Man up: The world of the 'drag king'

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The 'drag king' scene is a growing phenomenon, while female models are increasingly being used in menswear shoots. What's going on? Holly Williams sticks on the facial hair and finds out.

The doorbell rings. I hesitate, then head down the stairs to answer it, taking them at a wide-legged stomp, a goatee sprouting a shade too darkly from my chin, a bulge between my legs. It's not the only thing bulging – when I answer the door to the unwitting postman, his eyes fairly stand out on stalks. "Er, flat two?" "Yep," I growl. "Mrs Holly Williams?" he asks, flustered. Confirming my identity with the barest grunt (it's 'Ms' actually, but I think he's got enough gender confusion to contend with without a lesson in semantics), I grapple the large package – quiet in the back! – with manful ease.

Back in my flat, I fall about laughing, but I may have just made Lenna Cumberbatch a little bit proud. She's a drag king – a woman who performs masculinity – and she's been helping me find my alternative male persona, donning men's clothing, sticking hair on my face and socks down my pants, as well as teaching me how to walk, stand and speak. I don't think I convinced the postie, but by the end of an hour playing around, Cumberbatch does say, "I think you could pass".

She should know: Cumberbatch runs the King of the Castle competition, and the day after my lesson, I head to Newcastle for its sixth edition. The same week also sees the first ever Boi's Night Out, a monthly night for drag kings in London, open at Soho's lesbian joint, the Candy Bar.

Both events feature performers considerably more convincing, not to mention charming, than my attempts at manning up. I'd 'pass' only in passing, I suspect, and even then it's not that pretty a sight. I had, of course, hoped that I might cut a dash, make a handsome chap; instead, I look like the sort of man you wouldn't leave your kids with, all weasily in over-large clothes. There are challenges whatever your shape – while I'm a bit too slim, I'll have no problem when it comes to the bust area, being practically flat to start. Lenna, like many performers, will wear a binder; made of elastic and Lycra, it squashes your chest, restricting both breathing and movement. That drag kings manage to do their 'turn' – be that lip syncing, singing, comedy, dancing, or even stripping – while wearing one is impressive.

I'm not really sure what kind of man I want to be, but thanks to my bobbed hair, Cumberbatch suggests we go for a curtains look, à la Nickelback's Chad Kroeger… In a borrowed man's shirt, my own baggiest jeans, a crepe hair goatee and eyebrow-pencil-thickened eyebrows, the effect is horribly reminiscent of a late-Nineties nu-metal frontman. Shudder.

We try a smarter style, hair slicked back, a different shirt tucked into the jeans, with a tie. Cumberbatch stands back, appraising her work: "You look…" there's a pause, then she starts laughing, "you look like a journalist! Not quite smart-casual, it's smart-ish casual". Whaddya know? Must be my calling. I grab a notebook, as she suggests props help. They do, although the biggest revelation is 'packing' – who knew a pair of socks in your knickers could so completely alter the way you move, sit, even feel? The difference is immediate and – not to boast, guys – huge. No wonder men are so obsessed with the thing – it's right there! All the time!

It does help me move more convincingly, but I'm still a bit taken aback at the kind of man I've turned out to be. Cumberbatch runs drag king workshops up and down the country – is this a common reaction?

"These scary-looking men come out of nowhere," confirms Cumberbatch. She has two characters – Leon DaLuva (it's traditional for kings to have suggestive names), who wears a suit, and just looks like her brother. The second is Uncle Lenny, a sleazy used-car-salesman type, who wears a checked blazer with a pink shirt and flowery tie. "This person came out!" she explains with a grin, adding that, actually, most of the women she does workshops with enjoy the surprise. "They're like, 'How come I can look like this?' But it's very interesting to watch."

With drag queens, the comedy comes from the knowledge there's a man underneath the wig and lashes; to what extent is a drag king about knowing it's a woman really? "That's one of the decisions that people who are performing have to choose: [do you want to] pass as a man, to be a specific man – I've got an Elvis wig – or do you want to be a parody? All of those are completely possible," explains Cumberbatch. Indeed, there are examples of all three at King of the Castle, which features a passable punk, a George Clooney impersonator and a Victorian dandy.

