Drag King - What is it? What does it mean?

Last Updated: 12/10/2021
12 min read
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The phrase Drag King typically refers to cisgender or transgender female or non-binary performers who appear in masculine drag on stage. Drag kings typically personify the stereotypical male roles and gender ideals as part of their performance art. 

A drag king will exaggerate macho male characteristics by performing masculinity on stage. Drag performers may incorporate dancing, stand-up comedy, live and lip-synching singing, acting as well as acting. Drag kings often portray very high standard masculine people like construction workers, truck drivers, rappers as well as impersonate male celebrities like Michael Jackson, Tim McGraw, Elvis Presley.


Table of contents

Terminology

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term drag king is a noun that can be defined as: 

“a person and especially a woman who dresses as a man and performs as an entertainer in male drag.

The term drag king may also include female-bodied people who dress in masculine clothing for other reasons. This means it is used to include women who may temporarily attempt to pass as men. Drag kings may also be afab people who have a masculine gender expression. There are also some transgender male performers that may identify themselves as drag kings. 

Drag king shows are phenomena mostly linked to lesbian women. Drag kings typically perform at bars, clubs, and festivals. That said, not all performers in drag are lesbians, some may have other sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions.

It is important to note that many people may have a masculine gender expression. Bisexual and lesbian women who express their identity in a masculine way are not considered to be drag kings. 

Many drag kings have a separate drag persona in addition to the self they live as. The persona looks acts and sounds different. They may want to be referred to by a different name and pronouns while in drag. This does not mean that a drag king is transgender, but there are some drag kings who are. 

Drag kings are entertainers and artists. Their stage persona is an integral part of their identity but it does not mean that it is their gender identity. 

History

The term drag kind originated in 1972, but historically speaking drag kings have always been here. There were many female performance artists who wore male clothes, personified men, and were essentially drag kings of their era. 

Ancient Times

Male impersonators date back to the Tang dynasty in China. Somewhere between 618-907 CE, women began impersonating men in Chinese opera. They played the roles of scholars, warriors, and emperors. 

In fact, opera traditionally has a history of breeches and roles en travesti. 

18th Century

One of the most influential women in terms of drag king history is Susanna Centlivre. She was a cisgender woman, an actress, and a playwright. Her works were popular during her lifetime and well into the 19th century. Centlivre was known as the second woman on the English stage after Aphra Behn. She was regarded as a masculine woman because of her outspoken and largely political writing.

Centlivre started performing in breeches roles in 1685. She wrote her plays during the 1700s. Centlivre raised topics like politics as well as women’s roles in society in her works. 

Mo B. Dick who is a drag king superstar, said during a presentation to college students on Drag King history

“Both Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre brought women’s voices and perspectives into the spotlight for the first time. They utilized their platform to write heroic, dynamic, and autonomous female characters and breeches roles and presented bold topics such as politics and women’s position in society — which women were forbidden to discuss in public” 

19th Century

Perhaps no other person has made a larger impact on the women performing as men in history in the United States than Annie Hindle. She arrived in the US from England in 1868. Hindle started her career in English music hall stages. She swiftly became a very popular male impersonator in America. Hindle toured all across the country impersonating swell male characters of the upper class. Her career lasted over 40 years. 

20th Century

Gladys Bentley was an American blues singer who had a successful career impersonating men. She was an entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Bently was openly gay during her career. She headlined at the Ubangi Club in Harlem. One of the features of her show was a chorus line of drag queens. Bentley sang raunchy lyrics to popular music of the time. She was active until the 1940s. 

Stormé DeLarverie is one of the most well-known names when it comes to drag king history. DeLarverie performed in male drag during the 50s and 60s. She was a veteran of the gay rights movement in America. DeLarverie is also known for her role in taking part in the Stonewall uprising that ultimately led to the recognition of LGBTQ+ people’s rights in the United States and beyond. 

“There's a long and rich history of male impersonation here in the US and internationally. Like with any history there are stories that get told, and others that don't." Nicole Miyahara, a filmmaker behind ‘The Making of a King’ told The Huffington Post. 

Modern Day

There are cisgender women, trans men, non-binary drag kings, there are even cisgender men performing as drag kings these days. 

“Today’s drag is more expansive, gender-bending, and really pushing the edge from all sides,” says Murray Hill, a veteran performer in an interview with Vogue Magazine. 

