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The Kings Are Running It: Abel N. Willing & Fair E. Tales Interviews

By Benvolio Nichols

All other four interviews from Ben's main article are linked below!

Abel N. Willing. Photo courtesy of Abel N. Willing. Fair E. Tales. Photo courtesy of Fair E. Tales.

The following interviews contain explicit language. They have been edited for length, clarity and content.


They/he in drag; they/them out of drag

Drag king Abel N. Willing performs in Kent and across northeast Ohio. As one of eight competitors in Ryder Slowly’s Kingpin, Abel has already set himself apart as the challenge winner of weeks one and four. Before Kingpin, Abel came into the drag scene as half of Not Wearing Wigs, a comedy duo with his close friend Frieda VonFreakum.

Frieda was like, “I want to do drag,” and I was like, “slay.” Frieda started doing drag by themself, and then we decided to do it together. The duo performed for the first time in February, since February. Then I performed for the first time by myself in June. So [I’ve been doing drag] a little over half a year, I guess. 

Frieda and I have been friends since college, and our first number that we ever did on a stage was at The Burnt Pickle. It was a number from “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” like, a friendship breakup. We would do that scene just together for our friends, at 3 a.m., just wearing the wigs and backpacks. There’s video footage of that number from like, three years ago.

Frieda and I have always done just weird little comedy things together, and we were going to a bunch of drag shows together. We just like drag, it was the place for queer people to be. We heard that Burnt Pickle needed a DJ, so we talked to Comatose Why[-Wintour]. We had no equipment, but we DJ’ed The Burnt Pickle.

In his solo debut, Abel won at Casting Call, the monthly open stage hosted by Pineapple Honeydew-Delight and Ryder Slowly. He performed as Bob Ross — complete with paint, canvas and wig — in a memorable comedy number. Since Frieda won Casting Call in their January debut, Abel was determined to showcase his individual talent.

I didn’t even think I was necessarily gonna split up from the duo — not actually “split up,” but do my own thing. Then I just started thinking of ideas for a solo performance. I think I was just trying to brainstorm a way to do “Art Is Dead” by Bo Burnham. I was so nervous to do that number, because everyone knew me from the duo. I was really nervous to not win — I didn’t want to be the weaker link. 

It’s hard to not compare yourself. Drag is all about having fun and expressing yourself, not about winning. It’s about being yourself and expressing yourself with queer people. So, once I got on stage and looked out at everybody, I felt a lot better. I was really proud of it. It was really goofy.

Abel takes performance inspiration from sketch comedy, pop culture and his peers in the Cleveland-area drag scene.

I started seeing local drag shows way before I ever started watching “Drag Race.” Himbo’s such a great performer, Comatose is a great performer. Miss Wonda? I love Wonda so much. She’s such a big inspiration to me — she’s so stupid, in the best way.

I had never done theater, and that kind of intimidated me when I started doing drag. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about being onstage, and using big expressions because people in the back need to see you. But I started doing sketch comedy in late high school, and I had a bunch of wigs and costumes from comedy. So I think that’s part of why my drag has so much of a comedic element.

This is gonna sound stupid, but I think my biggest inspiration ever is Amanda Bynes. I grew up watching “The Amanda Show” religiously. She was 12, and I was watching it when I was probably 6 or 7, so that’s like, my first inspiration ever. Like, “oh my god, I have to put on a stupid costume and do a stupid sketch.” Once I figured out I could do that in drag, I was in. And for theater, I was nervous about forgetting my lines — but in drag, when you do a lip-synch, if you forget your lines? You can just turn away from the crowd and dance for a minute.

Both his solo and duo acts often start as an unexpected, comic twist on an iconic character or TV show. Abel might hide plush squirrels inside his costume for “S.I.M.P. (Squirrels In My Pants),” string himself with lights as Benjamin Franklin struck by lightning, or surprise audiences with any other hilarious reveal.

Frieda and I did a Not Wearing Wigs number at The Burnt Pickle where we were Jesse Pinkman [Abel] and Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” So it was Walter White, throwing money on me like I was a stripper. My mom made, like, fake meth — it was rock candy and it was blue. We had Ziploc bags taped inside our jackets. We had fake beakers onstage, and we were mixing baking soda and vinegar to make mini explosions. That was the first time I’ve ever done a split during a number. 

