The beard, the breasts and the bulge

Kingdom Come, a touring troupe of five of America's most famous drag kings -- complete with strap-ons, leather and one hell of an homage to George Michael -- are taking their act down South.

Published June 23, 2003 7:16PM (EDT)

In the cramped basement dressing room of a tiny club in New York's East Village, Stacey Whitmire, 28, prepares to take the stage. She has everything she needs to transform herself into her alter ego, Johnny Kat: his trademark '70s denim and leather patchwork bell-bottomed suit; hair clippings from a recent cut that she'll use for his mutton chops; and, of course, the package -- a small, pliable "softie" that resembles a flaccid penis. Truthfully, Whitmore's softie -- covered with a thin layer of fuzz and lint - is pretty sad-looking. But she'll use it anyway, because when you're a drag king, you have to pack with something.

"I used to use a sock cock," she says. "But I got the softie last year and it's fun having that realness in my pants."

Whitmire's Johnny Kat is the opening act for Kingdom Come, a touring cavalcade that will take five of North America's best-known drag kings throughout the South and Midwest. For three weeks, the kings -- Carlos Las Vegas, Ken Las Vegas, Christopher, Luster and Pat Riarch -- will tool around in a Winnebago, performing in places like Jackson, Miss., and Chattanooga, Tenn. And they'll be trailed by a film crew. Director Sonia Slutsky and producer Nigel Noble (the team behind the New York Times Television's "Portraits of Grief") are filming the tour for a documentary, tentatively titled "On the Road with the Kings," to air this fall or winter on the Discovery Health channel.

It's the latest chapter in the mainstreaming of drag kings. Kinging has thrived in New York and San Francisco's queer underground since the early '80s. But unlike drag queens, who had their golden moment 10 years ago thanks to the movies "Wigstock," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything," kings are still pretty marginal. Nonetheless, for the past few years they've been creeping into the periphery of the public consciousness: John Waters cast badass Brooklyn drag star Mo B. Dick in "Pecker," and "Sex and the City's" demure Charlotte donned a suit and moustache for a steamy photo session with a famed drag king photographer. Drag king performance troupes have cropped up in lesbian communities in cities as small and surprising as Louisville, Ky., and Roanoke, Va. And "On the Road With the Kings" isn't the only upcoming documentary about drag kings: "Venus Boyz," a film released in Europe last spring, profiles pioneering New York kings Dred, Diane Torr and Mo B. Dick; it will be released in New York in August.

If the Kingdom Come kings are nervous about performing and being filmed, they're not showing it. The dressing room is a flurry of activity, a bonanza of makeup kits and elaborate costumes: fringed chaps, sequined suits, fetish gear. Most of the kings have been doing this for five, six and seven years now; dressing in drag is second nature.

"Johnny's looking pretty hot tonight!" Whitmire says, checking herself out in a full-length mirror and fashioning her short red hair into a pompadour.

A line is already forming outside the club, but the kings don't rush; transformation is an art, and art takes time. Besides, credibility is key. A woman needs more than clothes to make a man. To do drag, you have to deal with the drag-king basics: the beard, the breasts and the bulge. You'll need facial hair, but full beards are too high-maintenance; most kings go with a moustache, soul patch, chinstrap or goatee. (All hopelessly out of style, but still.) After sketching out the design with some eyeliner, fill in the shape with spirit gum (a glue-like substance that won't hurt the skin), and carefully paste the clippings you've cut from your hair into the shape of the beard. Repeat this process for sideburns and chest hair. Eyeshadow shading makes a nice 5 o'clock look, if you're into that. If you're not blessed with naturally tiny breasts, you'll need to bind them, using an extra-tight sports bra or wrapping an ace bandage, Saran Wrap or duct tape around your chest. Then it's packing time: nestle a loose dildo, a strap-on, a sock, or a condom filled with birdseed between two layers of men's briefs or under a jock strap. Throw on some baggy clothes, pin up and slick back your hair, widen your stance and maybe handle your crotch, lightly, to protect your new package. There you have it: instant man.

Drag kinging isn't just male impersonation, kings say; it's performing masculinity. There's a difference. "Drag kings make visible the ways in which masculinity -- as much as femininity -- is a sort of theatrical performance," says Judith Halberstam, a professor of English at UC-San Diego and author of the two drag-king essentials: "Female Masculinity" and "The Drag King Book."

