These Drag Kings Are the Only Royalty We Acknowledge
The performers of Pecs, a British drag collective of women and non-binary people, are proof that it feels good to be king.
Left to right: Lauren Steele a.k.a Thrustin Limbersnake and Jodie Mitchell a.k.a John Travulva. All photos by Alice Zoo
With drag performers like Bianca Del Rio and Courtney Act booking stadium gigs and reality TV slots, business for queens is booming. But less appreciated—at least in mainstream pop culture, minus Florence Welch’s drag performance in the “Sweet Nothing” music video and Lady Gaga’s alter ego Jo Calderone —are their male counterparts: drag kings.
Nothing could be further from the truth—especially if you ask Pecs, the British all-female and non-binary drag collective. “Pushing the narrative that drag kings are underappreciated and underrepresented is part of the problem,” Temi Wilkey (a.k.a. Drag King Cole) tells me defiantly in the Yard Theatre, where the ten-person group is rehearsing for their show SEX SEX MEN MEN. “It’s continuing a myth, and it’s like no! People fucking rate us. We’re everywhere.”
When I meet with three members of the group, they’re midway through the run of their newest critically acclaimed show. The group was founded in 2013 by Wilkey and co-director Celine Lowenthal, and has gone on to perform the retro music-themed 80s Show at Soho Theatre and leading London LGBTQ venue The Glory, as well as appearing at festivals including Brainchild, Latitude, and the Queer & Now Festival at the Tate Britain. Their website explains that the group exists to “explore gender identities, politics & sexuality, to create cultural space for queer women, trans* & non-binary folk.”
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Lack of mainstream recognition—and commercialization—doesn’t mean that the fine art of kinging “doesn’t have a solid platform and celebrated place in queer culture,” Jodie Mitchell (a.k.a. John Travulva) adds. Pecs’ success and portfolio is testament to that.
Over the course of our hour-long conversation in the bar, the three performers explain that kinging is a handy political tool challenging everything from rape culture to cisnormativity. “I joined because I was doing improv comedy, and I exclusively performed as masculine characters, because it’s the only way to stop people talking over you,” Mitchell says. “So I’ve been inhabiting masculine characters for years without realizing I was falling in love with drag.”
I try to not make too many comparisons to queens over the course of our conversation, but note that it’s interesting that a “masculine” persona is perceived as key to emanating confidence for women and non-binary performers, when “feminine” drag queens are always seen as fierce and bold. “Drag always pushes things to the extreme,” Wilkey answers thoughtfully, “and everyone always says that at the extreme end of femininity, they’re extremely confident as well. I think one of my favourite things to talk about is how when we do drag, it’s like you’re a gender clown.
“When you’re at one end of extremity, you’re always going to feel very confident. That’s sort of like the joy of it—because exploring how you’ll be incredibly confident in masculinity is as exciting as exploring how incredibly confident you are with the other end of femininity.”
Queer theorist Jack Halberstam once argued that the historic lack of lesbian drag culture might be influenced by the assumed non-performativity of masculinity. That is, cisgender men aren't usually considered as performing their gender role. Wilkey is delighted by the reference: “Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity is like—”she pinches her fingers to mouth in a chef’s kiss—“the cornerstone of our work. I always say when we first formed Pecs, people were like ‘I don’t get it, do you just wear trousers?’ I think the idea that masculinity is the norm is bullshit, and so much of what we do is showing how performative masculinity is.”
Victoria Aubrey (a.k.a. Victor Victorious) echoes Wilkey: “People struggle to understand the concept of performing masculinity, and the idea that it can be comical, entertaining, and enjoyable. I think with drag queens, people find it slightly easier that a man putting on femininity and all the aesthetic things associated with that can be funny, because people assume femininity is something you ‘put on’ and ‘take off.’” And SEX SEX MEN MEN is very, very entertaining, including a scene where a king in a strap-on is theatrically lavished with a blowjob—all while he delivers a rant against phallocentrism and patriarchy.
The show wanted to create an ensemble of vastly different masculine characters, the entertainers tell me. “Some of it is processing our experience of other people’s masculinity, and some of it is about our experience of our own masculinity,” Mitchell says. “That’s why it’s so diverse.”
Aubrey’s Victor persona is a more exquisite and delicate presentation of masculinity—she names “male principal ballet dancers” as a major influence. “I’ve worked in the Royal Opera House and I see them and the confidence and carefulness they exude, and I strive to embody that in my character.”
Mitchell’s character John Travulva is an exploration of “the crisis of masculinity” among men as prompted by events like Me Too: “He thinks he’s an excellent feminist, and that’s where he’s informed by my experiences with men,” they say. “I’m a masculine-presenting, butch non-binary person and my male friends feel comfortable opening up to me, because I’m not another man, but I’m also not a ‘woman’ in their eyes. So they don’t feel as if they can’t talk about certain things. I hear a lot of guilt and a lot of failure, and them hyper-performing feminism as a result. Basically, my character is a parody of the ‘feminist’ queer guy.”
Wilkey, however, doesn’t just see drag kings as a vehicle for satire. Her persona Drag King Cole grinds Pretty Ricky style and swaggers irresistibly while singing 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” Willkey explains: “He’s Pharrell Williams, he’s Nat King Cole when I’m singing older jazz stuff, he’s Bruno Mars when I’m dancing, and I think he’s got a bit of Idris Elba in him too.” It’s a sexy appropriation of black masculinity, rather than a parody—one that resonates with Temi’s relationship with her own masculinity. “He just feels like me, but when I’m sexually dominant.”
That versatility of expression, Wilkey notes, is nothing new. Drag kings have always existed—you just need to look at the Victorian-era male impersonator Vesta "Burlington Bertie" Tilley or the Man for a Day workshops founded by performance artist Diane Torr in 1990. “Drag is always about performance art, it’s always about cabaret," Wilkey says. "Drag has been versatile for years, it’s much more about the kind of stages we’re able to be on and the kind of people who can access it.”
Mitchell adds: “I think it’s important that drag can be as versatile as it wants to be. Anyone of any gender identity should be able to perform in any way they want, and drag performance should be able to follow that fluidity. I just hope that drag keeps evolving and doing whatever the fuck it wants.”