It's Time for RuPaul to Finally Cast Drag Kings

Drag kings are trying to find ways to thrive, but many are struggling. “Drag Race” could help change that.
Image by Eric Kostiuk Williams

Five years ago, Henrietta B. became her drag persona, Uncle Freak, somewhat by chance. They’d been training at Brown Girls Burlesque, a educational burlesque program run by and for Black women, when they booked their first show as an event producer at WOW Café Theatre, a queer women and trans-centric performance space in the East Village, only for a drag king to cancel last minute. Instead of panicking, Henrietta took the stage themselves and Uncle Freak—a character who Henrietta describes as a socially conscious, ’70s-flavored amalgamation of the cis men in their life—was born. 


As it turned out, Henrietta’s audience enjoyed Uncle Freak so much that they were asked to perform as their persona again and again. Four years later, Henrietta is still booking monthly shows, including I Drag You Not, a drag king variety show that takes place the last Thursday of every month at Freddy’s Bar in Brooklyn. In addition to serving as a platform for kings (and “in-betweens”) in a city that’s largely dominated by queens, the evening also is an opportunity for Uncle Freak to educate the audience on the long history of drag king culture. 

“Oftentimes when we do the show, you will find at least two or three people who have no idea that drag kings exist,” Henrietta told VICE. “So the point is to show them the history of drag kings, drag persons throughout time, so that people know this is not new. It’s not a trend. It’s not something that just started within the past 10 years.” 

Each month, Uncle Freak delivers a PowerPoint presentation showcasing figures from the decades-old tradition of “male impersonators” and other performers who defied gendered expectations in their art. Yet despite their passion for drag and burlesque, Henrietta said that “unless a miracle happens” and they start getting booked regularly, continuing to do what they love is “probably short term.”

“I don’t want it to be, but the reality is, you can’t keep hemorrhaging money making costumes and not getting booked as often as you’d like,” Henrietta said. 


As an undocumented person whose access to work is limited, Henrietta’s only sources of income are drag, burlesque, and part-time private cheffing. Payment from drag gigs—which, for them, ranges from $50 to $400 before tips—rarely recoups the cost that goes into makeup ($20-$50 for drug store products), costuming ($20-$50 for drug store products), costuming ($600-$800 for gems and an array of cheap $50 suits), and transportation (around $1,000 for cab fare, in order to avoid harassment on the train). 

“There’s an ability for kings to make a living doing this,” Henrietta said. “It’s just the entertainment industry has to catch up to the fact that drag kings are very relevant and very much needed in this community. My crazy mind is like, ‘Man, just keep going. Just keep going. Just keep doing the show.’ Until the point comes when I’m done trying to show that I matter as a drag king and as a performer.”

“You see Trixie, Katya, and Alaska, people like that becoming super successful after being on RuPaul, and we just don’t have the same opportunities. We’re not even allowed on the show.”

While the struggle for visibility is all too common among drag kings, drag as an art form is more mainstream than it’s ever been. That’s largely thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a multi-million dollar empire that’s accrued 39 Emmy nominations, won 19, and spawned more than a dozen international franchises (and counting). Although the reality show has long faced controversy for trans-exclusionary comments from its titular host and its casual transmisogyny, Drag Race has provided a platform for drag artists who challenge the notion that the art form is just for cis men. There was Peppermint, the show’s first openly trans-feminine contestant, and Gottmik, the first trans-masculine performer to compete on Drag Race. The current reigning winners of both the flagship series and its spinoff, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, are both trans: Willow Pill and Kylie Sonique Love, respectively.


The current season of All Stars—which, for the first time, features all previous winners and a no-eliminations format—is breaking barriers, too. Three of the contestants are non-binary: Shea Couleé, Jinkx Monsoon, and Trinity the Tuck, comprising nearly half the entire cast.

But despite all of these “firsts,” RuPaul has yet to feature a drag king on the long-running program. Dragula, a similarly competition-based drag reality show from the Boulet Brothers, beat Drag Race to the punch three years ago—crowning its first drag king winner, Landon Cider, in its third season. The omission isn’t just an issue of representation for representation’s sake but one of economics, in which the creative labor of an entire community isn’t being valued. Drag Race is one of the few avenues that drag artists have for being launched into mainstream fame (or at least relative stability), and without even the hope of that source of this potential revenue stream, many drag kings are struggling to see a way forward.

