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The Kings Are Running It

Taking a look behind the curtain of a vibrant, creative and — too often — underappreciated scene in Cleveland drag.

Written by Benvolio Nichols

Good News!

There have been 10 different wonderful interviews done by Benvolio Nichols with some kings in the Cleveland scene!

The interviews have been transcripted and split up into five posts, with two interviews each. Below are the links!

Go to the bottom of this post for individual king images!

A performer takes the stage in half a suit, sewn to half an evening gown, to place masculine and feminine faces side-by-side in a gender-bending, three-song mix. Another menaces the audience through a five-minute musical reenactment of “American Psycho,” complete with Christian Bale’s voiceover, a prop ax and so much stage blood. “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” blasts from the speakers and three minutes, a split and a cartwheel later, the cowboy isn’t wearing much more than his hat and boots. These performances were brought to life by entertainers Macho Grande, Marquis Gaylord and Ryder Slowly — just a few big names among the dozens of drag kings taking the stage in Cleveland nightlife. King drag can seem like an underground scene, especially when some audiences still don’t understand that kings even exist. But drag kings are everywhere in and around Cleveland — if you know where to look.

"Already, CSU students don’t need to travel far to enjoy king drag. Even outside our campus, all over northeast Ohio, this season of local drag has seen a surge in diversity, visibility and achievement for drag kings."

Drag kings are performance artists who play with exaggerated, campy or nontraditional forms of masculinity, through any combination of lip-synching, choreography, makeup, costuming and more. Some audiences assume that drag kings must be cisgender women “impersonating” men, but that’s just as false as the assumption that all drag queens are cis gay men.

Outside of their drag, kings might identify as women, trans or cis men, genderqueer or nonbinary. I interviewed ten drag kings from Cleveland and northeast Ohio. All described their drag journey as a means of self-discovery and gender exploration, whether creating a completely separate character from themselves or building on their own identity. “I feel like myself when I’m in drag, just a little bit elevated and dramatized,” Cleveland/Oberlin rock king The Twisted Transitioner said. For Kent performer Abel N. Willing, “Abel is a way more masculine version of myself, but he’s also just, like, a little gay guy.”

Some kings work with traditionally feminine aesthetics, incorporating skirts, dresses, corsets, wigs and lashes into their looks. These blurred lines help cultivate a sense of “genderfuck”: intentional, over-the-top expression which juxtaposes masculine and feminine elements (like stilettos and a beard, or a suit and eyeshadow) as a means to challenge, parody and break cisnormative gender ideals. The term is used by many drag performers as an aesthetic, ethos and manifesto. “My drag is — ‘I’m a woman, dressing like a man, who’s dressing like a woman,’” Lakewood-based king and Mr. Unique 2023 pageant winner Dean Heartthrob said.

Last April, Dean (a CSU student out of drag) co-hosted Cleveland State University’s student drag show alongside his drag mother, Pineapple Honeydew-Delight. Providing a venue for 11 emerging Cleveland performers, our student drag show marked the debut of several kings, including genderfuck cosplay clown Optimus Bi. Optimus went on to host another drag show on campus this October. Organized by the CSU Society of Intersectional Feminists as part of FemCon, the all-king lineup featured Cleveland performers including King Kae, Fair E. Tales, Echo Terrestrial and Caius Crow, all showcasing anime- and fandom culture-inspired numbers.

Already, CSU students don’t need to travel far to enjoy king drag. Even outside our campus, all over northeast Ohio, this season of local drag has seen a surge in diversity, visibility and achievement for drag kings. “Honestly, the kings are running it,” Kent-based performer Himbo said. “We’re gonna continue to run it. You have Twisted, with his black-and-white face, and Neil Downe — his face looks like it’s stapled onto his skull, which I live for. We have Big Top, who’s just, the clown, the silliness! You have so much variety!”

Through August and September, Himbo and The Twisted Transitioner were the first two kings to enter the Mx. Zephyr competition hosted in Kent by Jade Uzumaki. In week two, Himbo became the first king to win a weekly challenge, while Twisted was the first king to make the competition’s final four. Twisted draws on neo-burlesque performance and nu-metal music — “what if a transgender person looked at Fred Durst and said, ‘I wanna be that?’” — while Himbo takes inspiration from Nicki Minaj, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and horror films — “because like, who doesn’t love a good horror movie?”

As two performers with distinct styles, both felt the pressure when bringing kings to the competition scene. “Sometimes I feel like, ooh, maybe I’m not the best representation of kings, because I don’t do a lot of high-masc, traditional king drag. I feel like a lot of my drag is very purposefully genderfucky,” Twisted said. After highlighting other performers, Himbo also downplayed his drag’s impact. “I’m just simply a man who dresses up as a man and does a split for a dollar, and I’m not breaking any boundaries. I’m not doing anything crazy,” he said. In separate interviews, they praised each other’s artistry, describing Mx. Zephyr as the beginning of their friendship (“besties,” both said). For many kings, that sense of solidarity with fellow performers is essential to a fulfilling career.

Drag kings face an uphill battle while building a following and seeking opportunities to perform. Mainstream media depictions of drag focus overwhelmingly on queens, often to the exclusion of kings and other artists. Many audiences expect drag performances to reflect the glamorous and feminine styles they’re used to seeing on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — especially when the series has never featured kings as competitors. All too often, even local drag shows with lineups ranging from four to a dozen performers will book just one king, or no kings at all. So, audiences seeing kings live for the first time don’t always know how to react.

