Drag kings are on the rise, and their moment is long overdue.
From the beginning, their very existence was overshadowed by the success of drag queens. For example, Stormé de Larverie, one of the most famous male impersonators of 20th Century history — who toured America with the Jewel Box Revue in the 1950s and 60s, sang with greats like Billie Holiday, and might have thrown the first punch at the Stonewall Riots — was reduced to a nearly invisible figure over the decades that followed her 1970s heyday. She died in poverty and obscurity in 2014.
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have since turned drag queens into mainstream fixtures of pop culture. Decades of Hollywood films like Some Like It Hot, The Birdcage, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and Kinky Boots have all primed a broader audience for the current drag queen zeitgeist. But drag kings have seen almost none of that mainstream popularity, and most people who don’t follow drag would be hard-pressed to tell you what a “drag king” is, much less name any. At first blush, many would probably point to examples like Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria and Barbara Streisand in Yentl, but both of their characters are women pretending to be men in largely heteronormative circumstances. That’s a far cry from what drag kings do.
Drag kings interpret, challenge, and redefine masculine gender roles, often through a queer lens. Few know where to find these artists. Even fewer support them. As Murray Hill, a pioneering drag king often celebrated as the “hardest working man in showbiz,” once told them., “For every dollar a drag queen makes, a drag king makes a penny.”
The landscape for kings started to shift in the 1990s, thanks to trailblazers like Hill and Mo B. Dick. In 1996, Dick founded and hosted Club Casanova in New York City, the first weekly party exclusively for drag kings. His motto? “Instead of being an angry woman, I became a funny man.”
For the generation of kings who came up in the 2000s, many of whom identify as nonbinary, drag became an avenue for queer self-expression and a way of challenging gender boundaries. In the 2010s, drag king performance began to boom in the U.K., thanks in large part to the trailblazing work of Adam All, the so-called “Godfather” of the London drag king scene.
Today, many kings are using their time onstage to challenge toxic masculinity and reveal more complex, nuanced male figures. Kings like Vico Suave, LoUis CYfer, and Christian Adore, for instance, have crafted male characters who are in touch with their feminine side.
Although the number of drag kings in the world is still far eclipsed by queens, the internet has helped this small but scrappy group to gather, share tricks of the trade, and host their own shows. They may be the underdogs of the scene, but the relative lack of mainstream attention has left them plenty of room to experiment, in contrast to drag queens who may now feel stifled by commercial and public expectations.
As such, kings have arguably become the more exciting and avant garde branch of the drag world. Here are eight who should be on your radar.
K. James — New York City
“Offstage, I’m pretty reserved and quiet, but I really transform onstage. Drag allows me to express myself in ways that I can’t always with words. When I perform, I can use lip syncing and movement to connect and communicate parts of myself and my identity.” — K. James
K. James has been performing as a drag king in New York City for 13 years. Pale, with black hair and a powerful gaze, James wears neat, jewel-colored clothing that hugs his lean frame. Whether he is performing on stage, in music videos, or in movies and documentaries, one thing is constant: a sashay in his walk and a commanding stage presence.
His characters are reinterpretations of masculine archetypes like George Michael and James Dean through a queer and trans lens. Through his playful performance style, he challenges popular perceptions of gender and sexuality while also claiming the rock-and-roll stardom of those iconic actors for the LGBTQ+ community.
K. James is a member of the Brooklyn drag collective Switch n’ Play, which seeks to “[span] the gender spectrum in life and on stage” through avante garde performances that have been staged in venues like the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, and more. You can see more of K. James in Sasha Velour’s NightGowns series, or in the 2019 feature-length documentary A Night at Switch n’ Play.
Adam All — London
“He has allowed me to embrace aspects of my personality that, since my childhood, I had felt forced to ignore. As an androgynous individual and as someone who considers themself to be gender-neutral, Adam allows me to embrace my masculinity and through him. I hope to encourage others to do the same and find freedom in expressing who they truly are.” — Jen Powell, creator of Adam Hall
Known as the modern “Godfather” of the UK drag king scene, Adam All is arguably the most influential drag king presence east of the Atlantic, both as a performer and an advocate. Adam’s performance is a watertight, high-energy act. He moves with gusto from one punchline to the next, enchanting his audience and giving them an experience that is at once lighthearted and profound.
Jen Powell, who created Adam All 12 years ago, tells them., “He’s a gentle man who can charm and alarm with equal appeal, bringing live vocals and cartoon realness to his dashing geek-chic cabaret.”
In addition to performing internationally, Adam All hosts the drag king cabaret BOi BOX and co-hosts the drag king competition MAN UP.
Sigi Moonlight — London
“Sigi’s ultimate mission on Earth is to present humanity a message of hope and defiance.” — Sigi Moonlight
Sigi Moonlight has an entrancing onstage presence. Inspired by old movies, Sigi takes on a series of iconic, traditionally masculine personas in his show: the Kung Fu master, the dangerous criminal, the Korean dictator, and even the Oscar statuette. His performances investigates our ideas of toxic masculinity, are rife with pop culture references, and allusions to contemporary socio-political issues. For example, challenging the way Hollywood emasculates East Asian men in TV and film. He presents the viewer with characters who are in touch with their feminine side in a way that is at once irreverent and profound. The result is an entirely seductive and compelling experience.
