Life's a Drag
It is halfway through the Wednesday-night show at a club on South Broadway, and the characteristically rowdy, mostly female crowd has worked itself into a froth. From the stage, Doc Holliday peels back the curtain with one muscular arm and steps into the spotlight, grinning like he's never had it so good. He's a handsome cowboy in boots, tight Levi's, crisp Western button-down and gleaming belt buckle; his closely cropped sandy hair rests under an inky felt bronc-rider hat.
The song blaring through the sound system is Aaron Tippin's "Kiss This." Doc mouths along to the song, which opens with: "She was a woman on a mission/Here to drown him and forget him/So I set her up again to wash him down/She had just about succeeded/When that low-down, no good cheatin'/Good for nothing came strutting through the crowd."
Working his Brad Pitt pretty-boy grin, Doc saunters into the crowd, glides his fingers through the shimmery hair of a person seated in the front row and straddles an unsuspecting male "virgin" (first-timer to the show) before ambling over to a tall brunette waiting off to one side, a five-dollar bill dangling from her red fingernails. He retrieves the tip in his teeth, slides his palms over her blue-jeaned hips, then pivots to face the audience just in time to meet the chorus: "Why don't you kiss/Kiss this!/And I don't mean on my rosy red lips."
Welcome to 60 South, formerly ZuDenver, current home to one of the most unusual club nights in Denver. Not only does the place pack a room full of over-21 cocktailers for theater and dancing on a work night -- no easy feat in this town -- but the musical selections range from Frankie Valli to Garth Brooks, from Ludacris to Marilyn Manson. Most important, what you're seeing is not what you think you're seeing. To sharpen the point: Doc Holliday is a woman -- a member of Denver's eleven-(wo)man Southtown Kingz drag troupe, the only local group of its kind, sponsored by 60 South. Doc's name is actually Karen, and not so long ago, she was bouncing up and down in aerobic shoes and a cheerleading skirt at an area high school. On the nights she's not performing her signature cowboy-singer numbers, she shows up at the club in a tight, breast-revealing T-shirt and lipstick, her pretty face softening the edge of her buzz cut.
Tonight, however, she is Doc, and he is on fire. When the song ends -- and after several winks, flirtatious tips of the hat and a spread-legged, on-stage pushup -- Doc slips through the curtain like he's got a hot date somewhere else, and the girls hoot their appreciation for the last little tight thing they see. Camille, the dry-humored, sneering MC who wields her trademark sarcasm like a garden hose on a scorching day, walks a thin line between keeping the crowd under control and riling it up to its full potential between numbers. Long after Doc's exit, three women off to the side of the stage are still screaming. These are gals who drove from Grand Junction just to catch another look at the performers who showed up at their hometown bar last weekend and blew them all away.
As the Southtown Kingz, the semi-professional bunch of cross-dressing, gender-bending "brothers" work hard to keep the local crowd in high spirits; they also periodically take road trips to Midwestern towns to wow the natives that are not (yet) blessed with a troupe of their own. Word of the Kingz has spread quickly, and requests for guest appearances keep coming in.
The drag-king scene is still fairly young, but it thrives in the womb of Denver's play-friendly lesbian and gay community. Whereas in larger gay metropoles such as New York and San Francisco, professional "performance artists" compete for a recognized niche and a reliable fan base in a highly competitive club market, here kings are less exclusive, more supportive and not as drunk on their presumed star power.
Local friendliness does not equate with mediocrity, however. Denver's kings offer some cutting-edge acts -- performances that turn standards of sex and sexuality inside out. Take, for instance, one of the more hardcore drag artists: STARR Masters (aka Andrea), a pierced-and-dyed cockshocker who is considered to be the first "known" drag king to surface in Denver. STARR gravitates toward growling, S&M-style fist-throwing, hip-thrusting acts in which s/he toys with the sexual ambiguity of the male glam rocker while also treating the audience to a few Manson-like surprises -- a split-second flashing of bare breasts, for example, to startle the crowd into remembering that he's a she. Back in 1999, STARR was crowned "Closet King 1999" by BJ's Carousel and, around that time, prompted Tina Powers, the owner of 60 South (then ZuDenver) to create a forum for other females to take a turn on stage as male performers. Powers was looking for a way to bring in extra cash on a slow night and was already interested in female-to-male cross-dressing as a cultural phenomenon, so she set up a sound system and gave them the stage.