Theatrical, for sure: Once the show begins, the kings' complicated and often campy interpretations of masculinity run the gamut from swanky martini-loving playboy to effeminate gay man to uptight suit to closeted Catholic priest. If one kind of transformation happens in the dressing room -- from "female" to "male" -- another happens onstage, as the kings shift from goofy dykes jostling one another backstage to dynamic, sexy entertainers.

One by one, the performers take the stage: baby-faced Ken Las Vegas (who is no longer with the tour) channels Prince for the tortured ballad "The Beautiful Ones," sporting a purple and black smoking jacket, playing a miniature rhinestone piano and provocatively thrusting his pelvis; Christopher, all flat abs and floppy hair, does David Bowie's Berlin-fueled satire of male privilege and paean to homoerotic friendships, "Boys Keep Swinging," swaggering and gyrating around the stage, stripping from a suit to a Boy Scout uniform to a leather vest and black briefs.

By the time Pat Riarch comes on for the last act of the show, the audience is totally turned on, cheering and hooting at the performers. And Pat's final act pushes them over the edge: He appears onstage as a Catholic priest, wearing a brown robe and holding a Bible. Carlos Las Vegas, in a white robe, is his reverent altar boy. As George Michael's "Father Figure" begins, Pat and Carlos steal forbidden glances at one another over their theological texts. Then Carlos discovers Pat's hidden gay porn, and they eventually shed their robes to reveal leather gear; it becomes an S/M scene, with Pat topping Carlos. The lyrics "I'll be your daddy" are more than apt. Turn-on? Yes, but not the comfortable kind.

"Basically, I try to have some political message that's paired with humor and sensuality, set to early '80s music," says Pat Riarch, the alter ego of Amy Neevel, 30, a freelance consultant and Web site tester from New York. "That's kind of my bag."

Discussing the meaning of drag kinging can quickly become a virtual Gender Studies 101 course, with lots of talk about "safe spaces" and "gender-fucking" and "dialogue." It's a feminist statement that simultaneously steals, mocks and exaggerates male privilege. It's a parody of the ways our culture still thinks of masculinity as infallible.

"I think of Pat as someone who is deeply troubled by his existence as a white male, who's ultimately embodying a really harmful system," says Neevel, who's also serving as the de facto manager of the tour. "So when I'm Pat, I'm trying to take on an understanding of that male power, and what it is to feel that cockiness. But, at the same time, what it is to feel the pain underneath that cockiness -- the restriction of expression and sexuality."

The kings are reluctant to detail the differences between kings and queens ("They're my sisters!" says Winnipeg's Reece Lagartera, 27, aka Carlos Las Vegas. "We have a similar love of fabric and lamé!"), preferring instead to talk about the ways they can work together and support one another in queer culture. But the politics of drag do create a divide between queens and kings. For one thing, says Halberstam, American culture accepts the idea of appropriating femininity more easily than appropriating masculinity. "Femininity is not protected provenance in a culture that's geared towards male hierarchy," she says. "When it comes to taking on, parodying and performing masculinity -- that sort of scene is more serious, in a way. You can even see it in the acts; the acts don't look as campy as the drag queen acts."

While anyone can be a drag king -- femme lesbians, straight women, men, whoever -- the majority of kings are masculine offstage, too. "For some of these guys, they're butch or transgendered, and their masculinity is real," says Halberstam. "But some of them are feminine women offstage and for them the act is all about transformation."

Neevel "really, really" wanted to be a boy in elementary school. "I'd lie to kids about being a boy and play with them for a month, but then they'd find out," she says. Now, as the über-political Pat Riarch, she can be. Kinging, she says, is "the culmination of my young desires and my adult political ideals. I'm able to be the cute guy I always wanted to be back in fourth and fifth grade. And that's really satisfying. When I came to New York I was still struggling with [the fact that] I'm a biological female," she says. "There were certain ways I was supposed to dress and conduct myself. But I was completely miserable. For me, [kinging] is liberating: people are really excited to see you and really celebrating what you're looking like and doing onstage."

Maybe they were bullied as children for wearing boys' clothes, or maybe they wish they could go to work wearing a suit and tie: As drag kings, masculine women are allowed to swagger, strut and be as queer as they want to be. What might be read as confusing and strange outside is rendered sexy on the drag king stage.