That’s just how Not Wearing Wigs is. It’s an interactive experience for sure.

After becoming well-known for transforming himself into comedy characters, Abel is excited to showcase his style in Kingpin’s runway challenges. 

I think that there are two parts to Abel N. Willing. There’s the not-performing part, where I just look really hot and sexy, and I wear a lot of black, and I have a straight face. But then when I’m performing, it’s always in some stupid character — like where I was Bob Ross or the Very Hungry Caterpillar. People that I meet out of drag don’t even recognize me. Good friends walk past. 

But when I’m not doing a number, when I’m just going and supporting people? I just wear all-black, because it’s sexy. Abel is a way more masculine version of myself, but he’s also just like, a little gay guy.

Like many contestants, Abel heard about the Kingpin drag competition before it was officially announced on Instagram.

I had thought about doing Mx. Zephyr, but I was nervous because historically, it’s been mainly queens on the cast. I think I was just a little bit nervous because my drag was different from queen drag. Then somebody told me they had heard from Ryder that he was gonna do a competition show [for kings]. I was immediately like, “oh, I’m not gonna do it. I don’t think I’m ready for that. I haven’t been doing drag long enough for that.” 

But then I learned that it was going to be a lot of newer performers. And what made me finally decide to do it was when I found out it was non-elimination. I was super nervous about just doing bad one week and then getting kicked out. I’m friends with everybody in the cast, so I think it would be such a shame to see somebody go home.

They’re not gonna judge on how masculine we look, or how dude-like we are. 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. So, just to be judged by people who understand what we’re doing is cool, and I feel good.

It’s just so cool, because kings don’t usually get as much recognition as queens, unfortunately. Which sucks, because kings have so much to show, and we have such a different style of performance a lot of the time, and it’s just a whole different experience that’s so fun to watch and enjoy. I love being around queens, but I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it makes me so nervous to be in a dressing room with them. Being on a cast with all kings just makes me so comfortable. 

Outside of performing, Abel also supports the Cleveland drag scene by photographing performers at multiple shows. This Halloween season, he photographed every show for Manor of the Macabre, drag king Marquis Gaylord’s six-week horror spectacular.

I’ve been doing photography for a few years, posting it on my personal Instagram. And I’m friends with Marquis, really close. I knew Marquis out of drag before I had even started doing drag. So, they were looking for a photographer, and I think Frieda put in a good word for me. I think I’ve been doing a good job, because he keeps letting me come back! I think it’s cool to have a drag king do your photography. It’s really nice for shows hosted by kings to have another king take your photos, and just support other queer artists.

You can catch Abel performing and snapping pictures all around Cleveland and Kent, at venues like CODA, The Burnt Pickle and Zephyr Pub. 

Photo of Abel N. Willing. as a king

Abel N. Willing. Photo courtesy of Abel N. Willing.


He/they in and out of drag

Cleveland-based cosplay king Fair E. Tales is another competitor in Ryder Slowly’s Kingpin, whose playful stage presence and handmade costumes earned him a top-three spot in week five. Cleveland State students may recognize him from earlier this fall when he performed as part of the CSU Society of Intersectional Feminists FemCon Drag Show, wowing the crowd with two high-energy high-fantasy numbers. His drag looks feature full-coverage face paint, elf ears and other distinct “creature” elements to craft a compelling story.

I have a bit of background in character design. My degree that I have is in illustration, and I was originally planning on doing a minor in comics. I ended up stopping early, since school was not doing it for me — but I have a heavy base in character design and comics. So a lot of time, when I’m putting my looks together, I’m basing it on: “how would I design for a character?” 

Typically when I start, I come up with a color scheme that I’ll follow through with the makeup and the outfit itself, whether that’s doing contrasting or matching makeup. I’ll take the number and I’ll go, “I’m gonna work backwards. What fits this thematically, what kind of story am I going to tell?” So then I’ll say, “here’s the character behind the song. What’s the outfit I’ll do for them?” 