"The Kingz have come a long way," says Zoa Haberstick, who moved from behind the spotlight to become promotions manager for 60 South about a year ago, "At the beginning, we basically had to recruit performers from the audience. Some of the Kingz who were performing at the time would just come up to women who had a strong male look and ask them if they were interested in performing."
In addition to promoting the official Southtown Kingz, the club sponsors a monthly amateur night, a kind of free-for-all for first-timers to discover their muse. These days Zoa gets several phone numbers a week from onlookers wanting to try it, and enough strong acts have surfaced to pack a ninety-minute show once a week.
Earlier this year, the burgeoning king scene in Denver caught the attention of Digital Ranch Productions, an independent outfit that pitched a documentary on the subject to MTV, which plans to air the show later this spring. Digital Ranch focused primarily on newcomers to female-to-male drag -- people like Natalie, a striking long-haired brunette from Boulder who first performed last November on amateur night and who now appears every few weeks as Rex, a favorite guest rocker. A seductive, slightly sinister character with a strong resemblance to Johnny Depp, Rex performs to the likes of Trent Reznor, Lenny Kravitz and CrazyTown, sometimes incorporating male friend Michael, dressed in female drag, on "background vocals."
Natalie admits she's partly in it for the huge charge it gives her, which is not surprising, considering that the women practically throw themselves at Rex -- a nice experience for a single lesbian. After dressing up on a whim one Halloween as a Latino gang member -- "I got these incredible reactions from straight women wanting to take me home," she says -- she was hooked. But performing as a man is also intense; Natalie has taken to clearing her massage-therapist schedule the day after drag night, just to unwind from the buzz of it. She finds that she feels more feminine in the wake of a drag performance than at any other time. "Through drag, I get to channel that masculine energy that I spent a lot of my life trying to minimize," she says. "When it's over, I really feel like a woman on a whole other level."
The permission to experiment with a male persona in front of friends brings people who've never performed formally into the spotlight. This is how Audrey, now a Southtown King, found her way to the stage -- in spite of the fact that her premier number turned out to be a disaster. Halfway through J. Geils's drooling "Centerfold," she admits, "I walked right off the stage." As evidenced by the polish of her current "total '80s character," Matt Handsome, the embarrassment soon wore off, and she is now mesmerized by the thrill of entertaining.
The motivations of Denver drag kings differ widely. Many are aware that their performances are charged with social and political commentary; honoring that, the Southtown Kingz regularly do benefits around issues like breast cancer and domestic violence. Lou, whose stage persona is the clean-cut, '50s- and '60s-era pop crooner Tom Fullery, wants to grow up to be a professional drag king. Other performers are just rolling with the experience after literally being dragged out of the crowd. This is how Sara Ann evolved into Dwana Ryder, the 22-year-old move-bustin', Latino/a hotshot who specializes in "slow, smooth songs that the girls love!" Though she grew up singing and dancing, she had no idea a drag-king world existed until, as a freshly out young lesbian, she started coming to the shows. When one of the performers told her she'd make a great king, she gave it a try and found she was a natural.
Rusty Nails was born under similar circumstances. Rusty (girl name: Sue) is the Southtown Kingz' freckled redhead, the down-home good ol' boy who is something of the gentleman farmhand to Doc Holliday's glossy rodeo star.
"The first night, I didn't know I was going to do it -- they pulled me out of the audience. I'd been coming to the shows for a while, and I came to the show in drag one day and nobody recognized me. They looked over at me, like, 'Who the hell is that, man?'"
