By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
The two girls are all over each other on the big purple couch, writhing, eyes locked in a passionate lip-synch to No Doubt's "Underneath It All." A crowd's in the doorway, giggling as the girls lose their shirts and bottoms, and end up rolling around together in nothing but their underwear. Everyone is howling and clapping. One woman screams, "This is like porn!"
Actually, this is just practice. The girls on the couch, Drea Colores and Donna Myers, are performers with Boys R Us, Tucson's "premier gender performance troupe" -- better known as drag kings -- and tonight, they're rehearsing a number for the troupe's August 19 show at Ain't Nobody's Bizness in Phoenix. When they actually perform the piece, Colores will be in male drag as Sir Visboy, her breasts bound flat with flesh-colored Ace bandages, and Myers -- currently sporting mutton chops and a goatee from a previous number as a man -- will be an ultra-feminized woman, unwrapped boobs bare to the world. "I don't really have a problem getting topless anywhere," she says, pulling a Boy Scout uniform shirt over her shoulders.
In the kitchen, drag king Shannon Moran is dressed as her male playa alter ego, Holden Cox. She's wearing a uniform shirt, too -- this one reads "Male Escort Service," with a name tag that reads "Dick." She says she gets a kick out of walking through clubs and asking if anybody's looking for Dick. From the living room, somebody yells, "Nobody here is looking for that!"
After all, they've got all the penises they need in their "drag bags."
In popular culture, the queens still rule the house of drag. After countless drag queen shows all over the world for the past 50 years (and RuPaul), they have become synonymous with the term. And while women dressing (and even living) as men can be traced as far back as Sweden's Queen Christina in the 17th century, gender swapping as performance was limited to a smattering of underground shows across the U.S. in the '70s, and the 1982 film Victor/Victoria, until recently. Even today, a single drag queen could get booked regularly in any big city, but drag kings almost always have to perform in troupes to get booked. Some might say that's only fair -- it takes the queens twice as long to get ready as the kings, and the queens have been around forever, whereas the kings really only started to emerge in the late '90s.
Ironically, New York City, the birthplace of the gay rights movement and a drag queen mecca, didn't serve as the site of the first big drag king explosion -- the Midwest did. A troupe called H.I.S. Kings formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1996, and by the end of the decade, there were drag king troupes in Louisville (the Underground Kingz), Chicago (Chicago Kings), and St. Louis (Bent Boys). In 1999, members of H.I.S. Kings founded the International Drag King Extravaganza (IDKE). The three-day event drew 45 participants its first year. Last year, IDKE drew more than 250 performers from 15 states, 24 cities, and four countries, including a troupe from Ireland called the Shamcocks.
Females performing as males (or "kinging," as some performers call it) made a slow progression across the country from its Midwest epicenter. By the time Boys R Us formed in 2002, the term "drag king" had started to creep into the mainstream, and rather than just drawing the expected lesbian audience, the troupes have started seeing more "straight friends" at their shows.
Boys R Us is considered the best drag king troupe in the Southwest. The group performed at IDKE last year, and plans to perform there again this year. The gaggle of kings (or "draggle," as they refer to themselves) also nabbed coverage in the Summer 2004 issue of the popular magazine BUST, and their fans (affectionately referred to as "drag hags") drive from all over to see them. The troupe runs itself like a professional outfit: It has a manager, it has all kinds of merchandise from tee shirts to calendars, and it has a very convincing look.
But not all kings go for authenticity. Some performers opt for a campy look, which is the shtick of Girlz 2 Men, a new Phoenix drag king troupe assembled in May of last year by Misty Hettinger, owner of Misty's Lounge, a neighborhood lesbian bar on Seventh Avenue. Only two members of the troupe had performed in drag before, and nobody in the troupe had heard of Boys R Us. Since there's no how-to guide for fledgling drag kings, Girlz 2 Men troupe coordinator Debbie Walker took performance tips from Valley drag queens like Barbra Seville and Chane Jordan. "I have a lot of knowledge as far as female impersonation goes, so I just take that and apply it to male impersonation," Walker says.
Girlz 2 Men may not be as believable as Boys R Us, but the troupe's shows are still really fun, and the rehearsals can be quite revealing.
On a hot Saturday morning in late July, Girlz 2 Men is preparing for its one-year anniversary show at Misty's, set for September 17. Walker is like a chameleon today. After performing in male drag for the opening number, she dips into a wardrobe that would make Cher jealous. Every other number, she races to the bathroom to change. For the Travis Tritt song "Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde," she's wearing black thigh-high leather boots, a miniskirt, and a tight, black lace corset bustier. As the song begins, she strolls alongside king Melissa Hunt, who's dressed in a purple velvet pimp suit as "Gunner." As Tritt sings "with a pistol in my pocket," Walker suddenly rushes back toward her tackle box of props. "I forgot the pistol!" She bends over and ruffles through her bag, fishing out the pistol and shoving it into her garter belt. As she runs to join Hunt in the number, her right breast suddenly jumps out ahead of her, still bouncing to the beat. Hunt struggles to keep a straight face, but quickly doubles over with laughter. Walker scrambles to restrain the runaway boob while everyone whoops and hollers. Walker's face is beet red. "How embarrassing!" she gushes at the end of the number.