While drag kings may be less visible – or, indeed, less comfortably understood – than drag queens in Britain, they have a long tradition. There were male impersonators, 'mashers', in Victorian music hall, often singing sexually suggestive songs, very nudge-nudge, wink-wink (a practice introduced to many by Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters' hit novel and, later, BBC TV adaptation). And there's the pantomime Prince – one of the few mainstream examples of female cross-dressing that raises no eyebrows.

The other – or so you might think – is fashion. Androgyny has long been cool, from film stars of the Hollywood Golden Age, such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, who liked to wear the trousers, to Yves Saint Laurent's 1966 'Le Smoking' style of sharply-tailored tuxedos for ladies. There's been a more startling move within the fashion industry recently, however: female models have been cropping up in men's shoots. There was a flutter recently over Saskia de Brauw as the new face of Saint Laurent menswear – but what a face! That square jaw turned equilateral triangle by dint of some extremely sharp cheekbones. Meanwhile, Casey Legler, Olympic swimmer turned artist – 6ft 2in, skinny, bequiffed – did a menswear shoot for her mate in Muse magazine, which got her signed with Ford Models in the US. In the men's, and only the men's, division.

While these women are certainly performing masculinity for the camera, and unsettling gender norms, it is a pretty different world. Drag king acts – as opposed to women flirting with gender-bending to look cool or to sell more clothes – have their own scene, and it is largely within the lesbian community. Many, though by nof means all, drag kings consider themselves on the butcher end of the spectrum to begin with, and their performed maleness is usually quite far from the fashion world's 'girl looking a bit sexily androgynous'.

That said, sexiness can of course be one of the masculine attributes they perform – Adam All, singing "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" at the Candy Bar, saucily raises his eyebrows while grabbing his crotch; George Crooney, a competitor at King of the Castle, suavely kisses audience members' hands with a wink. But it doesn't have to be sexy: as Cumberbatch proves with Uncle Lenny, a drag king can be comically grotesque.

Although it seems to go in cycles of popularity, drag benefitted from the expansion in queer theory and gender studies, as well as performance art, from the Seventies onwards. But it was the 1990s, Cumberbatch suggests, that were the real heyday for drag kings, especially in New York, Washington, Berlin and London. Yet today, despite the recent boom in cabaret, drag kings are comparatively rare onstage in the UK. The biggest community is in Manchester – London didn't even have a regular, dedicated night until two kings, Flirty Bertie and Adam All, set up Boi's Night Out.

"There is a massive gap, it's odd," says Adam All, who, talking to me at the Candy Bar, prefers to be referred to by his onstage persona. He flags up appreciatively the Royal Vauxhall Tavern's Bar Wotever nights, which are open to gender-bending and queer performers of all stripes – including drag kings – but says "They're great, but it's not open mic; this is a bit different because it's low and it's dingy and the stage is very small… almost like karaoke. It's a much easier venue to have a go for the first time."

Boi's Night Out seems to be a broad church; as well as, I suspect, a few unknowing lesbian punters, there are fully costumed drag kings, from butch to dandy, through to dressy femmes; one wears a latex push-up bustier while another has a hoodie up over a beanie hat. There's even a man.

Flirty Bertie has been planning to set up a London night for two years, saying that the capital is "lagging behind the times" (he got his first manly makeover courtesy of a group of kings in Manchester). It's the first one, so they're hardly inundated, but one brave woman takes the mic; I meet her again in the audience at King of the Castle and it turns out she's doing a PhD on drag kings.

Bertie was keen for Boi's Night Out to be open and inclusive, a "safe space for female cross-dressers, drag kings, transgender, gender queer, all that". The overlap between drag kings and transgender men is a sensitive issue. All of the drag kings I speak to explain that, for them, it's firmly about performance, whereas identifying as a trans man is to actually be male. However, there are – unsurprisingly – grey areas.

Adam All speaks eloquently on the subject: "Drag, either male or female, is taking a gender stereotype and exaggerating it for comic purposes. Whereas transitioning, transsexuals or transgender people are not like that – at all – it's who they are. I want to make sure everyone knows we're aware of that, we're not saying that if you dress like someone of the opposite sex there's something comical in that all the time. But when we do drag, we make it a massive exaggeration – for instance, I'm wearing a cummerbund and a matching bow tie… it's meant to be comic." However, he also understands that it may be part of more serious gender exploration, having started dressing in drag aged just 17. "Originally, it was exploring a masculine persona. But I chose not to go any further, not to experiment with testosterone, because I was happy in the body that I was in. But I kept dressing up because I enjoy it. And I built a persona, and then that became a performance…"

Ingo Andersson, who set up the long-running, much-loved Bar Wotever, and who has also performed as a drag king, agrees. "I would only use the words 'drag king' if someone is doing something performative. You don't live as a drag king." However, she also runs drag king workshops, and admits that often the people who come are exploring masculinity for personal reasons, not to find a cabaret act. "It is a fine line, but for a lot of people it is a way of trying out masculinity. And if you're doing that onstage as a drag king, then maybe you find the confidence to become the more masculine person you are, and therefore you stop performing because then you can use that in everyday life."