As she dresses backstage before one of the performances, it is clear that Sue is one of the most naturally masculine-looking performers in the troupe, which is only enhanced by the facial hair she cuts from her head and applies as perfectly-blended sideburns and moustache. Soft-spoken, with a subtle heartland drawl and a steady gaze, Sue is distinctly aware that donning drag is not a giant leap for her; at the same time, she knows there are radical political elements to the gender-bending she does. The fact is, Sue regularly "passes" for a man out in the world, even when she's not trying to.
"I pass on the street, I pass in the grocery store, I pass having dinner, and the waiter never knows that, you know, he's having a conversation with a female. "I've been screamed at in the bathroom just 'cause I had to pee -- 'You're in the wrong room!' -- you know. I've scared women, just because of the way I am," she remarks without bitterness, as she tucks the shirt for her next number into her jeans.
So what is it like stepping into Rusty?
"It's a safer place to be expressing the amount of masculinity that I have in my..." she pauses, "female masculinity. And instead of getting patronized, it's a place where somebody can go and be safe, number one, and a little bit appreciated." As Sue completes her transformation into Rusty, "he" straightens his cowboy hat, smoothes his whiskers and absentmindedly adjusts the crotch of his Wranglers. If you don't listen to what is being said, it is hard to believe that Rusty is not always a man.
The politics are often in the interpretation of various drag kings' chosen music. As Rusty, Sue takes every opportunity to "queer" a song by turning its masculine posturing inside out -- for example, by casting a homosexual inflection on the number, which is particularly amusing when the song is straitlaced country. As a member of the Kingz, Rusty admits to being the "big fag; kind of the joker of the group."
Unlike drag queens, kings don't necessarily aim to impersonate another gender. Most kings' primary aim is to create a textured male persona who is believable -- at least for the three minutes the performer is on stage -- and not to impersonate a particular star. Though the Southtown Kingz and their guests periodically "do" specific singers and personalities (Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, Scott Stapp from Creed, Moby), literal authenticity is less the goal than the more subtle achievement of relaying the physical behaviors of a character-driven masculinity. It is the walk, the talk, the eye contact, the movements that matter.
Drag kings serve as a reminder that gender itself is always a performance. That is, we learn to be masculine or feminine; it is not the biology itself that determines our essence. We all grow up performing at least some of the behaviors that signal us as girls or boys -- wearing dresses, playing with trucks -- and some of us are more successful at these performances than others. When we rebel and cross into the realm of the other, we not only attract attention, but we often risk disapproval, rejection or even violence for breaking the rules. Most gay people already know this.
Such tension is personified by Hunter Downs (girl name: Cody), a Southtown King who, in "real life," is a shy, sensitive, rule-abiding social worker, but whose stage persona is a balls-out, sex-driven "whore" with the mentality of a Chippendales stripper. What is liberating for Cody is that Hunter gets to act out what she doesn't in her day-to-day life. What is disconcerting is that fans may have trouble differentiating between the personas, sometimes mistaking her for a person she isn't. This is a risk of adopting the trappings of masculinity, even temporarily. Nevertheless, the benefits of feeling the performance seem to outweigh the danger of being pigeonholed in unattractive ways.
While bucking conventional norms of femininity, drag kings also teasingly play with the excesses of manhood -- as exemplified, say, by Doc and Rico's version of familiar football anthems. The combination is particularly liberating for those kings who struggled through adolescence as tomboys and for the out lesbians who don't try to look like straight girls. But drag-king performance might be just as liberating for those "normal" females who want to try masculinity on for size and "whip it out" for a change. A visiting troupe from Albuquerque recently made just this point: Six of the performers in their boy-band dance troupe are straight. Hetero kings in Denver are surely not far away.
For now, however, the drag-king world in Denver remains the province of gals like Karen, women who obviously appreciate the freedom and fluidity of gender performance. From cheerleader to country King, s/he excels at it. Straightening his bolo tie backstage, Doc Holliday winks, ready for his second number.
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