Drag king for a day

GET ready to see leading lady Glenn Close as you’ve never seen her before — as a leading man.

This week, the Hollywood veteran graces the big screen for the 40th time, in Albert Nobbs — playing a woman who disguises herself as a man to work as a butler in 19th century Ireland.

From bunny boiler, in Fatal Attraction, to cross-dresser, Close (65) says she loved being Albert: “I liked surprising myself every time I passed a mirror. It would have been fun to get all duded-up and walk through Dublin [where the film was shot last year] but I just didn’t have time.”

Close is in stylish company. Since Lady Gaga arrived at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles sporting a man’s suit and five o’clock shadow last year, gender-bending has been in vogue.

When Ireland’s top cross-dressers offered me an anatomical makeover like Glenn and Gaga, well, I didn’t want to be a drag. Explaining how her greasy alter-ego ‘Jo Calderone’ came to life, Mother Monster said: “In a culture that attempts to quantify beauty, how can we f*** with the malleable minds of onlookers and shift the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful? I asked myself this question — and the answer? Drag.”

Grabbing life by the liaróidí, I head to Ireland’s most famous gay bar, The George, to find out if she’s right — or just plain Gaga.

Supermodel Eva Herzigova famously flogged Wonderbra with the slogan: ‘Hello Boys’ — but as I squash my double-D’s into a binder that flattens your chest into ‘pecs’, it’s more like: ‘Goodbye Girls’.

Standing more than 6ft, sharply dressed in a three-piece suit and sporting impossibly groomed facial fuzz, you’d never guess drag king Phil T Gorgeous has something to get off his chest, too. All legs, locks and lips, busty blonde Davina Devine is all woman — well, sort of.

Glamorous Davina and dapper Phil are the star’s of the venue’s Thursday night drag-stravaganza — and high above George’s Street, two hours before showtime, the top-floor dressing room is a contradiction of fake boobs and binders, high heels and brogues, perfume and aftershave.

Just like ‘Jo Calderone’, though, behind the costumes and make-up, it’s clear neither Davina nor Phil were Born This Way.

“I always wanted to be on stage, I just didn’t know for what,” says Phil, a pharmaceutical worker named Mia Campbell, from Dublin, when she’s not in drag. “Then about ten years ago. I saw a drag king show and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I knew I had to give it a try.”

“I started doing drag ten years ago,” says in-demand queen Davina, whose name is Dave Redmond, as the pair set to work on my man-over — pinning up my hair, exaggerating my eyebrows and artfully applying the ’tache I usually do my best to avoid as a brunette.

“At the time, I was working in a clothes shop with no breeze what I was going to do with my life. I felt a bit lost. Then I came to see a drag show here in The George and suddenly it just clicked,” he says.

They’re not the first to find themselves by becoming someone else. Trapeze artist Barbette (born Vander Clyde), comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) and actor Cillian Murphy (as ‘Kitten’ in Breakfast on Pluto) are some of the male stars who found fame after flirting with their feminine side. While often overshadowed by the towering wigs, flamboyant frocks and over-the-top slap of their she-male counterparts, drag kings are nothing new.

Long before Gaga, Barbara Streisand, Hilary Swank, Madonna and Annie Lennox all ‘manned up’ in the name of art.

But while gender-bending legends like Ru Paul and Paul O’Grady’s Lily Savage have made drag queens more mainstream, is Ireland ready for birds with beards?

“Drag kings are still quite a novel concept in Ireland,” says Phil, as I hold my breath while she glues some of her own hair — salvaged at the barbers — onto my chin.

“There are only around four of us performing here. When I started out, around eight years ago, basically I did gigs for free wherever they’d take me. It’s only in the last two years that I’ve started getting regular, paid gigs.

“Now that Lady Gaga has made it ‘cool’ however, it’s the perfect opportunity for drag kings to take centre stage,” she says.

By now, I’m starting to resemble ‘Jo Calderone’s’ long lost Irish-Italian cousin — Mickey O’Calderone, if you will.

But Phil needn’t worry about the competition — at a titchy 5’ 2” and more plump than pumped, my drag king is unlikely to leave the ladies of Dublin all hot and bothered.

“Typically, a drag king has to work twice as hard to make half the impact of a drag queen,” says Phil of perfecting the transformation from girl to guy, while Davina fits me with a shirt and jacket to fit a schoolboy. “Especially on the gay scene, where some women look quite mannish anyway.

“But it’s not just about impersonating a man — it’s about turning up the volume on some aspects of your personality to create a male version of yourself.

“It’s taken a while to fine-tune my look, but nowadays I’m regularly mistaken for a man,” she says. “Gay men and straight women hit on me a lot, and I get more abuse dressed normally as a girl than as a drag king. Straight women, especially, find the whole gender play thing fascinating.”

She’s not wrong.

As a fairly girly girl, like lots of other women, I spend half my life trying to make my boobs look bigger, my bum look smaller, my body look hairless and my hair look like it’s got more body.

Except I spent the past hour being dragged through a bush to look more manly instead — who wouldn’t be confused?

“It’s all about the body language,” says Phil, showing me how to square my shoulders, jut out my jaw and generally look more macho.

But with my man-over complete, I must admit there’s something strangely liberating about sitting spreadeagle like a lady never should, chewing on a cigar.

And with the exception of the bust-crushing binder, my attempt at transvestism is a hell of a lot more comfortable than my usual choice of clothes and shoes.

Fragrantly swanning around in six-inch heels showcasing legs the envy of many a (natural) woman, Davina Devine has mastered the female art of smoke and mirrors.

“I’m not even wearing any make-up,” he says, before adding: “It looks all sparkly and fun, but it’s hard work. It can take two hours to get ready for a three-minute routine.

“But a lot of girls in this town are rocking the drag look anyway.”

“Right now, I feel very normal,” says Davina. “If I wasn’t wearing my costume, I’d be standing differently — but that’s about it. All the parts that make up Davina are just much more muted during the day.

“Being a drag artist gives you a license to thrill. I get away with murder on stage — and luckily I can make a living from it.”

Later, as I yank the binder over my head and bounce back into shape, I realise that while it’s hard to be a woman — sometimes it’s even harder to be a man.

So while it’s been a blast, for now I’m sticking to the day job. So long, Mickey — and thanks for the mammaries.

* Davina Devine and Phil T Gorgeous star in Davina’s The 11 O’Clock(ish) Show every Thursday at The George, 89 South Great George’s Street, Dublin 2. See www.thegeorge.ie

* Albert Nobbs is in cinemas from Friday

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up