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The Kings Are Running It: Dean Heartthrob & Ryder Slowly interviews

By Benvolio Nichols

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

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


He/him in drag; she/they out of drag

Earlier this year, Lakewood drag king Dean Heartthrob was crowned the first winner of the Mr. Unique! pageant in Pittsburgh. Out of drag, he is a Cleveland State student majoring in nonprofit administration and women’s and gender studies. He made his drag debut at the CSU student drag show in November 2021, performing in a feminine persona under the name Alotta Heart in a number inspired by the music video for Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.” After his debut, his mentor Rhett Corvette inspired him to shift into king drag.

Really, it kind of all happened by accident. I did not like that drag name I had. It was something I came up with literally the night before the show, because I had to have a name. A month after my debut, I met up with Rhett Corvette, and he painted me in drag for the first time. Rhett, he was really awesome, and super helpful since I started being in drag. He painted my face and taught me how to do masculine contour — how that fits your face. He gave me the name Dean Heartthrob, and I kind of fell in love with it. 

King drag gave me so much space to explore my gender. Now my drag has evolved. I love the identity of being a drag king, and those are my people, but from an outside perspective, other people might not perceive me as a king because of how I dress and the performances I do, because I do a lot of mixed-gender stuff. But I don’t think I would have been able to do burlesque before, and last night I was in full fem makeup. I don’t think that I would have been able to perform in that capacity when I started.

My drag is — “I’m a woman, dressing like a man, who’s dressing like a woman.” To me, that’s what Dean is doing.

The night before our interview, Dean performed in Casting Call, the open stage hosted by his drag mother, Pineapple Honeydew-Delight, and Ryder Slowly. Competing for the third time at CODA in Tremont, he won with a vampire-inspired burlesque number.

CODA is one of my favorite venues. The crowd that comes to support Pineapple and Ryder is just absolutely amazing, like, the fact that two alternative trans people are hosting a show in Cleveland and we packed the house last night. We had 67 people in that place, it was crazy. It makes me proud of Ryder and Pineapple, but also it makes me happy for my community.  

The song I performed is a song that I’d been wanting to do in drag for a really long time. It just came to mind that I was like, “oh, I wanted to do a vampire, dominatrix-style vibe.” Moxie Rotten did my brows and let me borrow her wig — so I then proceeded to pour blood all over it. So, that’s a project I have planned for me! At least edible fake blood, while stickier, comes off your body easier.

My drag is consistently inspired by the performers I pay so much respect to that are near and dear and close to my heart. Pineapple, Peach Fuzz, Rhett Corvette, Ryder, Willow Tree — I’m constantly seeing my peers and my elders doing amazing fucking cool shit, and in turn, it just inspires me to be better at drag and come up with new concepts. 

I would say my number last night is heavily inspired by Sappho [Le Fae], but she’s also not the first person to wear all-black and strip on stage. Her and Marquis [Gaylord] are also big inspirations of mine. I think I spent a long time not really feeling comfortable in who I am as a person and not knowing who I was completely, so being able to do drag, and experiment with gender and with different ideas, was really empowering. 

We need more of that, because there’s too many fuckin’ people who are putting each other down and not supporting each other. I found my people. I found the people in my life who actually give a shit about each other and want — like, my favorite thing is seeing new performers do crazy fucking amazing shit and succeed at it. Last night, me and Bottom Growth won together — and that was their second or third performance in drag, ever! And I was like, “that’s fucking awesome!” I used to get a little jealous of performers like that, but at the end of the day — like, I hadn’t been performing when I started drag. I just decided to start doing drag. So, it’s just taken me a little bit to figure myself out. 

But I’m also younger than a lot of people. I started around when Sappho and Marquis started, but they’re a couple years older than me and already finished with college. So I think that’s an important thing to remind myself to do sometimes. We have different lives and different ways that we’ve come to be where we are. Everybody’s trajectory is so different, and it’s important to remind ourselves of that. when you get to a space when you’re in such a community that supports you.

