Sunday, December 3

The inspirational rise of drag kings: ‘We are smashing down doors left, right and centre!’ | Theater

In an east London pub, the Glory, Adam All is pulling bras out from the pockets of his purple suit as he sings on stage. Cheeky, fun and dapper, he wears a glittery waistcoat over a gold satin shirt, his pink bow tie matching the shade of his rectangular glasses.

All is a drag king; that is, usually a cisgender woman, transgender man or non-binary person performing in male or masculine drag on stage. This can include singing, lip-syncing and dancing. While drag queens have broken into the mainstream, largely thanks to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, their kingly counterparts have been confined to a more underground existence. Tonight, we are in a foundation.

Live like a king…Beau Jangles.
Live like a king…Beau Jangles. Photographer: Corinne Cumming

Still, things are changing. Since starting out in Southampton in 2008, All is now part of a thriving scene of drag kings across the UK. Being a king is his full-time job. “There are far more of us now, and we are smashing down doors left, right and centre,” he says. Tonight’s event, an open mic for drag kings, is sold out – as was the launch event for new drag king collective KingDom, in the same venue the night before.

Armed with swagger, charm and – at times – gyrating hips, drag kings seek to do anything from dismantling the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, often by taking on male stereotypes, to covering mental health, sexuality and gender identity. “The message is much more about nutritious masculinity and looking at how positive that can be for all of society,” says All.

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This, however, can be a difficult task, explains drag king Chiyo, who describes himself as a “professional hustler”. “With the art of being a drag queen, you get feminine energy, which is beautiful and elegant,” he says. “But, drag kings, we work with masculinity, which is toxic and boring and gross. So we have to find a way to make masculinity not only entertaining, but not toxic, and show people what healthy masculinity can look like.”

In London, LGBTQ+ venues – including the Glory, She Soho, Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Phoenix Arts Club – are increasingly hosting drag-king-specific events, such as annual battle man-up, showcase Kings of Clubs, and drag king cabaret BOiBox (run by All and his wife Apple Derrieres). Other top names in the capital include Prinx Silver, Don One, Oedipussi Rex, Izzy Aman, Christian Adore and the drag king collective Pecs.

'Professional hustler'…Chiyo.
‘Professional hustler’…Chiyo.

“Drag kings are just lovely, so supportive, always gassing you up, always showing up for you,” says Beau Jangles, who started performing as a drag king after going to a workshop run by Pecs in 2018. Since then, Jangles – his name inspired by the dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – has been making waves. In December he performed in a Dick Whittington drag pantomime in the West End of London. “Without doing drag king-ing I wouldn’t have realized that I’m non-binary as quickly,” he explains. “It was very important to me when I was figuring out my queerness, as a way of tapping into the masculinity that I had been told I wasn’t allowed to.”

Outside the capital, drag kings are also enjoying success. There is Brighton’s Sammy Silver, Newcastle’s Baron LaVey and, in Bournemouth, two kings who are surely among the best-named in the country: Dandy Issues and Well Hung Parliament. In Cardiff, there is Justin Drag; in Bristol, Oliver Assets and Fluxx Wyldly front the Brizzle Boyz drag king night; and, in Birmingham, Christian Gay and Victor Velvet have created drag night Kings ‘N’ Things. On the Manchester circuit, Mark Anthony is putting a male spin on burlesque, known as “boylesque”.

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Ice cold … Dorian T Fisk.
Ice cold … Dorian T Fisk.

In Glasgow, Dorian T Fisk is at the forefront of a burgeoning Scottish scene, and has been running his Shut Up and King workshops since the start of the pandemic. He wants to see drag kings on an equal footing with the queens. “A lot more show bookers are booking kings, so we’re starting to even out a little bit,” he explains. “But there is a lot of work to be done. We’re still getting queen-only lineups… I’m seeing some of that change happen in Scotland. We’ve proven that people will come and pay to see drag kings on stage.”

Based in Derby, Romeo De La Cruz has performed around the UK with the aim of empowering LGBTQ+ people. “For me, it’s to bring, not just drag, but queerness to places where you don’t have that representation,” they say. “It’s about branching out into areas where we need to be showing people that may not have that representation to feel like: ‘Do you know what, there is someone else I can relate to. There is someone else like me. I’m not alone.’ I really enjoy that.”

Back at the Glory, All dedicates his final song to Karen Fisch, a veteran drag king performer who is in the audience. What does the future look like for drag kings? “I can see all sorts of exciting things happening for kings,” says All. “I want to say that there will be a similar representation of kings as queens in the mainstream. People are demanding change. So it can’t not happen. But how far that goes will be up to whether or not all the right pieces click into place at the right time.”

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