Historically drag kings have been more marginalized in pop culture than drag queens. That does not mean there are no drag kings appearing on television. In 2016, Nicole Miyahara produced a documentary “The Making of a King”. In 2018 Hugo Grrrl won the inaugural season of New Zealand’s House of Drag. In 2019 Landon Cider appeared on a televised US drag competition and won The Boulet Brothers Dragula.  

There are also conventions and competitions out there aimed at raising awareness and bringing the drag king community together. The International Drag King Community Extravaganza is the largest gathering of its kind. It unites drag performers from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Each year a different city hosts the event. One of the oldest running drag king contests is in San Francisco. The Great Big International Drag King Show takes place in Washington, D.C. 

Drag King Trailblazers:

Murray Hill

Hill is a veteran of the drag king scene in New York City. The legendary performer behaves and looks like the old-school mid-century American comedian during his drag king show. Murray Hill’s performance styles make Hill one of the top kings on the east coast. This world-class male impersonator has full control over the audience. Hill's look features windowpane suits, horn-rimmed glasses, polyester ties, and signature slicked-back hair. Despite being one of the top drag performers in the world, Hill rejects the drag king label. Murray Hill refuses to be pigeon holed. Many kings cite Murray Hill as their inspiration among male role players. Hill is not only a trailblazer, Murray Hill is also a symbol for non-binary and genderqueer performance in drag. 

Murray Hill

“I always felt I am not one thing. Any time I put something in front of my name, it is reductive. The whole point of being Murray and performing him is to increase visibility and be equal to everyone else. I want to be treated like a male comedian. When people talk about heterosexual men: they just get to be called by their names, I want to be Murray Hill. "

Mo B. Dick

A drag veteran, producer, host, historian are some of the ways to describe Mo B. Dick. He is the impersonation of old-style American masculinity. Dick’s style features tattoos, bright shirts and suits, blonde or other bright shade hair, and so much swagger. 

“Mo B. Dick is a tough talker from Brooklyn, NY with an outspoken wit and charm that will make your heart swoon with his signature pompadour, gold tooth, and sharp suits.” — Mo B. Dick

Mo B. Dick started doing drag shows back in 1995. His influence and all out impact on the drag scene is one for the history books. Mo B. Dick inspired several drag kings. In fact, Dick is the co-creator of the first drag kings contents history database - dragkinghistory.com

Adam All

Adam All is known as the “godfather” of the modern-day drag scene in the United Kingdom. All is one of the most influential drag kings in the U.K. and beyond. He 

He’s a gentle man who can charm and alarm with an equal appeal, bringing live vocals and cartoon realness to his dashing geek-chic cabaret,” says Jen Powell, the creator of Adam All 

Adam does not only have a drag king show, he also hosts a drag king cabaret as well as a drag king competition called MAN UP. 

Landon Cider

Cider is an American drag king, actor, and host. He made his mark in history by winning the third season of the Boulet Brothers' Dragula competition. Cider was crowned the "World's Next Drag Supermonster".

Landon Cider

Landon Cider began his career in Southern California. He is one of the main heroes in Nicole Miyahara's documentary "The Making of a King". He is an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights as well as drag king performers all over the world. Cider has auditioned several times for RuPaul's Drag Race criticizing the show for only doing a drag queen version.

Hugo Grrrl

Grrrl is a New Zealand-based drag king who made history by winning the inaugural season of House of Drag. Grrrl is the stage name of George Fowler is a comedian, producer, actor, and drag king.

Hugo Grrrl

"Hugo because I liked the name and Hugo Grrrl as in 'you go, girl!' because that pun seemed charming and feminist and somehow very me. I was just drawn to it." 

Hugo Grrrl is the first transgender man and first drag king in history to compete on a television drag reality show that is not RuPaul's Drag Race.

Vico Suave

This Latinx lover is among the most passionate and dramatic performers in the world. Suave is the embodiment of sexiness and romance in a broader sense. Suave’s inspiration? Ricky Martin. Vico’s drag style features loose-fitting floral shirts, tight pants, and gold jewelry. 

“Drag means freedom and it also means access. A key to a box that they have hidden inside of them … filled with toys that they can play with. It is a ritual, magic, fun, self-care. It is a performance but at such a heightened level that it resonates with the authentic, core self.”

