April 25, 2008
How to: be a drag king
Why should drag queens get all the gender-queering fun? The drag king scene is picking up in the UK, as girls realise the fun they can have in becoming men. Because if there’s one golden rule of being a drag king, it’s that you don’t have to be male to have fun being a man.
In fact, and just to confuse matters, you don’t necessarily have to be a woman either. “I have a friend, a gay biological man who loved the idea of being a drag king and performing maleness,” says drag king expert, Lenna Cumberbatch. “It’s about performing gender. It’s about getting on stage and performing a stereotype or a celebration of gender.”
Lenna should know – she’s been in the drag king scene for years, performing as smooth-talking ladies’ man Leon DaLuva and Uncle Lenny, a used car salesman type.
Lenna’s lived in both the UK and the USA, and finds that there are surprising differences in the drag king scenes of both countries: “In the US there seems to be a lot more parodying of performers like Justin Timberlake or Barry White,” she explains. “In the UK there tends to be more silliness, it’s more about comedy.”
But how does the trans community feel about a bunch of female-identified women playing at being men? “I’ve found Trans people to be generally drag king friendly,” she says. “One member of my troupe is a transman, and he sees himself as being a man on the stage, not a drag king.” Safety and visibility are important too of course – some transmen don’t consider themselves to part of the queer community at all, so to come to a drag king event would be to out themselves as trans.
Safety is definitely a big issue. Just as you don’t have to be gay to be gaybashed, you don’t have to identify as trans to suffer from transphobia. After all, it’s no good shouting ‘But I’m only being a drag king tonight! I usually wear frocks!’ as you’re getting punched by a drunk on the nightbus home.
Not that Lenna’s had that kind of experience herself – in fact she’s felt that passing as a man can actually make her fell more safe. “These days when I’m performing as a drag king I tend to dress at home and take the bus,” she says. “9.9 times out of 10 people assume I’m just a normal black man. End of story. Only once has someone – a man – looked twice at me. I looked right back at him and he looked away quickly.”
It’s a fact of life in our sexist society that when men look at other men they’re challenging them, but women are used to being constantly scrutinised. For Lenna, acting in drag makes her aware of that difference, and allows her to claim back some of the freedoms that men have every day into her female life.
Why are there so many negative reactions to drag kings – and queens – in any case? Maybe it’s simply because drag messes with gender expectations. As Lenna explains, “most people think of gender as fixed, and if we challenge that they get uncomfortable, and anything that makes people feel uncomfortable makes them angry. It’s sad. What we choose to do with our bodies has got nothing to do with them.”
Leaving the heavy socio-political stuff for a moment, there’s one very important question that needs to be answered. Why is Elvis such a popular choice for drag kings? “It’s easy to be Elvis!” laughs Lenna. “It’s not just the king community that loves to be him of course – there are a lot of Elvis impersonators around. Of course he’s popular with drag kings – he is the King!”
Lenna’s tips for becoming a drag king
Would you be a smooth ladies’ man, a seedy second-hand car salesman or even the King himself – Mr Elvis Presley? Pick up some tips with help from drag king expert, Lenna Cumberbatch.
“I’m big busted, so I have to strap. It can sometimes be painful, but if you’re going to be moving then it needs to be loose enough that you can still breathe. I use a binder vest, which some transguys use before top surgery [breast removal]. Stockings are also really good – you put your head through a hole in the crotch and use the legs for your arms. Sports bras are the easiest option – get a size smaller than you’d usually wear.”
“For facial hair, I use crepe hair – also called costume hair – which is applied with stuff called spirit gum. You can get both from most costume shops. Generally I use an eyeliner pencil to draw in the moustache or beard that I want first and then cover in spirit gum and the hair. Less hair is better if you want a natural look. You can also use clippings of your own hair but if you have light hair remember that it will be darker on application. I like a simple goatee or just plain moustache, depending on my character. I also use the pencil to fill in my eyebrows as men tend to have heavier eyebrows.
“Look at how men walk and stand – it’s not just about having facial hair. There are subtle differences between how men and women act. To generalise, men tend to stand more upright, and they walk leading with the pelvis; women lead with their chests. When they wave, women wave their fingers, and men just put a hand in the air. Women tend to sit quite neatly on public transport, but men take up a lot of space.”
“Some drag kings pack [wear something to represent a penis] all the time, and for them if they’re not packing, they’re not dragging. For me, dragging is all about not knowing or caring what’s in your trousers, so packing doesn’t matter so much.”
Tempted to find the drag king in you?
Lenna is hosting a special Drag King Competition in London on Sunday 4 May. The theme of the competition is ‘Return of the King’ which could be anything from Elvis to Lord of the Rings.
There are three heats: evening/clubwear, performance and sleep/swimwear. The overall winner will receive a King of the Castle trophy and crown, and other prizes include Beautiful and Dammed leatherwear and a photoshoot with Elly Clarke Photography. A special prize will go to whoever the audience decides is the night’s ‘dirty rascal’.
To take part with your own manly alter-ego register in advance on the King of the Castle website, or turn up the night if you just want to be part of the audience. After the competition there will be a club night with entertainment from resident drag king troupe the Castle Dancers and special guests the Schmooze Brothers.
King of the Castle, 7.30pm, Sunday 4 May 2008 (Bank Holiday Weekend), The Purple Turtle Bar, 61-65 Crowndale Rd, London, NW1 1TN.
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