THE Queen is far from dead. Where once the troika of drag artists — Panti, Shirley and Veda — had the stage all to themselves, now if you look up in any gay bar in the country you’ll see spray-tanned legs, River Island frocks and perfectly applied make-up adorning a multitude of ‘baby’ drags, who’ve learned how to doll up via tutorials on YouTube and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But girls who ‘man up’ haven’t cracked the mainstream market. Sure, the popstars Lady Gaga, Ciara, and Mariah Carey have all tried — and actresses Anne Hathaway and Kirsten Stewart ‘dragged down’ for Jenny Lewis’s video, ‘Just One of the Boys’. But female drag artists are not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
There have been seven seasons of Drag Race in the US, and TruTv have started broadcasting season four in the UK and Ireland. And while there are 50 drag queens in Dublin, the number of ‘kings’ is limited to perhaps four who work regularly.
At MUSTACHIOED!, Ireland’s first drag-king festival, 18 women took to the stage for a night that was playful, acrobatic and, for boys who like boys, confusingly sexy. But only five of the broads were Irish, and most of them have been punching the clock for a decade or more.
“It started via a sort-of drag king foreign exchange programme in 2002,” Tracy Martin, AKA Gringo O’Hara, says. “I was the head of the Dublin Lesbian Arts Festival, and a troupe of kings, from Chicago, called The Windy City Blenders, contacted us wanting to know if there was an Irish drag-king group interested in an exchange.
“It would involve us going to Chicago for the International Drag King Extravaganza and we thought: ‘This is too good an opportunity to pass up.’ So we put together the Shamcocks, Ireland’s first and, to date, only drag-king troupe.” As well as Gringo, the Shamcocks included Slicko, Stanley Knife and five others. “We used to rehearse in each other’s apartments, to find out who among us could pull off the complicated dance numbers and who was better suited to working alone,” says Gringo.
Some people thought long about their character. For others, the name came first and the personality moulded around it. In Tracy’s case, Gringo was a response to her abilities and body shape. “Some of the ladies were slim and feminine. I’m a big-boobed, big girl. When I started putting the clothes on, I saw a taxi driver emerge…with a huuuge penis. The more we rehearsed, the goofier and clownier he became.” It was a golden period for ‘kinging’. Sid Viscous became the first ‘bloke’ to be crowned Alternative Miss Ireland, and Gringo was the first runner-up, in 2004, birthing the neo-burlesque cabaret group, The Pony Girls. They gave the concept of the ‘sexy’ backing dancer an S&M twist, as they dominated and demeaned Gringo during his performances. They headlined the Spiegel Tent three years running.
“Some of the kings would strip and then reverse strip, going from male to female to male again, which was incredibly sexy. And kings came down from the North dressed as Orange Men, with bowlers and sashes — real political stuff. When we went to the States, we were exposed to the trans scene, which wasn’t that prominent in Ireland at that time.” For one Shamcock, his time in the troupe began a transition from female to male.
“Some women, who are questioning their own gender identity and haven’t realised they are trans, use kinging as a transitional phase,” says Phil T Gorgeous, AKA Mia Campbell. Though not trans, she has run drag workshops for BeLonG To, a support group for young members of the LGBT community. “They say ‘I am going to try this out as a performance style’ and then realise that it’s who they really are.” Kings are often more convincing than queens. “This woman in her late 40s said: ‘I didn’t believe my friends when they said you were a woman. I thought you were an attractive man. Then, I realised, I didn’t care. Whatever it was on stage, it was appealing to me. You gave me an understanding of what people mean when they say that sexuality is fluid’,” says Phil T. For Julian Mandrews, AKA Anna MacCarthy, kinging is a chance to pass comment on her own community. “I use Julian to explore a campy femininity. A lot of kings, their characters and personas, are hyper-masculine and heterosexual. There’s more of a queer identity today and that is reflected in the characters emerging on the scene. The gay scene simply reflects our patriarchal society. It’s difficult for kings to gain respect, because they are women. Many of the kings had to plug away at it for years before they got a show, having to work extra hard to earn respect off mainstream gay audiences.”
“A drag queen can walk on stage in fabulous clothing and make-up, and the transformation itself is enough to make her worthy of applause,” says Phil T. “For kings, the transformation is not as impressive. It’s less about the aesthetic and more about embodying the gender. I like to play with something that was once seen as acceptable, then as abhorrent, and is now retro. A subtle strut across the stage and a wink and you can get the reaction you’re looking for.” A dildo down your jocks alone won’t impress. Kings have to spend hours in front of the mirror every week, so that their walk and talk is second nature and not something they struggle to remember as they perform. As they apply their drag armour, they notice changes to their gait and demeanour. “You see the shyest girls strutting around, slapping bums and clicking their fingers at any ‘ho’ walking past,” says Gringo.
Sophie Mc, aka Stanley Knife, takes me through the ‘drag bag’ every good king needs to cope with the boobs, the beard and the bulge.
“Your binder is the main tool in your arsenal, to suppress your breasts. Then, there’s your packie, which gives the impression there’s something down ‘there’. A lot of people use hip-suppressants, which are like tight shorts, giving you more of a shape, while you physically glue your own hair, cut up into really fine pieces, to your face, using spirit gum.
“People probably wouldn’t notice if you didn’t have all of these things. But I feel I look more masculine, which makes my character feel more masculine.” With so few of them, how can kings make more of an impact on the scene? Stanley says it helped that the Shamcocks had the goal of their trip to Chicago. “We were raising funds, so we made sure we were all performing regularly.” Phil T runs workshops. “But few people turn up.” For Julian, a supportive platform for new kings would make a a big difference. “The Hutch, in Panti Bar, was great for that. Bunny hosted it — it was an open mic-night for performers — a safe space for people to give it a go. It would be great to see something like that come back.”
For performances, check out Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Stanley-Knife-Drag-King/ https://www.facebook.com/pages/UnderCURRENT