Five entertainers from around the world told VICE that drag kings are finding ways to thrive outside the hegemony of Drag Race, but they hope for a day where they don’t have to. They are still waiting for their art to be seen as valid by a culture that continues to ignore even the basic fact of their existence.


The Drag Pay Gap

Themme, a bicoastal “drag deity” who splits their time between California’s Bay Area and New York City, is dedicated to fighting back against the inequities that marginalized drag artists face. They’re currently facilitating Nurturing Networks, a first-of-its-kind fellowship for aspiring drag artists and queer and trans organizers. In the hopes of creating and modeling “an alternative to the competition-based model of developing young drag artists,” Themme has been training three fellows since February, with the program set to conclude in June. 

Although Themme is dedicated to paying it forward, that doesn’t mean that they’re exactly rolling in dough themselves. A 2015 survey from the National Center for Trans Equality found that 16% of trans people make $10,000 or less per year, and this is the first year since Themme came out three years ago that they’re on track to make more than that amount.

Themme likens drag to Pokémon, in that they’re constantly leveling up as a performer. As they’ve started booking more gigs, Themme has started buying their costumes as opposed to making them all from scratch. The amount that they spend on their wardrobe varies depending on how much they’re getting paid for gigs—with separate outfits for open sets, $50 gigs, $100 gigs, and so on. Those outfits range from $125 to $200 at the low end, and $500 to $600 at the high end. They’ve also noticed that opportunities between New York City and the Bay Area are vastly different; while New York gigs pay more on average, the Bay Area’s drag scene is much more diverse and, therefore, has more opportunities for kings. 


Themme attributed these inequities to sexism and “transphobia in our hiring practices and our payment practices,” explaining that, broadly speaking, drag kings are typically either transmasculine or femme lesbians. “There's a gender pay gap whether you're a trans person or whether you’re a femme,” Themme told VICE. “If you're within that spectrum and you're not a [cis] man, they will try and undercut you because somehow your art is of less value to them within their cisnormative value system.”

The drag pay gap is not limited to U.S. performers. Darice Chang, a Taipei-based freelancer who performs as Dan Dan Demolition, said these rampant inequalities meant they were unable to make sustainable income from their art. While many of their friends learned about drag through Drag Race, Chang—who started performing as Dan Dan in 2019—doesn’t watch it. Instead they were quite literally recruited into drag in 2017, when Taiwan’s sole drag king at the time hosted a “salon” at their house in the hopes of creating a drag king family. An avid metalhead, Chang dressed up as Till Lindemann of the German band Rammstein, workshopped their persona at the salon, and performed as Dan Dan for the first time.

The drag king salon was an apparent success: Chang would go on to represent the Taipei drag scene on a global scale in the recent Netflix docuseries, Midnight Asia. Even despite the increased visibility, Chang’s typical fee for gigs still ranges from NT $1,000 to $1,500—or between just $30 and $50 in U.S. dollars. Tipping culture isn’t as engrained in Taiwan, either, so the most they’ve ever made off of tips is about $50. And being based in Taipei doesn’t mean their costs are any lower: $300 is their baseline for custom outfits, with quality wigs starting at $100. 


These high costs and low pay are why the Netflix feature, which was filmed in late 2020, was one of Chang’s last times performing in drag. “I do want to keep performing and improving my artistry, but I think I really need to save up and have enough money to put into a really good production and costuming and everything,” Chang told VICE. “I've been pretty on the DL for a while.”

Even though Taiwan’s drag scene is nascent, Chang said it has the same problems as drag culture writ large, in which drag kings simply aren’t taken seriously. “We have connected with other kings in different parts of Asia, in the U.S., and everywhere else and it does seem like there’s a lot less opportunity for kings in terms of commercial viability,” they said. 

Chang acknowledged that there are a handful of successful full-time drag kings but said that, “you don't see the kinds of opportunities for kings that you do for RuPaul queens.” “You see Trixie, Katya, and Alaska, people like that becoming super successful after being on RuPaul, and we just don't have the same opportunities,” they said. “We’re not even allowed on the show.”

Drag Kings at the Top 

Some of the hardships up-and-coming drag artists face can be attributed to the general difficulties of trying to break into any given scene as an artist, but even the drag kings who have supposedly “made it” deal with similar problems. Dr. Wang Newton is a Taiwanese drag king and, per his own estimates, one of about 40 drag kings of Asian descent worldwide. (By comparison, over 180 contestants have competed on Drag Race since the franchise debuted on LOGO TV in 2009.) Newton is largely based in Los Angeles, a city with a thriving, historic drag scene and is one of those select few full-time drag kings with an international profile. 