Dean finds a supportive community in the Cleveland Kings Action Pack, a local drag king troupe that organizes shows to raise funds for charity and activism.

Rhett Corvette messaged me shortly after my debut and said, “hey, I need a body double for a number, do you want to come perform at the CKAP show? You can bring your own number if you want.” So I went over to his house, and he put me in drag, and I did my first number there. 

CKAP is really cool because it’s a group of people that are in the queer scene that are like, not as respected as others. It’s mostly AFAB [assigned female at birth] folks, and trans people, and people who don’t really fit into the normal drag scene. It’s a chance where people can perform and be in community, and I feel like those gigs were really important to me starting out, because I didn’t find myself feeling that confident. 

There are some venues that are not that accepting towards kings. Like, being a king can be so divisive. People do not understand what your drag is, especially when you are talking about straight people who are coming to drag shows. When you’re doing weird shit that makes people uncomfortable, that can set people off. I’m not gonna do certain numbers at a brunch. I’m not gonna get cheered for as much for doing a Queen number and dressing like a boy as Monica Lexin would be at her brunch. And like, that’s just how it is. The nice thing about CKAP is that everybody’s cheering the whole time, for every single performance. Even if you’re just starting out, it’s queer people supporting queer people. King Kae is somebody I met through CKAP, and Lichee [Corvette] as well. It was a really great place for me to start making friends. 

Since his 2021 debut, Dean has always known he can count on his drag family for support — starting with his mom, Pineapple.

She came and she surprised me at my debut, and asked me to be in her family, which was really awesome. She and I have been rocking it for almost two and a half years now as friends, two years as family. Her and I are two peas in a fuckin’ pod. We share the same brain cell. Before inviting Bruschetta and Bowie [Prime] into the family, we’ve had many conversations about what drag family means to us, and this sort of structure and why it means this much to us. There’s a lot of drama in the scene, there’s a lot of unnecessary cattiness, and I just love doing drag, being on stage, and being with the people who support and care about me. I love having people like Bruschetta, Bowie,and Pineapple, that are on the same page as I am on everything — being with a group of people who share my core values on what it means to be a queer person in this world and advocacy for what we all care about. Pineapple is an openly trans woman and a big advocate in our community. Me, Bowie, and Bru are all still growing into the queer adults that we’re going to be, so it’s cool to have Pineapple there.

Last November, Pineapple texted me like, “I think we need to add Bowie to the house.” And I was like, “abso-fricking-lutely, let’s do it.” And I just really appreciate how Pineapple has brought me into the decision-making. She is my mother, duh, but it’s more like she’s my partner in crime when it comes to drag. Our ideas bounce off each other really well. She’s the reason I won the pageant. She helped me make sure I was put together that day. She has always 110% understood me and my vision, and if I didn’t have that, I would not be the performer I am today. 

So the fact that we’re able to support other people like Bruschetta and Bowie and their passions means the world to me. I’m the youngest in the house, but in drag age, I’m the older brother. My favorite thing is that, any newer performer I get to hang out with, I’m able to showcase what I know. I talked to Bruschetta like, “come over! I’ll get you some rhinestones for your dress!” During my hiatus, I rhinestoned some shit for Bowie, I made him a whole outfit. I care about him and I believe in the vision. I don’t have everything to give, I don’t have capacity to be a parent, but I like being able to be like a sibling to my peers and help people succeed. 

Dean thanks his drag family and friends for their support which made his win at Mr. Unique! possible.

I told Pineapple about it and she was like, “if you want to do it, let’s fucking do it.” I basically came up with the concepts for all my fashion. I wanted to challenge my drag, and I wanted to create a new opportunity for myself. I mentioned earlier that Pineapple has always 110% been behind me and my vision. I sometimes feel like she’s the only person that has been like that. I sometimes felt that people underestimated me, like I haven’t reached my potential yet. And I definitely haven’t, there’s still room to grow, but I have done a lot of growing and changing and elevating in my drag recently. And I was like, “I’m not getting many bookings, like at all. I want to change this. Let’s get this done.”