“A queen comes out, she’s got a sparkly gown, she’s 6’5”, and she’s the most fabulous thing in the room,” King Kae said. “A king comes out, and I’m 5’2” with the boots on. I’m doing a funny, silly number, and it is absolutely, completely different from the queen that just performed.” But as every king I interviewed emphasized, different doesn’t mean lesser.

“People assume that it’s easier to be a drag king,” Echo Terrestrial, a CSU alum, said. “Like ‘oh, well, a drag queen is putting on all this makeup, but all a drag king has to do is put on a suit.’” This common, toxic mindset overlooks the hours that go into king makeup — everything from mustaches and masculine contour, to full-coverage face paint and body glitter — as well as the sheer stylistic and genre diversity in the king community. This summer, Echo participated in the all-king group photoshoot organized by Ryder Slowly with photographer Bridget Caswell. “There’s one person there in a banana suit, and you’ve got people there dressed like royalty, aliens, cowboys,” Echo recalled. “There’s so much room for creativity within drag, and it’s not easier or more boring to be a king.”

Ryder, a popular host and entertainer who started drag almost five years ago while attending Cleveland State, intended the king photoshoot to address inequities within the drag community. “It was primarily Bridget’s idea to do the shoot,” he said, based on previous conversations around one of the supposed reasons kings are booked less: they don’t have high-quality professional photos to use on show flyers. “It’s not real,” Ryder said. “They’re just making up reasons not to book you, because they’re usually sexist, or misogynistic, or transphobic. They say, ‘come in with a new costume,’” he continued. “Well, how am I supposed to do that? I don’t have the money, because you don’t book me!” Caswell and Ryder hoped to eliminate at least one of the contrived barriers kings face to booking gigs and building careers. Ultimately, they provided free photos and a networking opportunity for more than 30 Ohio kings in one day.

Ryder brings a similar philosophy to organizing Kingpin, a new drag competition starting November 4 at Lakewood’s Muze Gastropub. “When I saw what Jade was doing with Mx. Zephyr, it breathed new life into the drag scene,” he remembered. “I just wanted a space for kings to push themselves. I’m trying to create opportunities that weren’t around when I was a younger drag king.”

Kingpin stars eight new and emerging drag artists: Fair E. Tales, Nick Daniels, Eohn 316, The Twisted Transitioner, Big Top, R.J. Tha King, Malacvnt LaFoole and Abel N. Willing. All eight kings will compete all six weeks, with weekly challenges and a winner crowned at the finale — but no eliminations. “I just want to see them all on stage together,” Ryder said. “Maybe the competition is just enough to light the fire under your ass.”

Kingpin represents an unprecedented opportunity since, as far as Ryder or any area performer knows, this will be the first all-king competition in Ohio outside the pageantry circuit. Pageants, while valuable to build community in drag, often emphasize cisnormative ideas of gender passing, with Ryder recalling judge feedback like “you’re too curvy” or “your voice is too high.” Kingpin contestants are promised an alternative to that invalidating culture.

“They’re not gonna judge on how masculine we look, or how dude-like we are,” Abel N. Willing said. “Some of us are men out of drag, some of us are nonbinary out of drag, and like, some of us are creatures in drag. There are drag things, and people that just bend gender in all sorts of ways.” Fair E. Tales, who creates high fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons-inspired looks, also appreciates an environment that welcomes experimentation. “Being off the beaten path is supported here. It’s about being a drag king and whatever that means.”

Every Kingpin competitor grounds their drag in a unique history. R.J. describes himself as “the R&B King of Cleveland,” who celebrates Black masculinity and sexuality with the ‘90s and ‘00s hits his father loves. Malacvnt conceptualizes their colorful, glittery drag persona as “an alternative Black weird rave clown that also really, really wants to be a king, but he’s like, a court jester.” Abel brings character work and comedy to the table as half of drag duo Not Wearing Wigs with newly-crowned Mx. Zephyr, Frieda VonFreakum. Nick and Eohn, also known as drag queens Dakota Cash and Timorous, will showcase their range in portraying masculine as well as feminine personas. Many contestants were friends before the competition started, appearing on the same lineups and debuting at the same open stages. With that sense of brotherhood, Kingpin will empower a new generation of kings to uplift each other, while pushing back against the misconception that all kings are the same.

"King drag can seem like an underground scene, especially when some audiences still don’t understand that kings even exist. But drag kings are everywhere in and around Cleveland — if you know where to look."

For audiences seeking out kings and drag in general, shows are easy to find. “We are living in such a digital age where all you have to do is type into Instagram, #clevelanddrag, and something will come up,” King Kae said. “Dusty Bucket’s @dragnewsohio is a fabulous place to start.”

Every name and handle is a way to find out where kings are booked next. All details for Kingpin are available @kingpin_drag. Ryder Slowly hosts Casting Call, a monthly open stage, with Pineapple Honeydew-Delight at CODA in Tremont, as well as Teaze, an all-king show, at Muze Gastropub. Himbo and Malacvnt LaFoole also host their own recurring shows in Kent and Youngstown. King Kae, Dean Heartthrob and Echo Terrestrial all perform in seasonal charity shows organized by the Cleveland Kings Action Pack @clekingsactionpack. And drag is right around the corner for CSU students as soon as November 10, when Dean and Pineapple co-host OUTLaw’s Lavender Drag Bingo. With so many opportunities all around, there’s no reason not to support local kings and embrace all drag.

10 Cleveland King Images and Handles

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