The darkened club is lit with candles and a neon sign that says Stiletto’s. Silver tinsel rains from the stage top over red velvet curtains, from which the small figure of Bryan Martin pours into a glowing spotlight.
Martin strides smoothly toward the audience, his black top hat askew before it comes off in a dramatic flourish. He points to a woman in the audience and slides across the runway toward her while lip-synching to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
The audience swoons. The music is loud, and patrons are clustered around tables and booths, slowly nursing their drinks. Many seem wholly focused on the entertainment. Some approach the stage and hold out dollar bills to Martin, hoping for acknowledgment as they slide him the tips.
As Martin finishes the song and vanishes back behind the curtain, the audience cheers. The MC’s voice comes over the sound system announcing the next act.
“I like it when they scream for me,” says Martin, backstage after the performance, in a high-pitched, animated voice. “It keeps me going.”
For the primarily lesbian audience, part of the allure is that Martin isn’t a man. Martin’s real name is Julie Kingsley; Martin is a woman performing as a man — a drag king.
On weekend nights at Stiletto’s, an Inkster show bar known for its drag performances, you’ll find the familiar drag queens in all their camp, with thickly applied makeup, body-hugging dresses and glittery earrings.
You’re also likely to catch a glimpse of the more elusive drag kings.
Drag kings perform everything from rock to rap to country to comedy routines. Their attire ranges from $400 suits to T-shirts and khakis to biker gear. They don sideburns, pencil-thin moustaches and fake 5 o’clock shadows. Some women perform as drag kings for fun, some do it to entertain, while others do it to consciously challenge gender stereotypes. Tonight, Kingsley does it for all those reasons.
Holding a ball of newspaper the size of a large egg, Kingsley, 19, of Allen Park, emits a girlish giggle.
“Here’s my little penis,” she says, announcing plans to tape it to her leg under the stretch pants she wears for her later David Bowie number. Kings often stuff a sock, dildo, fruit or other object in their pants for that telltale bulge.
Kingsley, who stands 5 foot 1 and weighs 105 pounds, gets ready in a cramped dressing room, surrounded by big-haired queens in various states of undress.
“I like having the drag kings,” says Natalie Cole, a tall, brown-skinned female impersonator, clad in a splashy aqua-green dress. “It breaks up the show.”
“A special breed”
Women have long played with male imagery — think of Marlene Dietrich’s donning of a tuxedo and a top hat in the 1930s — but today’s drag king movement is on a different plane. It is unclear exactly when and where drag kings began. One San Francisco drag king says the roots are in that city, London and New York in the early 1980s. In Detroit, male impersonators, while not calling themselves drag kings, were performing at the local show bar GiGi’s as far back as the late 1970s.
Regardless of its beginnings, the phenomenon’s recent rise is often linked to New York City’s Club Casanova, which in 1996 became the city’s first weekly drag king show. Since then, drag kings have appeared on talk shows, MTV and HBO’s “Sex and the City.” An article that appeared earlier this month in the Washington Post suggests that drag kings are the latest trend in drag, pushing queens aside.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s drag scene continues to thrive, and drag kings are a part of that mix.
Krista Belevender, Stiletto's’ show director and a performer, says the bar has played a key role in the metro Detroit scene, having launched the careers of 20 male impersonators in the past two years. In recent years, Stilettos hosted New York drag king sensations Dred and Mo B. Dick.
The Inkster bar has spawned two local troupes of drag kings known as the Dragons and the Untouchables. Although these groups, which imitated boy pop groups like ’Nsync and Boyz II Men, have disbanded, some former members have gone solo and there continue to be local newcomers to the art of male mimicry.
Drag kings are also appearing at two other local bars, Rainbow Room and GiGi’s, but they are almost always featured on a weeknight. Stilettos allows kings to shine on Fridays and Saturdays, which are show nights.
Belevender says there are still many more drag queens than kings.
“A male impersonator is a lot harder to come by. It’s a special breed.”
Ready to wear
Drag queens don fancy wigs and makeup, and beneath they tuck-and-tape their crotches, wear multiple layers of pantyhose, and pad their hips and their bras.
Drag kings bind their breasts, sometimes so severely as to restrict their breathing for hours. For realistic-looking beards, they cut up hair, either their own or the synthetic variety, and methodically apply it to their faces using spirit gum or liquid latex. The process generally takes about 20 minutes. Then there’s taking it off.
“That’s time too,” Belevender says. “I mean, these people take rubbing alcohol and baby oil and just scrub their faces until you would think they would be raw. It’s amazing what they do to make themselves entertainers, to give themselves the illusion.”