My lovely aunt Liza Lott made me a couple of pieces for the pageant, and for the rest of it, she showed me techniques. My heart suit — basically, what we did is we took satin fabric, and I ironed it on. We got this iron-on stuff, so you put the fabric and the iron-on paper together, and then cut out all the hearts, fit them on the jacket and then the pants, and then ironed them to the suit, and then we rhinestoned it. So basically, she taught me a lot of crafting and techniques. Without her help, I would not have been able to do that. I have a cape and a leather jacket — she painted the leather jacket freehand for me, and made the cape for me. Everyone in my team was committed to the vision, and like, “we’re gonna get this shit done if it kills us.”

I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease March 16. The pageant was April 14. I had my ideas, but nothing had been started when I was diagnosed. It was really scary because I was going through so much. At the time, I was really in denial about my situation, so it was really difficult. And also, because of where I was in my treatment plan, I was on a lot of drugs, so I was like, not there a lot of time. I was on steroids from March until end of June, and that fucked with my mental health.

The day I was diagnosed, I was supposed to meet up with Liza and go shopping. So my team ended up being me, Pineapple, Peach [Fuzz], Omega, Liza, my partner Sam and their roommates. I went to [Sam’s place in] Pittsburgh multiple times in that month. I was having everyone rhinestone in that living room. It was intense. Omega and Pineapple were at my house, like, every day. 

The inside of my suit jacket, for formal wear — I had everybody in my team sign it, and then I showed it off while I was doing my runway walk. It was important to me to carry that onstage, because I honestly would not be able to do what I do without the people who love and support me in my vision. My drag is a love letter to the people in my life who I love, and it just means a lot to have friends who really care about me and support me in this way. I spent a really long time not having that kind of support in my life from peers and people in my community. 

Pineapple was my dresser. When I got overwhelmed, she gave me her Loop earplugs and she put them in my ear, so it was really soothing. And then also, Julian [Chaotic, the Mr. Unique! first alternate] is a really amazing drag performer, and I knew it was gonna be a really cool and affirming space. We had a really great time.

Dean would like to see a shift away from the binary divide that can lead to sidelining kings and other performers who do nontraditional types of drag.

I think the whole divide between being a king and a queen is kind of bullshit at this point. We all have makeup on, we’re all having fun. Like, I’m just doing drag. 

I wish there was a bit more open-mindedness. I wish it wasn’t so much about, “oh, I need to fill a quota, I need to have a king in this show.” Pineapple and I have talked about this. There’s a restructuring that needs to happen in producers’ brains. You should be connected enough with your community that you can accidentally have a show that’s all people of color — accidentally have a mostly king show — and not be thinking about filling quotas. 

You can see Dean performing at Cleveland venues like CODA and No Class. You can also catch him as a featured performer at the Kingpin drag competition at Muze Gastropub, as well on his Instagram page hosting the official weekly aftershow, “Kingpin Unpacked.”

Photo of Dean Heartthrob as a king.


He/him in and out of drag

Entertainer Ryder Slowly has become one of the most popular drag kings in Cleveland, known just as much for his talent as a host as for his athletic choreography and impressive stage presence. He started drag in February 2019 while attending Cleveland State as a film and psychology major. Since then, he has hosted shows all around Cleveland — especially as a resident performer at Muze Gastropub, home to his monthly all-king show Teaze and the Kingpin drag competition. Some of Ryder’s favorite numbers incorporate stadium anthems, dad rock and other energetic crowd pleasers.

Well, first of all, I love being a cowboy. Any excuse I can get to dress up as a cowboy, I’m all over it. Performance-wise, hosting-wise, I try to honestly mirror a lot of the queens that I know who are successful at drag or dancing. When Dragchella was happening at Studio West [117] and we were doing rehearsals with Joliee [Blak], it was a real confidence booster. I love classic menswear, suits, taking something that already exists and embellishing it, making it a little more drag. I haven’t done a lot of fantasy looks, but I’m creating some new stuff for Kingpin. 

I try to look at what’s popular. I love the ’80s. I don’t particularly do ’80s looks, like neon and stuff, but I love leather daddy and rock ’n’ roll and all that. I love headbanging and metal. A lot of songs I wanna do, I feel like wouldn’t just wouldn’t go over well. I want to do, like, Quiet Riot. I love Chippendale dancers and “Magic Mike.” The first number I ever did, ever, was “Pony,” so the first inspiration was “Magic Mike.” I went for Halloween as “Magic Dyke,” one year. I wouldn’t say that was the birth, but that was like, the genesis of Ryder. 

From there, I wanted to be a slut all the time, I love flirting with people, that’s kind of my style. Right now, I’m obsessed with “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers. It’s just a good flirt song. I go around and I give people candy throughout the number. 

The one song that I always pull out, if it’s a new venue that I’m not sure of or just a gigantic crowd, would definitely be “Break My Heart” from [the movie] “Spectacular!” It was like “Glee” before “Glee” was cool. When I was a little kid, I watched that movie a lot with my dad. We loved Nickelodeon, “Victorious,” all those shows that were on. It was a really euphoric gender moment for me, like, “that’s what I wanna do. That’s who I wanna be.” 

Before I started doing drag, I said, “I think I’d make a great frontman for a band. I just can’t sing at all.” So drag was like the perfect stop for that.

Ryder connects his drag to his identity as a trans man and his childhood experiences with gender dysphoria. 

Gender shit, gay shit, nerd shit — it’s all intertwined. Drag and gender kind of started for me at the same time, they kind of clicked at the same time. I started taking T right around the same time I started really performing. The journeys have really intertwined. I always say Ryder is literally just, if I was a cis man, that’s exactly who I would be, in a way. (He’s a little more douchey than I am. I’m pretty nice. And he’s an alcoholic, but I’m not.) 

It’s not that I’m 100% comfortable with myself, being trans. I personally have always just had horrible dysphoria. For a long time that I couldn’t identify it. As a kid, I thought that my parents were giving me shots to make me a girl. I think the first trans person I ever heard of was Caityn Jenner. I really was oblivious to the whole thing.

And as a kid, I would also do performances, like all the time. All the time. And I never felt uncomfortable as a kid until I got into like middle school, when all the guy friends that I had dropped me, and I couldn’t play kickball with them anymore or whatever. So that was the first time that I noticed, oh. I feel bad. And then I moved to Cleveland, to go to Cleveland State. 

As a CSU student, Ryder worked as an office assistant at LGBTQ+ Student Services and served as co-president of the Queer Student Alliance, both roles which involved directly supporting and advocating for queer students on campus. He described his experiences with the queer community of CSU as essential to his personal growth: both in building relationships, and deciding to transition.

I always wanted to be a community leader. On campus, there were a lot of things we were dealing with, like not being able to change our names, not having gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. So on top of doing normal college stuff, I was fighting to just be myself. When I would get asked to play parts in movies [for the film program], it was a girl part. 

I did find a group of people who were really good friends to me. Sometimes I got really fortunate in group projects, where I would play a nonbinary character. [Around 18] I found my QSA, and that was around the time I met my first trans man. 

I always felt, not uncomfortable with the thought of being trans, but, yeah. I often go back to — you know in “The Last Airbender,” when Zuko is screaming at the sky? Like, “do your worst!” That’s how I felt about the world. And I accepted that I would need to transition, like medically, because I wouldn’t feel at peace with myself until I did. 

A lot of stuff was a lot different, a lot got a lot harder, but if there was no way for me to transition, I would not be here at all.

The drag, though, really helped me get over all those feelings of discomfort, and the community that I found with drag helped me kind of realize, like — it’s not this hopeless, you know, line that you have to walk down. There’s no cut-and-dry story to be told, it’s just that, I gotta do what’s good for me. And it wasn’t good for me to sit and like, hate cis men, and literally see cis guys just doing things, and be like, “ugh! I hate you! You’re so oblivious to how perfect your life is!” But it’s probably not even perfect. It really took a lot of just sitting with myself and meeting people who had done this before.

Now I’ve gotten over a lot of that discomfort — I mean, clearly. I strip on stage, for people, regularly. The drag was key to figuring out, you know: this is fine. This doesn’t have to be a tragedy. It’s not a mistake. Because that’s how I felt for the longest time.

Ryder has carried his community leadership skills to advocacy within the drag scene. This summer, he worked with photographer Bridget Caswell to organize an all-drag king photo shoot, providing free professional promo photos to more than 30 kings from all over Ohio. 

It was primarily Bridget’s idea to do the shoot. And I don’t think that they realized how big it could actually be, and how important it really was. We’ve had a lot of talks about drag kings and things that people say. One of the most common complaints that I’ll get from show producers — whether it be other drag performers, or bar owners, or just random people producing shows at drag venues — is “I can’t put on their face on a flyer. It’s a selfie. The picture’s blurry,” or whatever. It’s not real. They’re just making up reasons not to book you, because they’re usually sexist, or misogynistic, or transphobic. So I just saw the shoot as a starting point to alleviate that for as many kings as possible in one day.

There were also a lot of new kings that came out at that time, so it was nice to get them all in one room. I saw it as a networking opportunity for kings to meet each other. I have a plan to do another one later. It’s gonna be different, a bit bigger, but there’s gonna be more resources for kings there.

Ryder organized Kingpin for the same reasons: to combat the inequity kings face in booking gigs, and create opportunities for up-and-coming kings. He took inspiration from fellow hosts in an effort to reenergize the king scene. 

There’s a lot going on in the drag community, a lot of new people, a lot of clashing art forms, and I don’t know. People love to start discourse with others, and at the time [when Ryder started drag], the scene was kind of like, “these people perform here, and these people perform here.” Very split. The shows were kind of repetitive, and it was getting old. Drag was losing its novelty. Coming off the pandemic especially, it got stale. And when I saw what Jade [Uzumaki] was doing with Mx. Zephyr, it breathed new life into the drag scene. Maybe the competition is just enough to light the fire under your ass.

It’s definitely a cutting-edge idea, very new. As far as I know, outside of pageantry, this would be the first all-king competition in Ohio.  I don’t particularly love pageants. There’s a long history of pageants having inappropriate judging comments, like saying to trans men, “you’re too curvy, your voice is too high.” Not saying that every pageant is like that, but I’ve heard a lot of kings say that was their experience. 

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. When I started doing drag, there was nothing like that around, no pageants [that interested me] or anything like that, so there wasn’t really a way to propel myself forward. It was abysmal. Not that the kings sucked, just that there was no opportunity at all. I kept asking myself, “what’s next, what’s next?” 

Unlike Mx. Zephyr and most other drag competitions, though, Kingpin will not include eliminations. Every king will compete in all six weeks, with a winner crowned based on total points earned.

I just want them [the contestants and judges] to all be in one place and meet each other. So as much as there’s gonna be a winner, and each week there’s gonna be winners who get small prizes, I just want to see them all on stage together. I’m doing all the challenges along with them, too, because I wouldn’t ask them to do something that I wouldn’t do. I’m encouraging them to reach out if they have any questions about sourcing costumes or making mixes. It’s just a nice brotherhood.

