportunities as queens," Kampe said.
Live shows often are booked by male promoters who may not appreciate drag king artistry. "Often, a show will feature a dozen queens and only one king," Kampe said. "Drag kings face as much discrimination in the workplace as women, and they often earn less."
Another obstacle, as Dick noted, is that audiences "don't necessarily see the comedy in a woman putting on a suit. Female masculinity is still scary to some people." There's less inherent theatricality and, up until now, less glitz to performing in male drag, too; plus, people are a lot more accustomed in everyday American life to seeing women in pants than men in skirts. "Doing a male character is so much harder than doing a female character," Alaska 5000 said. "Men are just not as exciting to look at."
'Reigning in the darkness'
But the most exciting drag kings are making do, spectacularly.
Landon Cider, 39, a performer in Long Beach, California, for instance, was the first drag king to win an American reality competition when, in 2019, he took home the title of America's Next Drag Super Monster on Dragula, a Netflix series that plays like a goth version of RuPaul's Drag Race. Wearing horror-movie-grade makeup of his own design, Cider ate live spiders on one episode and dressed as a blood-splattered, axe-wielding tin man from Oz on another. He was the lone king to compete on the show, but he nailed it in all his gory glory.
"We've been reigning in the darkness this entire time," he said. "Now we have more light shining down on us. If audiences think they're just getting a lesbian in their dad's clothes, I take that as a challenge to show them."
An online pageant isn't RuPaul's Drag Race. But it's not nothing.
"Seeing drag kings perform on these platforms and do well is another chip in the misogyny of the drag community," said Hugo Grrrl, 29, a performer in New Zealand who in 2018 won a televised drag competition called House of Drag.
Grrrl, who has gone from a self-described "mustachioed transvestite" to a trans man in the years since his win, said: "Audiences are learning that drag kinging is just as transformative and artistic and entertaining as drag queen art forms. They're wearing just as much makeup, glitter and shapewear."
With names like Vigor Mortis, Spikey Van Dykey, Jack Rabid and Freddie Prinze Charming, the latest drag kings were being nurtured in out-of-the-way venues in cities around the world, ones not unlike those clubs of the '90s. In New York, performance collectives like Brooklyn's Switch 'N Play, led by burlesque-inspired "sex symbol" K. James; Night Gowns, a series of events run by Sasha Velour, a Drag Race winner; and Cake Boys, out of Queens, have been fertile ground.
Typically, younger performers blur whatever is left of gender lines. As Grrrl put it, "Right now, if you don't have an 'AFAB performer,'" — meaning a cisgender woman, trans man or nonbinary person dressed as a drag queen — "or a drag king in your lineup, you're doing it wrong." The future of drag, he said, "is going to be a big old mess and that's a wonderful, glamorous, fantastic thing. We're all finding new ways to spread joy through the power of sequins."
When Damien D'Luxe, a 34-year-old drag king in Minneapolis, takes the stage, he may mime a medley of Hooked on a Feeling and Crocodile Rock dressed as Captain Hook. But he does so wearing high-heeled boots and false eyelashes that Bianca Del Rio would kill for. He has been known to wear a powdered wig and floppy lace cuffs straight out of Falco's 1986 MTV video for Rock Me, Amadeus while lip-syncing to The Barber of Seville in Italian.
When you're a drag king, it can take that much effort to get noticed.
"More kings are recognising that passing as a dude, although that takes a lot of work and dedication and talent, isn't getting the spotlight," Cider said. "The kingdom has evolved into vivid colors and costumes and headpieces and glitter because that's how you stand out in a crowd." Especially, he said, when you're on a bill with a gag-worthy gaggle of 7-foot-tall drag queens.
"We can't compete in the Glamazon department," said Wang Newton, 42, an Asian American New York drag king who, in his act, tests the boundaries of political correctness while wrapped in vintage Vegas swagger. But that doesn't mean drag kings can't compete. "We're not about death drops. We're our own thing," Newton said. "It's a whole new bag and we can explore that now."
And an increasing number of performers are doing so.
"I'm watching girls and performers of all genders who maybe five years ago would have gone into burlesque who now are seeing drag kinging as the ultimate art form," Grrrl said. "It's a very interesting space to be in. Masculinity is something that deserves to be made fun of."
Written by: Frank DeCaro
Photographs by: Evan Jenkins, Michelle Groskopf, Celeste Sloman and Isak Tiner
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES