Music News

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.

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Nancy Wadsworth