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.
From the microphone, Hettinger says, "I think you need to practice it one more time."
While Girlz 2 Men presents a different show (and a very different look) from its older southern cousins Boys R Us, the two troupes do have a few things in common: Both feature female characters along with the kings, both blend cheesy humor and social commentary in their performances, and both meet once a week to plan and practice. Where the troupes really differ is in how they pull off the male illusion. And each king seems to have a different method to her maleness.
Some of the kings in Boys R Us could definitely pass for men, largely because of the real facial hair they often sport. It's real, but it doesn't grow on their faces. Most of the Tucson kings use small clippings of their own hair and a glue called spirit gum. A viscous, amber-colored substance that smells strongly of acetone, spirit gum is sold at most costume shops and applied with a small brush about the size of a nail polish brush. The performers brush the gum on in the shape of the desired facial hair (some kings use eyeliner pencils or burnt cork to do outlines first), and then dab their hair clippings over the gum. The hair looks real and stays in place until it's scrubbed off. But there are disadvantages.
"Yeah, I get stray hairs in my mouth all night," says Boys R Us king Mister Fister, who wants to be known only by her drag name.
"I've fallen asleep with facial hair on before," says Moran. "It itches and hurts like hell the next day. I've gotten a rash in the shape of a sideburn."
The performers in Girlz 2 Men initially tried using spirit gum for their facial hair, but Walker thought it took too much time, so they switched to using store-bought mustaches applied with wig tape. When the tape got wet with sweat and the beards started to fall, Walker settled on applying eye shadow with a cosmetic sponge. "The sponge gives it [the illusory hair] texture, and then you can just wipe it off," Walker says.
Once the facial hair has been glued, taped, or dabbed onto their faces, the kings' next step is breast-binding, something the members of both Girlz 2 Men and Boys R Us do. Drag kings with larger breasts must "wrap" or "bind," unless they plan on performing as a fat guy with man-boobs. Some kings use a special undershirt called a "compression shirt." The shirt is made of a stretchy, meshlike material, and fits the torso like a shrunken wife-beater. Because compression shirts can be costly (anywhere from $30 to $100) and hard to find, many kings simply use Ace bandages (sometimes with duct tape) to wrap and flatten their breasts.
The hardest challenge for a drag king? Sometimes you can't keep a big breast down.
"That happens a lot -- the binding starts slipping, and by the end of the piece, one boob will spring out," says Heather Hill, who performs in Boys R Us as characters J.J. Jingles and Frederic Juggernuts. "I remember one number, [the binding] was coming down the whole time, and I could feel it riding down, and then the last pose of the number, they were just like, 'Boing! Hello!' I find it really hard to bind my breasts down. They're just too big."
Not every king has that problem. "I bind with Band-Aids," jokes Moran. "One will do."
And of course, no transformation into male drag would be complete without the ultimate accessory: the penis. Most drag kings stuff something down their pants to create the illusion of a phallic bulge (a practice known as "packing"). A gelatinous phallus called a "soft pack" is made specifically for this purpose, but drag kings can improvise with just about anything, most often rolled-up socks. A lot of kings pack with strap-on dildos and harnesses, sans buckles, so as not to accentuate their female hips. "If you're a true drag king, let it hang loose," says Cindy Herrera, who performs in Girlz 2 Men as Maxwell Harder. "I have a strap-on that fits the purpose appropriately."
The problem with Herrera's strap-on dildo is that it has no flaccid state, so it juts out of her pants like a bony elbow and perpetually points north. Hunt also ran into a packing problem, while stuffing with socks at rehearsal one day. "My bulge is splitting, so I look like I've got vegetables in there," she says.
Walker tells Hunt to wear men's underwear. "Tighty whities," she instructs. "If you wear them and you use socks, it'll stay in place. Or you can use [bags of] bird seed."
Fellow troupe member Merrie Bruns (a.k.a. Murrie) asks Hunt, "Wouldn't it be funny if you went to do a guitar kick and your dick flew out your pant leg and hit somebody in the eye?"
A typical crowd at a local drag king show would likely laugh off a flying dick in the eye. Audience members get very interactive with the kings, stuffing dollar bills down their pants, dancing with them, slapping their asses, and kissing them. Everything straight women do at a male revue, and then some.
Groups of girls usually sit on the floor around the Girlz 2 Men stage and toss dollar bills at the kings, who spend a lot of time walking through the crowd and dancing with the audience.
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Some of Boys R Us' fans have gotten very frisky. At one show, Myers (as Johnny Come Lately) was accosted onstage by a female fan, who jumped up on her lap and started humping her. The other members of Boys R Us swear it's something about that Boy Scout uniform. "You're not wearing that in Phoenix, are you?" Colores asks. "You're gonna get mauled. We don't want to have another incident."
They might be asking for it, though, given the unofficial theme of their Valley show. "It's gonna be a very sexy show," says Colores. "Sometimes we won't all be on the same wavelength. We've had very political shows mixed with fun, silly shows, and for some reason, this time, everybody's just like, 'Sex!' It's the Sex Show."
"Or the Fun Show," says Fister. "We're just having a lot of fun with it right now. I think we went through a period where we got really serious and we discussed some serious issues, and now I think we're more just enjoying ourselves."