Vico is not only a drag king on stage in clubs in Los Angeles, United States. Suave is a familiar face on the silver screen starring in Transparent, American Horror Story: 1984, Vida, and more.

Pronouns

Drag Kings are typically AFAB individuals who identify as women. That said there are cisgender, transgender, non-binary drag kings out there. They use a variety of pronouns ranging from gendered pronouns she/her or he/him to gender-neutral pronouns like they/them. 

It is important to share your pronouns first and politely ask about the person’s pronouns during the conversation. Never assume someone’s gender identity based on their gender expression. If in doubt about someone's gender, just use the name the person prefers. 

Flag and Symbols

There are several drag flags out there. One of the most common versions is the first drag pride flag created by an artist by the name of Sean Campbell. The flag features a phoenix as a symbol of rebirth. It symbolizes the passion that the drag community has for many causes. 

First drag flagFirst drag flag

Another version of the drag flag was developed in 2016. It was the result of the Austin International Drag Festival. The colors of the flag represent the following: 

  • Purple stands for the passion of drag
  • White stands for the body and face being a blank slate 
  • Blue stands for self-expression and loyalty
  • The crown represents leadership
  • The stars stand for the many forms of drag

Second drag flagSecond drag flag

Differences

The definition of drag means that it is a theatrical performance of one or multiple genders by dressing in the clothing of a different gender, or in a manner different from how one would usually dress. 

Drag King vs. Drag Queen

Drag Queens are typically cisgender men, male-aligned, non-binary, genderqueer individuals who dress up in feminine attire. Some drag queens live their lives as gay men outside of their drag personae. People assume drag queens are a gay man but that is incorrect. Drag queens can be of any gender and sexual orientation. There are also many drag queens in the world who are cisgender women.

Faux King

A Faux King, sometimes also called a Hyper King is a subset of a Drag King. Their act may involve dancing and lip synching as well as method acting. The term is used to describe someone who is a cisgender man or is masculine-aligned, but performs as a Drag King. 

Drag Queers

Drag Queers are men or women who dress up in an androgynous or gender-neutral way while performing. 

Drag King Style

Drag kings have a variety of styles and personas. Drag kings often face the same challenges drag queens do when it comes to creating gender illusion. They generally use similar tools to achieve the look. It may include some or all of the below modifications.

Body

Breast binding is common for drag kings in order to present more masculine. Some female artists use body-shaping apparel, others prefer kinesiology tape to make their chest appear flat. 

Packing is also crucial for female bodied drag kings to complete the look of an uber-masculine king. Although some drag kings prefer not to pack, many will use socks and prosthetics to show an appearance of a full package down under. 

Face

Facial hair plays a big role in the way drag kings present exaggerated masculine appearance. Creating an illusion of a five o’clock shadow is almost a must-have for drag kings. Some people who perform may create fuller eyebrows, apply glue on beards and mustaches, use eyeshadow to fill in facial hair. 

Hair

Just like facial hair, the hair on top of the performers' heads is extremely important. Some people expect drag kings to have short hairstyles. In fact, some may opt for a method involving cutting their locks. Others may choose to incorporate long hair into their routine. There are many who opt to use caps and wigs as well as hats as part of their stage attire.

Clothing

For many drag kings who perform while dancing and lip synching clothing play a huge role in their appearance. Think classic suits, bright colors, rock-and-roll, a sexy macho guy with rhinestones, anything goes type of outfit. Drag kings tend to present themselves to the world in very elaborate clothing that is hyper-masculine. 

Performance

Similar to a drag queen, body language during an act is key to expressing manliness. If queens show off their femininity, kings go for a more aggressive type of behavior. Body language, choreography, and deep voice are just some of the king resources they use during their performance to appear overly masculine. 

Names

Drag king names tend to be sexually-based macho versions of first and last names. Think somewhere along the lines of Buck Naked, sounds somewhat similar to a drag queen name, but with overly masculine sexualized notes.

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Julia Sotska is a former Senior PR Manager at Taimi. She hails from Toronto, Canada where she studied Communications and Journalism Broadcasting. Julia is an experienced journalist, TV producer, editor and communications manager. Her work has been featured in prominent publications in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and more. Julia is passionate about LGBTQ+ and disability rights, mental health, wellness, and parenthood.

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