Typically, even though I have a heavy emphasis on makeup, the makeup is what comes last. I play it kind of loose and fast with the makeup, just as far as “okay, I’m wearing the outfit, what puts this together?” Just a couple details to make it distinctively me: usually I do the extra details on the cheeks, the sharp eyes. That’s the process. Not the most refined thing in the world, but you know, it’s worked so far!

Fair E. made his drag debut in July at Pineapple Honeydew-Delight and Ryder Slowly’s open stage, Casting Call, alongside fellow Kingpin competitors The Twisted Transitioner and R.J. Tha King.

I wanted to do something that was like, kind of a little more alternative. My big inspirations are anime, video games, less traditional drag and stuff. I really just wanted to take a song that I liked and do something really fun to it, which is where “The Phoenix” number came from, because I’m a huge Fall Out Boy nerd. It’s a song I’m comfortable with, so that’s what went into building that phoenix character. It was easy to build a storyline. The first part was designing the outfit: that jacket I wear all the time now. 

When I actually got there I was really nervous, big bit of stage fright before it happened. But when I got into it, it was very much chewing as much scenery as possible. I think it really went well, got some positive reception!

In developing his drag persona, Fair E. draws on a strong cosplay and theater background, as well as his passions for anime, Dungeons & Dragons and all things nerd.

Back in middle school, high school, I did a lot of theater. The first thing I ever did that was like, theater-theater, was commedia dell'arte in my middle school. I’ve been singing and in choir and stuff since I was like, a little-little kid, so I had that performance background. And then once I got into high school, I went a lot more into the theater aspect. I also did a lot of Shakespeare when I was younger. I worked with the Ohio Shakespeare Company over the summer.

Then I did a fair bit of cosplay and stuff between high school and college, sewing pieces for that, altering thrifted pieces and stuff. After college I took a long break from doing anything cosplay or performance related, just because of life issues and stuff, so it’s been a couple years since I’ve done anything. So, this has really been my first time getting back on stage, doing costuming, in a hot second.

One of my biggest inspirations is that I’m definitely a big D&D player. D&D has done a lot for me with being a positive influence on my life. A lot of those fantastical settings, tieflings and elves and fairies and those kind of things, kind of getting to be this larger-than-life character — that’s a really really huge influence. Specifically [the web series] “Dimension 20” from Dropout has been very big for me, just because it’s great to see other people playing and have these crazy characters and be in these fantastical settings. And Shakespeare! “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” specifically, is the first Shakespeare I was ever in, the first positive theater experience I had. That’s a huge influence. Puck and Oberon specifically are the vibe that I like to go for: the “trickster, but also just kind of a hottie” vibe. And then yeah, just in general, manga and anime, it’s what I grew up with. “Sailor Moon,” “Inuyasha,” “Fullmetal Alchemist,” that kind of stuff. Not really your typical isekai fantasy anime, but still fantastical, fun stuff.

As far as formative drag people, HoSo Terra Toma is a big influence in the “creature” category. Henlo Bullfrog is another one who’s really big for me. They’re a Philadelphia-based artist and I have talked to them a lot, they helped me a lot starting out as far as where to go, how to achieve these more outrageous looks. They’ve been not only super helpful, but also super inspirational in the work that they do. And I should probably say also, Spikey Van Dykey is the first drag artist that I really fell in love with. That kind of raw charisma that he brings to the stage is what I like to achieve when I can.

Fair E. enjoys building a stage presence and flirting with the crowd in fast-paced rock numbers.

My favorite might be one of my FemCon numbers, “My Tyrant,” honestly — the one where my ass was entirely out!  I just had a lot of fun with it. Anything where I really get to work the crowd is a lot of fun. It’s between that one, where I got to take off my clothes and that was a lot of fun, but I also really do enjoy my “Phoenix” number. I’m hoping to bring it back a little more refined for something at some point. Those have been my strongest numbers, the music is perfectly within my wheelhouse, and they have a really strong point-of-view that comes across.

Typically, I fall in the pop-punk category [with song choice]. Fall Out Boy is a big go-to for me, but also, Felix Hagan and the Family is really good, because they have this weird hybrid of rock but also incorporating a lot of Renaissance things into there. I also really like otacore, just kind of goofy video game anime fun stuff. So that’s usually my wheelhouse, because that’s a lot of the music I listen to and really connect with. I think that if you go onto my playlist, you can find pretty much every Fall Out Boy album on there. 