I want to see them push themselves and to apply themselves to the challenges — but I’m also seeing it as a networking opportunity. Kings, they just don’t get booked all the time. That’s why I want to see primarily king judges. The couple queens I have judging have performed as king personalities. We have judges from Columbus, from Dayton, from Toledo and all these other hubs of queer culture around Ohio. Ultimately, I want them [the competitors] to get their names out there. Maybe they’ll get a gig out of it. 

Knowing that kings don’t always receive the same spotlight as queens, Ryder wishes more audiences understood the cultural and practical issues that complicate masculinity in drag.

Making men interesting is really fucking hard. On [drag competition series] “Call Me Mother,” when HercuSleaze did the roast, he talked about how roasting female drag personas, in a male persona, felt like “punching down.” Just trying to find songs by men — good luck. Half of the songs are just so nasty to women that I don’t wanna do that, I don’t wanna portray that on the stage. And then costuming. Dresses just have more silhouettes [than pants], it’s just the way that they’re made. It’s like, the things you hear people talk about — it makes me think, like, “do you even have a brain? Are you even thinking about why it’s like that?”

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” gives some drag history every week, for queens, but there’s nothing comparable about kings. “Dragula”’s getting there, but still. Think about all the gay music icons that gay people like. Think Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kim Petras, Dua Lipa, Madonna. The only men you can say — Prince? Freddie Mercury? Troye Sivan? There’s a lot of different things that go into why drag kings don’t get the recognition that they deserve. 

Because of these misconceptions, kings are often overlooked at shows — as Ryder has seen and experienced firsthand.

I’ll never forget when my drag daughter, Onya Nurve, tried out her drag king persona Tom Foolery, and she went to the bar to get a drink. You know how it is when drag queens come out — with everyone stopping and telling them they’re so gorgeous, it takes an hour. And then she was back in five minutes. She was like, “I have never felt more ignored, in my life.” And I was like, “welcome to the club, honey. That’s the reality of being a king.” When I travel to other cities, it’s always like I’m given the cold shoulder. I was asked to do the show, and I’m not even introduced to the rest of the cast. Or we do meet-and-greet photos, and there’s a cluster of queens, and I’m just there, on the side.

Ryder would ask audiences (and producers) to open their minds to a more diverse concept of drag.

For a lot of queens — and obviously I can’t speak to every drag queen ever — but a lot of the stories you hear on “Drag Race,” or read on Instagram, are like, “I was a feminine little boy and drag was my coming into myself, getting to try on heels, and all that.”  And I wish that people would realize that, for a lot of kings, we have that, too. I have very, very distinct memories of being a kid — my parents, we’re on really good terms now, but it did take a while to get there. I wanted to wear basketball shorts, or cargo shorts, and my mom would be like, “you’re not a little boy.” 

And like — just because the experience was different, or just because it wasn’t yours, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable or shouldn’t be portrayed. When I’m going on stage, I’m trying to tell a story, whether that story is just “I’m hot, sexy, and gorgeous,” or it’s a character number. I wish that people would realize, just because it’s coming from a different place, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable and that it doesn’t belong there. Essentially, just because the story is coming from a different place, does not mean that it’s not worth it. 

And I wish that people would just give it a try. And it is the same art form, but it’s not, at the same time. I feel like kings have a lot of different stereotypes to play in. Like Monica [Lexin, Ryder’s partner], she loves to be a bimbo and walk around in gigantic hair, gigantic heels, no clothes on, and that’s just who she is. That’s how she likes to do her drag. And there’s people like Rhett Corvette, and he’s like, a little gremlin with a bald cap on and a lace-front mustache, and he’s just a little weirdo. And just because those two types of drag are different, why can’t you give them both a chance? 

You can catch Ryder at CODA in Tremont on December 7 at Casting Call, his monthly open stage with Pineapple Honeydew-Delight. He’s hosting Kingpin every Saturday at 9 p.m. at Muze Gastropub, through the finale on December 9.

Photo of Ryder Slowly as a king.

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