Beneath the wall-mounted TV broadcasting an NRL game, Buster Nut is strapped in bondage-style leather doing the worm on the DJ floor of Chippendale’s Lord Gladstone Hotel. Daddy Annie, accompanied by two sailors dressed in nothing but underwear, progressively strips off their own nautical outfit to Village People’s In the Navy. Woody, the “rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the Inner West”, lip-syncs to a mashup of Radiohead’s Creep and a TikTok audio about peeing while sitting down.
“Oh, so it’s like a drag queen, but they’re a man,” a bar patron exclaims, “like it’s the opposite.”
But the people swaggering beneath the spotlight aren’t performing as men – more than that, they’re kings.
Woody and his fellow performers belong to an emerging community of Sydney drag kings and artists experiencing a post-pandemic resurgence. Kinging is a type of drag performance that combines comedy and music, usually expressed through elements of masculinity or androgyny. Kings are often queer women, however people of all genders and sexualities partake in the artform. Performers may also claim gender neutral terms, such as ‘dragthing’ or ‘drag cryptid’.
Dr Kerryn Drysdale is a research fellow at UNSW’s Centre for Social Research in Health who has studied the history of Sydney’s kings extensively.
“There was a real DIY effort around the emergence and sustainability of drag king culture that drag queens haven’t had to contend with,” Drysdale said.
Drysdale recalled how the scene began to emerge in the 1990s through the informal establishment of Wednesdays as ‘lesbian night out’ along the bars of King Street in Newtown and Oxford Street in Darlinghurst. Commercial infrastructure dedicated to queer women was markedly sparse, so venues catering to gay male patronage turned their stages over to lesbians and kings for one night a week.
However, the conceptual roots of today’s kings date back centuries, Drysdale said.
“Women impersonating men has always existed since Shakespearean days. In fact, there’s some really high-profile male impersonators that existed historically,” she said.
Indeed, in watching a king today, one sees flashes of their performance ancestors within them. Their makeup and outfits emulate the likes of Marlene Dietrich, world-famous for donning a top hat and tails for her role in Morocco (1930), or Australian Elsie Morris, who toured Sydney’s theatre circuits of the 1910s as a male impersonator.
The art of gender play has continued to evolve since the days of Dietrich and Morris, beyond performances of strictly masculinity.
The Drag Kings is a production company that provides booking services for clients and hosts The Kings, a monthly show featuring a rotating roster of performers.
Founded in 2020 by Laura Hart, aka Big Rod, hosting The Kings allows Hart to afford local kings and other drag artists opportunities for stage time and transparent rates of pay based on factors such as a performer’s experience and travel. Recently, Hart received the 2022 Honour Award for Arts and Entertainment for their work in nurturing the revitalisation of the community.
“For me, my approach has always been around creating opportunities,” Hart said.
However, outside of shows cast by fellow performers, Woody said self-advocacy becomes challenging when organisers consistently book drag queens for higher paying gigs and other drag performers rarely or at all, generating an income disparity.
Hart said of this disparity: “Pay opportunities are so few and far between if I’m not making them myself. It does feel so lucky to get the chance [to be paid], even though you are a professional, and it would be ridiculous in any other industry to be asked to work for free.”
In 2018 the titular queen at the helm of RuPaul’s Drag Race expressed in an interview with The Guardian that drag “loses its sense of danger … once it’s not men doing it”. Since then, trans and cisgender women and some non-binary people have appeared amongst the cast, but a king is still yet to make his debut.
Drysdale suggested that these comments are offensive and, given RuPaul’s broad reach within both drag and mainstream media, they’re also potentially damaging.
“When you have that kind of real visibility that dictates the parameters of what counts or not as drag, it just makes it more difficult for drag kings to claim legitimacy and authority,” she said. But it’s not just RuPaul or Drag Race omitting kings from platforms that often afford performers widespread media exposure and high-paying opportunities.
US-based king Jack Lope did the math in their video essay Drag Kings: A Reckoning, and discovered that over 13 years, with 525 contestants and 10 different TV shows – including House of Drag, co-hosted by Drag Race Down Under season one winner Kita Mean – only 14 kings have appeared.
Discrimination also affects attitudes present in relationships between community members. During their video essay, Lope reported hearing stories of a king blamed for a “funny smell” in the dressing room because they had a vulva. Moreover, Lope said they often need to code switch to “girl mode” around gay men and queens at drag shows to conform to gendered expectations of femininity, even within spaces that claim to subvert them.
“The misogyny within the drag community is debilitating,” Lope says in the video essay.
For Lope, the glass ceiling for drag kings and other performers is Friday and Saturday night shows, which afford the highest pay. While there’s no figurehead equivalent to RuPaul to lead the charge in shattering that ceiling for kings, Hart said that this isn’t always a bad thing.
“I think what needs to happen is that it [the scene] has to have a stable foundation, and that means more opportunities, more shows. It can’t rest on one venue, one person or group of people,” Hart said.
Hart said the pace is building – they said clients are progressively reaching out to them to book a king rather than having to approach for opportunities. Moreover, young performers such as Star Gayze, Buster Nut and Manish Interest are following suit and producing their own cabaret nights that showcase non-binary and multicultural talent.
With Sydney WorldPride 2023 on the horizon, city-goers can expect an abundance of drag events featuring kings in the coming months, including the king history exhibition Behind the Zip, and Club King: Legends Edition at the Imperial Hotel in Erskineville.
Hart belongs to an organising committee that plans to take 80 drag kings to the streets at the festival’s biggest event, the Mardi Gras Parade.
“We’re going to break the world record for the amount of kings performing at the same time,” Hart said.
Sydney WorldPride will take place from 17 February to 5 March 2023, with the Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday night, 25 February. Catch The Kings hosted monthly by Big Rod with details announced via @thedragkings on Instagram.
Main image: Laura Hart, far right, as Big Rod, hosts the monthly drag king show. The ‘Kings’, from left to right, Manish Interest, King Latin Lover, Mia Boy, Angel King, Duncan Fauxnuts, Daffron Ryce, Fisty Scent, Johnny Gash and Big Rod. Photo: London Hartard.