Bar Wotever hosts occasional Female Masculinity Appreciation Nights, which do, well, exactly what they say on the tin, welcoming the full spectrum. But she echoes others in observing that the specific drag king performance scene isn't as strong as it could be: "We are crying out for more drag kings, people to go up onstage and perform… we are definitely lacking that as a performance art."

If it continues, Boi's Night Out hopes to help redress this in London, while in Newcastle, a drag king scene may just have been ignited. I visit the city for the King of the Castle competition, a sell-out at the Women's Centre in Elswick, and it's terrific fun. Our host is Fiona King, aka Stevie Wonderful, an impressive-voiced black lesbian in a wheelchair impersonating a blind man; as well as attempting to control the occasionally rowdy crowd (there are shouts of "Show us your cock!") 'he' also sings several numbers. Another woman, Annie Brotherton, grooving in a pinstripe suit, translates it all into British Sign Language (could this be the most inclusive night out in Britain?).

Thanks to some last-minute drop-outs, there are only three kings, and they compete in three rounds: swim or sleepwear, eveningwear, and a performance. The first 50 audience members through the door get voting slips. First up is Robin A Fanny, and frankly, he knocks 'em dead.

This was entirely predictable. I met Laura McNally backstage as she was getting dressed – or undressed, for her swimwear outfit consists of old-fashioned long trunks, with braces to (just about) cover her modesty. With her short hair, doe-eyes ringed with liner and tiny physique, shivering in bare feet, she's terribly fragile looking – and yet also sports impressive stuck-on sideburns and chest hair. Standing in front of the whooping audience, pulling weeny strong-man poses, it's confusing and brave and just too adorable.

"I'm quite nervous – I just hope people enjoy it," McNally says before the competition. "In the Victorian days male impersonators used to be quite a popular thing, so I thought I'd do the Victorian dandy." For eveningwear, she dons top hat and tails. It's one of the first times she's dressed up in drag, and the other competitors are novices, too: Dorothy Ellis – aka George Crooney – pretty much had to get involved, as the event was partly organised by her partner, who works for Northern Pride. "I've never done it in my life before. This is only the second time I've put the facial hair on; first time was a workshop a couple of weeks back. And singing with a beard is a bit different…"

A full-on silver fox, who melts hearts first in cosy pyjamas and then by singing "Fly Me to the Moon" in black tie, it's hard to believe Ellis is a first-timer – such panache! Such twinkle!

Finally there's Kayla Wren – aka Mister Sid Vivacious – who only signed up a few days ago. "I don't know why I'm doing it, it's not me, but… I'm a photographer so I do like to dress up, and I've always wanted a beard, so I thought: perfect excuse!" In, first, a neon-green onesie, then bowler hat and a suit, Wren makes a surprisingly convincing bloke, with a wry knowing smirk, a young, cool, punkish type that'd break teenage girls' hearts… and speaking of broken, Sid Vivacious's performance is walking on crushed glass. Ouch.

But there can be only one winner, and after Robin A Fanny performs an old-time, music hall-style monologue, there's little surprise at the result. In arch rhyming couplets, it tells a tale of dandy decadence, when – after consuming rather too much of rather too many types of booze – he walks into the ladies instead of the gents (he was just being "absinthe-minded"). Judging by their reaction, I don't think many of the ladies in the audience would mind if this gent walked into their stall…

The king is crowned, for this year at least. And if Leon, Stevie, Adam and Bertie – not to mention their new kings and runner-up princes – have their way, there will be an even wider audience to hold court over next year.

To book a lesson with Lenna Cumberbatch, go to kotcdragking.com; Bar Wotever takes place every Tuesday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, rvt.org.uk, woteverworld.com; Boi's Night Out takes place on the second Wednesday of the month, candybarsoho.com

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