And that's exactly what's threatening to the mainstream, says Halberstam. It's the reason why drag kinging ultimately might not infiltrate straight culture the way drag queens have. "Straight women find it threatening because it's like, Does this mean I'm a lesbian if I think this guy's cute? Straight men find it threatening because, after all, that's supposed to be their domain. And lesbians find it threatening because it seems like this is the stereotype of what a lesbian is -- a women who wants to be a man."

To some extent, the presentation of masculine women as sex objects flies in the face of the old-school lesbian woman-centered ideal. Before he came out as trans, when he'd just started doing drag, Lagartera's fellow Winnipeg lesbians accused him of "emulating the oppressor," he says. "I said, it's not me being a man," says Lagartera, who's transitioning and currently on testosterone. "It's me being masculine. And passing for something other than a woman." (In fact, all of the members of Kingdom Come, androgynous offstage, identify as masculine in some way. Neevel prefers "transgendered" or "faggy dyke"; Noelle Campbell-Smith, aka Toronto's Christopher, identifies as a "boyish lesbian"; NYC native Whitmire likes the term "genderqueer.")

Christopher -- the sexy-but-nutty playboy alter ego of Campbell-Smith -- isn't that different from the person she is offstage. Besides the few painful years when she was married, before she came out (she has a 9-year-old daughter who doesn't know about her mother's performance life), she's always preferred to look androgynous. "I like being a woman," says Campbell-Smith, a 32-year-old Web designer. "And I like being a man whenever I feel like it. I'm fluid all the time, depending what day it is." Her family and friends have always accepted her boyish nature, she says, which is probably why she shrugs off the politics of drag. "Christopher's just the male me. I don't think that being a drag king is political for me. I'm not trying to fuck The Man. I've probably only done a couple of numbers where I've tried to make a statement."

Kingdom Come isn't the first drag-king tour -- Mo B. Dick started the Club Casanova in the 1996 and took it on the road two years later -- but it's the first tour to bring along a camera crew. Slutsky, the film's director, met Neevel while working on an unrelated documentary featuring Neevel's ex-girlfriend, also a drag king. Slutsky accompanied the couple to the International Drag King Extravaganza -- an annual conference held in Columbus, Ohio, and produced by fellow Kingdom Come performer Luster (Columbus' 42-year-old Síle Singleton) -- and was immediately intrigued. "Drag really challenges set notions of gender," she says. "In large part because drag kings pass so seamlessly. For me as a woman, looking at another woman who -- in a very short period of time, with very little manipulation -- can appear to be a man, is fascinating."

Since drag has historically been an urban phenomenon, the kings were somewhat wary about traveling through rural areas, especially the South. Neevel chose the route because she wanted to introduce the art of drag king to new audiences: "The premise of the experience was to see how people who maybe haven't seen drag kings react to us, and what it means for us to be traveling through these towns," she says. But that didn't ease the other kings' fears. As the only people of color on the tour, both Lagartera and Singleton, who's African-American, were especially nervous. "I'm not just nervous that we're going to the Bible Belt, where people have no bones about their differences," says Singleton, a former scholar of race theory who now produces drag events full-time. "I'm also nervous because I'm not quite sure the majority of people going with us understand what it means for me, as a black person, to be surrounded by white people, with my big queer trans self being like, 'Hey, everybody, guess what I do? Wear a dick and dance around onstage!'"

But so far, the kings have been pleasantly surprised. They've discovered that there are rich, energized queer scenes everywhere. "They're just as sexual when we do our shows -- hooting at us and stuffing tips down our pants," says Whitmire. "They may live in a small town, but they still know what they like and they're not afraid to express it." In Biloxi, Miss., the staff at the lesbian bar where they performed painted a mural of the Kingdom Come logo. Luster made over $100 in tips that night, and afterwards, the kings signed everything from T-shirts to breasts. "We weren't sure what to expect, being in Biloxi," says Whitmire. "There was a pretty young crowd -- a really hungry market. I don't think anybody there had seen a drag troupe. I talked to a few people there, a 22-year-old young dyke and a dyke in her 40s, about how to start a troupe of their own." And that's what they love about drag, say the kings: They know how powerful it can be, they know how it's enriched and informed their lives, and they're energized by the idea that it might reach more women. "I mean, how boring it must be to be totally straight -- totally feminine or totally masculine," says Singleton. "It's such a beautiful place to be here, floating along back and forth."

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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