Sigi Moonlight has brought his satirical blend of pop culture and politics to audiences all over the world. He is also part of the queer pan-Asian collective The Bitten Peach, which seeks to address the underrepresentation of Asian performers in U.K. cabaret.
Christian Adore — London
“Think, Johnny Depp and Oscar Wilde had a glittery love child, and raised him in the wings of London’s West End. Christian celebrates effeminate masculinity, in all its foppish fabulosity.” — Christian Adore
Francesca Forrestal, the creator of Christian Adore, describes him to them. thusly: “Christian’s persona is best described as a dashing, gender-bending Disney prince. Christian can be found falling in love with literally everyone he sees.”
Christian Adore has an improvisational, comedic style. He often performs alongside drag queen Eaton Messe, played by Ed Scrivens, forming a duo known as Dragprov. Their show is playful, dynamic, and, above all, funny. Based on audience suggestions, they stage songs, raps, and comedy sketches in a format that they describe as “RuPaul’s glamour meets ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’-style improvised comedy.”
Mo B. Dick — Los Angeles
“Mo B. Dick is a tough talker from Brooklyn, NY with an outspoken wit and charm that will make your heart swoon with his signature pompadour, gold tooth, and sharp suits.” — Mo B. Dick
With a giant blond pompadour, tattoos, brightly-colored suits, and a fierce swagger, Mo B. Dick embodies mid-century, old-world style of American masculinity. Mo’s twinkling blue eyes and flashing smile signals to the viewer that Mr. Dick is in fact subverting the same toxic masculinity he so expertly performs.
Mo B. Dick began performing in the East Village in 1995, producing and hosting the world’s first drag king party Club Casanova, and has helped shape and cultivate the drag scene worldwide, most recently by hosting virtual drag shows on the internet and co-creating the first drag king database, DragKingHistory.com.
Murray Hill — New York City
“I always felt I am not one thing. Any time I put something in front of my name, it is reductive. The whole point of being Murray and performing him is to increase visibility and be equal to everyone else. I want to be treated like a male comedian. When people talk about heterosexual men: they just get to be called by their names, I want to be Murray Hill. I am much more than a drag king.” — Murray Hill
The legendary Murray Hill looks and behaves like a mid-century old-school comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, and Shelley Berman, who frequented resorts in the Catskills. He’s a fast talking, magnetic ad-libber with such control over his audience that he can take them from silent to rolling in the aisles and back in seconds. He is a maestro of his craft.
With slicked-back hair, windowpane suits, horn-rimmed glasses, and polyester ties, his persona recalls not the drag kings of the present but male impersonators of the past, such as Stormé de Larverie. But here’s the rub: Although he is a leader in the drag king community, Murray Hill does not consider himself a drag king.
No, Murray rejects all pronouns and identifiers that would put him in a box. Instead he says, “I’m Murray, just Murray.” In so doing, he has become a symbol of nonbinary and genderqueer performance that transcends drag. Murray Hill takes his role as a trailblazer for the community seriously, and encourages those who have come after him, “If you don’t see yourself represented then go out and represent yourself.”
In 2021, you’ll be able to watch Murray Hill on several TV series: Amy Schumer’s Life & Beth on Hulu, Bridget Everett’s Somebody Somewhere on HBO, and Paul Feig’s This Country on Fox.
Vico Ortiz — Los Angeles
“Drag means freedom and it also means access. A key to a box that they have hidden inside of them … filled with toys that they can play with. It is a ritual, magic, fun, self-care. It is a performance but at such a heightened level that it resonates with the authentic, core self.” — Vico Suave
Vico Ortizdescribes their drag king persona best: “Passionate! Dramatic! Romantic! He’s the sensitive Latino lover you dream about. His hips don’t lie and will make love to you silly all night. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously: goofy is the new sexy.”
Vico Suave is indeed sexy. He sports a foppish haircut with short sides and long black curls that drape over his forehead. On his upper lip, he sports a delicately pencilled-in mustache. He wears loose-fitting floral shirts that are open to the waist, tight pants, and gold jewelry. And he can dance. In many ways, Suave is a tribute to Hispanic/Caribbean culture. When Ortiz created Suave, they cited men like Ricky Martin as inspiration.
For Ortiz, performing Suave brings a feeling of completeness: “I found within my performance the intersection of all of me: my culture, my music, my dancing. It all came together. When I am performing Suave, it is me in the most raw way.”
Vico has performed as Suave in clubs through LA. But they have also performed on TV in the Starz show Vida, the Amazon series Transparent, and American Horror Story: 1984.
LoUis CYfer — London, UK
“Louis is a cheeky northern lad who sings like Meatloaf and looks like a beefcake. He’s flirty and makes everyone question their sexuality because, to be honest, what guy in leather and feathers isn’t devilishly tempting?” — LoUis CYfer
The dynamic and flamboyant LoUis CYfer has a seemingly endless array of fantastical getups that he employs in his performances: A pirate with a red-painted face reminiscent of Jack Sparrow. A circus ringleader, complete with top hat and black striped trews. A seductive, black-feathered policeman’s uniform.
LoUis CYfer has taken these costumes with him all over the world, introducing different audiences to drag kings by performing and leading workshops in the UK, Malta, Texas and Australia.
Currently, he is furiously bedazzling a satin Adidas track suit in preparation for his forthcoming role as a judge in the Euro Star Drag Contest. Cyfer will also be returning to the West End’s first all-drag production Death Drop in 2021.