Yet even Newton, who has been performing in drag since 2004, said that roughly 90% of the people they meet have never even heard of the term “drag king.” 

“I came up with that percentage because I make it a point to say I am a drag king to strangers, every year in every American city, plus every country I have visited for the past 17 years,” Newton told VICE. “Yet how do these strangers immediately recognize what a drag queen is?”

Newton acknowledged that they are unique in their ability to make money as a drag king. They have both an agent and a manager, a rarity in the field. Newton’s average rate for local gigs is $300 to $600 “depending on appearance only or hosting,” with travel/corporate gigs starting at $1,500. Their highest-earning gig brought in $4,000, a fact they noted while adding sardonically: “Yes, it’s possible to be paid on par with drag queens.” Even that sum is further proof, though, of how rigged the system is against drag kings: A 2020 report estimated that Bianca Del Rio, the Season 6 winner of Drag Race, makes $7,378 in sponsorship dollars from a single Instagram post.

While Newton is among the few drag kings who has been able to achieve an international profile without the hope of Drag Race’s promotional pipeline, Vico Suave—better known as Vico Ortiz—is the even rarer example of a king who ascended to new heights thanks to a totally separate source of income. The actor recently played the nonbinary swashbuckler Jim in HBO Max’s pirate rom-com, Our Flag Means Death, their biggest role to date. 


Ortiz has been doing drag for about half a decade, getting their start with a Ricky Martin impersonation at the very first iteration of Them Fatale, a Los Angeles-based drag king show. While they would land drag gigs in between booking acting jobs before 2020, performing as Vico Suave was never something that they thought would be a main source of income; it was something that they, as a self-described Latine enby, did for their own gender euphoria. 

Drag went from a mode of self-exploration to the source of income that kept Ortiz afloat during the first several months of 2020, when they were unable to access other revenue streams due to the pandemic. “I did a lot of live stream shows where, between people sending me tips on Venmo and PayPal, I was like, ‘Okay, I actually could buy groceries with this. I can keep myself going with what I have,’” they told VICE.

Ortiz’ newfound fame has naturally brought with it increased compensation for their drag performances and, therefore, an increased ability to hone their craft. While Ortiz declines to share a specific rate, they say that they have seen a “dramatic difference” in what they were paid for gigs pre-fame and what they’re offered now. Pre-COVID, the most Ortiz had been offered for a gig was $200, but tips usually took them up to $400. “I take off a lot of clothes, and that helps tremendously.” they said. 

But like every other king VICE interviewed, Ortiz didn’t quite express a desire to be folded into the Drag Race industrial complex. Instead they simply wished there were more opportunities for drag artists of all persuasions to find not just financial stability, but the joy of community. Drag gave Ortiz their first opportunity to connect with queer culture and people in Puerto Rico, where their community “celebrates each other and is there for each other and sees each other and our journeys.” 

Meeting London's Drag Kings

“It's a way for people to be able to express themselves in a way that is so authentic and beautiful and for them to be celebrated for that and accepted and loved for that,” they said. “Especially in Puerto Rico, where a lot of these people who are performing cannot be 100% themselves in their workplaces or outside. This is a place for them to actually be free.”

Ultimately, that sense of freedom—or even just an acknowledgment that drag has historically been an outlet for that freedom—is what all of these artists are chasing. Newton, for example, acknowledged that Drag Race’s brand is distinct, but that kings could be “lightly embroidered” into the brand in a number of ways. Possibilities include letting a drag king be a regular guest judge on the show or creating a challenge in which the contestants are partnered with drag kings. Why couldn’t the entire Pit Crew, the scantily clad models on hand to assist with mini-challenges and other segments, be drag kings, Newton wondered?

As a performer who’s been doing drag since well before Drag Race aired, Newton envisioned a world where their peers simply don’t need it to survive. It’s long past time to include kings on the show, but if RuPaul doesn’t extend the invitation, kings deserve their own space to be celebrated and loved for everything they have to offer. “Drag Race has not wavered since 2009,” Newton said. “What can we do better if we focus on ourselves?”

Follow James Factora on Twitter.