Some drag kings make it a goal to pass as a man, and some pull it off very well. Take Jessica Swanson, who hasn’t performed at Stilettos but debuted as “Jake the Snake” almost a year ago at TrumbullPlex and has performed at the Detroit Womens’ Coffeehouse on Cass Avenue.
“People didn’t recognize me when I came in, you know?” reports the 25-year-old Detroiter, speaking of her Trumbull appearance. “I’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and they’d just look at me like I was some kind of freak. You know, some sleazy freak guy.”
Because drag kings aren’t generally as flashy as their female-impersonating counterparts, they tend to rely on props, lighting, dance moves and personality to get themselves noticed. New York performers might go so far as to wave dildos on stage, but Detroit’s scene has its own explicit style.
“You can be totally fucking obnoxious,” Swanson says. “You can hoot and holler at the girls, you can grab your crotch, you can spit on the floor. It’s a totally flamboyant male stereotype, (just) as being a drag queen is a totally flamboyant female stereotype.”
Each drag king strives to take on a unique personality. Katy Straight, 23, of Taylor, performs at Stiletto’s as Chase Knight.
She describes him as a broken-hearted romantic who tantalizes the audience with slow ballads.
“He’s a little bit of a pain in the ass,” she admits. “He’s a little bit preppy, he’s a little fun, he makes the girls cry a little. He likes to schmooze.”
“Sometimes he gets Katy in trouble,” she says, explaining that some of her romantic partners in the past became annoyed when adoring fans passed their phone numbers to Chase. But Straight says she never called the numbers. She made a point, she says, to keep Chase and Katy separate.
Christy Taylor, 28, of Belleville describes her drag persona, Devon James, as “more of the GQ Mr. Pimpin’,” who likes to dance to R&B and Eminem.
Kingsley’s creativity makes Bryan Martin stand out. For his “Rockin’ Robin” lip-synch, she constructed a shirt containing birds with movable beaks.
Meanwhile, Swanson’s “Jake the Snake” is ever changing. He wears a polyester suit with a butterfly collar and a pompadour for disco numbers then switches costumes and morphs into Vanilla Ice.
Underneath the faux peach fuzz, the motivations vary.
“There’s tremendous political power behind it,” says Swanson. Her zeal for drag’s fundamentals — learning to dress and act as a man — is intertwined with her budding feminism, her view of gender stereotypes as absurd, and her disdain for a certain type of male behavior.
“It’s like deconstructing the power of these sleazy motherfuckers,” she says. “And I’m taking it back. I’m like, ‘I look just like you, motherfucker, but really I’m a woman underneath all this. I can try it on and wear it just like you do. ... It’s a coat. It’s a hat. It’s whatever.
“All those sleazy motherfuckers who yell at me on the street ‘Hey baby, blahbablahbablah,’ I’ve got ’em in my closet.”
For Taylor, being Devon James is expressing another part of herself.
“It’s the other side of Christy,” she explains. “Devon is actually the opposite of Christy. Christy isn’t as fabulous. Devon, he’s kind of cocky and confident. ... Christy is shy and kind of insecure.”
Straight says that for her, drag is about having fun, expressing emotions and being an entertainer.
“It just happens to be something I can pull off,” she says. “If you can pull off being a different sex and make it believable, that’s great. Then you have an art form.”
“If I can get a gay man to come up to me and say ‘I want to go home with Chase,’ if I can get a straight girl to come up to me and say ‘What’s your name?’ then I know I’m doing it right.”
Kingsley doesn’t think drag kings have to be so manly.
“Ever since you’re little you learn that pink equals girls and blue equals boys and yellow is in the middle,” she says. “I wanted Bryan to be yellow. He’s got a girl’s body because that’s my body. He dances like a girl and dresses like a boy. In fact, sometimes he dresses like a girl but in a manly way. Whatever people want to define him as is fine with me.
“Although Bryan’s not the most manly male impersonator there is, he makes a statement that you don’t have to do what everyone else does. You can be yourself.”
Which is what the drag kings say this is all about:
In the world of gender play, it’s best to push all assumptions aside. It’s an exercise in seeing gender as something not necessarily fixed, but flexible. Tonight, Belevender is bumping and grinding in a red G-string and a scant top to “Flamethrower.” On other nights, she’s Kid Rock.
Yet, like several of the other performers interviewed for this article, she made a point about her strong attachment to her feminine side.
Take Straight, who grew up on a farm and changes tires for a living. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have seven dresses hanging in my closet,” she says. “Last time I checked, I was just Katy. Just because I dress up as a boy on weekends doesn’t mean I want to be a boy.”
And does Kingsley want to be a man in real life? No way, she says.
“That would take all the fun out of being Bryan!”Jennifer Bagwell is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org