• Drag kings Rocco D'Amore and Marlena Dali. (Instagram)Source: Instagram
“I think drag kings are so essential because they directly subvert binary roles.”
Joseph Earp

13 Feb 2019 - 10:28 AM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2019 - 9:07 AM

Rocco D’Amore had no conception of drag when, as a 14-year-old, the young performer secretly applied make-up, nabbed some clothes, and started lip-syncing to George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’.

“I didn’t know I was doing drag back then,” D’Amore explains now. “Nor did I know it had a name. I just thought I was weird.”

That was the 1980's, back when queer culture was finding its feet and drag was yet to hit the mainstream. But even then, the drag subculture was bursting with creativity and invention.

“It’s always existed,” celebrated drag king performer Marlena Dali explains. “Drag kings are historical. They won’t go away. Whether the phenomenon of drag-fad lasts or extends to kings or just fades … all drag is valid.”

For Dali, drag was simply a way of life, and the performer started subverting the gender binary through the “undocumented daily drag of … childhood through to proto-adulthood.” The performance aspect of it didn’t come up till later, when a band member of Dali’s suggested donning the clothes of a drag king might spice up a gig.

“I didn’t know I was doing drag back then,” D’Amore explains now. “Nor did I know it had a name. I just thought I was weird.”

“I dressed up like some ’00s mod revival dude, and fancy that, I played with the actual confidence of a man that never had his musical abilities questioned,” Dali explains. “The thrill of masculine self-assuredness rushed through me. I had tasted power and I wanted more.”

Power and self-possession proved similarly important for Manzer, the drag king persona of celebrated performer and operatic disco artist Tanzer.

“I was obsessed with Danny Zuko from Grease and would boss around other kids into acting out sequences from the movie, never letting anyone else near my coveted role,” Manzer explains. “I’d tuck the length of my hair into my school shirt and push my headband across my eyes to mimic Ray-Bans. I felt so much cooler and more confident compared to the awkwardly tall, tomboy schoolgirl I happened to be at the time.”

Over the years, the Manzer persona began to emerge, becoming more than just a character for Tanzer. The drag king persona Manzer, Tanzer says is a “sorrowful manifestation of a very real and precious side of me” and a way to tap into an essential part of her personality, rather than an oversized character.

The drag scene has changed over the decades too. Over the last few years, it has been thrust into the mainstream, thanks in large part to the popular TV show Ru Paul’s Drag Race. For better and for worse, there’s drag before RPDR, and there’s drag after it. Like nothing else, the show has shifted the culture, giving the art of drag more attention than it’s ever had before.

Some see that as a bad thing – “I hate [Drag Race],” D’Amore says, simply, “it’s ruined drag” – and others still have a more complicated relationship with the show.

“Drag Race is an empire,” Dali says. “It has made drag have a homogenised look, because that’s easier to digest and sell. [But] I will say … as much harm as it’s done in terms of homogeny and fame culture, it’s helped open the door just that little bit more for some mainstream discourse about more diverse queer issues.”

“I hate [Drag Race],” D’Amore says, simply, “it’s ruined drag”.

But even as Drag Race has given the art form widespread media attention, one aspect of drag that remains painfully under discussed is drag king culture. The focus has long been on drag queens, and Drag Race has done nothing to change that. For drag kings, it’s only solidified drag queens as the dominant aspect of drag for  mainstream media.

“Drag Queens have been far more visible in popular culture throughout history, increasingly so, and therefore more recognisable and more ‘acceptable’ as entertainers to the mainstream media,” Manzer says. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Dali says the lack of mainstream attention means the public misses out on drag king culture’s vitality; its vibrancy, and its edge. Drag kings are an essential part of the drag subculture; an important way to rib and challenge socio-political norms.

“I think drag kings are so essential because they directly subvert binary roles,” Dali explains. “Drag kings are seen as grotesque, which to be honest is what I think the essence of drag is, at least for me.

“It is grotesque for a woman, or cis woman, or nonbinary person to dress up and play masculinity, whether they are being a suave crooner, a sexy rock star, a Bollywood dreamboat, or a clown—oh and especially if that masculinity isn’t conventionally masculine.”

Manzer agrees, asserting that for the performer, the mainstream’s disregard for drag kings is inherently political.

“I think that the popular conception of drag queens, in their heightened, exaggerated femmeness, is a lot easier for the non-queer world to swallow than a woman playing up an exaggerated portrayal of a man,” Manzer explains. “Because how dare we make fun of men, right?”

But the lack of mainstream attention isn’t holding Australia’s drag king scene back. Whether Drag Race-inspired punters rock up to watch or not, Dali says the scene will keep on doing what it has done for decades now, as kings from every conceivable walk of life take to the stage and do their thing.

“At events like Queerbourhood, Heaps Gay, Cult Sundays, and my own event, The Oyster Club, you can see so many styles of drag,” says Dali. “Kings, queens, monsters, high class, gross, glittery, grungy, cis, trans, non-binary, black, brown, white, disabled, abled… And all in one night.”

Joseph Earp is a music and film critic who writes about horror cinema, bad TV, post-punk and The Muppets.  You can follow Joseph on Twitter @TheUnderlook.

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