It’s just, you know, kind of fun, upbeat. I do prefer doing high-energy, upbeat numbers, just because it’s easy to move around the stage and have a good time. Music has always been a very formative part of my life. My dad plays every fuckin’ instrument under the sun. Being able to bring that joy of music for other people to enjoy is part of why I like performing so much — it’s sharing that experience.

As a Kingpin competitor, Fair E. takes pride in a sense of brotherhood, love and support with his fellow kings.

Me and the Twisted Transitioner and R.J., we were all at the same Casting Call. We all kind of all came out at once and were like, “‘heyyy, what’s up guys, we’re here to be different!” I think me and Twisted specifically talked about doing it [applying to Kingpin]. It came up and it was like, “ah, why the hell not? The worst thing that happens is, they say no, and I’m back at the exact same position where I was before.” 

I think it’s really nice, because it’s kings, and we’re, you know, not as cast or booked or stuff like that. Everyone is just so wonderful, and everyone, like — it doesn’t feel as much like I was expecting a competition to. You know, watching these competition shows, they’ve looked very cutthroat, with people screwing each other over, not supporting each other. So far, everyone’s very supportive, very excited to see what everyone’s doing. A lot of us talk outside the group chat, just checking in, “oh, how did your show go?” It also makes me feel a lot more comfortable, because I do stuff that is very not traditional, so [it’s nice] being next to somebody like Abel, who has a specific brand that is also nontraditional, and so does Malacvnt [LaFoole]. Being off the beaten path is supported here. It’s about being a drag king and whatever that means.

I know there’s always drama and stuff, and I’m just too old for drama. It’s way more effort than it’s worth to be involved in. But there’s been very little drama as far as this cast goes. Generally, with any kings that I’ve met, we’re all just like, “hey, what’s up man? What are we doing? We’re hanging out.” We love each other! 

After debuting at an open stage hosted by Ryder Slowly, Fair E. praised Ryder’s constant support for emerging drag kings.

I can’t think of a better guy to run the competition. Always offering up pointers. And he’s been very supportive of anyone who’s gender nonconforming. We’re not listed as cis women doing male drag. He’s been very good about, that’s not what we’re going to be made to feel like. He has just been an amazing host and producer and everything. I can’t say enough good things about Ryder.

Fair E. hopes that audiences who aren’t familiar with kings will check out Kingpin, or any other show featuring kings, to challenge their preexisting perspectives. 

I wish it would be a little less like, “Oh, it’s a king, he’s gonna come on and do one, specific hyper-masculine thing,” because that’s not what kings are. Every single king I’ve met has been way different. And that’s not to make any overarching statements about queens being the same, but it is one of those things where, when I go to a king show, I know I’m never gonna see the same thing twice. Going to Ryder’s Teaze shows, every king has a different point of view. I wish audiences would be more open as far as like, “oh, there’s a king here, and he’s not gonna do the same thing all kings do, because no kings are the same.”

It’s hard because there aren’t a whole lot of all-king shows, but go find Ryder Slowly and talk to him. He knows all about this stuff. He’s my first go-to: “hey, you should go check out Ryder, he’s kind of our bigwig in the scene.” In this particular moment, I would also tell them to go check out Kingpin. I would probably point them towards the bigger drag kings in our area, because they’re gonna provide opportunities for other kings. 

Get to know the big kings, and they’ll be able to show you kind of where we hang out. And if you notice somewhere is booking exclusively queens, or making [derogatory] comments about kings — oh. Maybe that’s not where you wanna be. Casting Call’s great! There’s usually kings there. There’s always something going on in this scene!

Fair E. encourages aspiring performers to put themselves out there and embrace their passions.

If you’re thinking about doing drag as a king or a queen or something in-between, you’re never gonna know if you’re gonna like it, unless you just go for it. Even if you’re not your traditional dancing, lip-synching queen or whatever — there’s a niche out there for you.

You can catch Fair E. and Abel both competing for the Kingpin crown every Saturday at 9 p.m. at Muze Gastropub, through the finale on December 9.

Photo of Fair E. Tales as a king.

Fair E. Tales. Photo courtesy of Fair E. Tales.

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