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The Kings Are Running It: King Kae & Echo Terrestrial Interviews

By Benvolio Nichols

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

King Kae. Photo courtesy of King Kae. Echo Terrestrial. Photo by Bridget Caswell.

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


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

King Kae is a Cleveland-based drag performer. CSU students may recognize him from earlier this fall, when he performed as part of the CSU Society of Intersectional Feminists FemCon Drag Show with two fun, flirty pop/rock numbers. One of his FemCon Numbers, Marina’s “How to be a Heartbreaker,” went on to win Issa Vybe’s Burly Babes burlesque open stage. 

It’s so fun and campy and silly, and it’s a little bit making fun of audience expectations: “I’m gonna strip! No, I’m not — it’s another shirt underneath.” I really like that number because I already have a plan going in, but I can always build on it, add to it, change it a bit. 

Kae made his drag debut in 2021 in Cincinnati with the Smoke & Queers drag and burlesque troupe, in an all-king show. Before starting as a drag performer, he was already developing an aesthetic and posting makeup looks on Instagram. Cultivating a drag persona has given him the opportunity to think deeply about his identity.

I love being able to just mess around and play with it, treat my face like a blank canvas every time. I have the signature pieces, the mustache and the lines under the eyes, but I’m always changing it. I have no idea what I’m gonna do, up until the point I’m halfway through it.

I’ve kind of adopted reds, whites and blacks as my main staple colors. Out of drag, I do not wear reds, and I wanted to just kind of push myself. I don’t wear reds as just Kae Holmberg, I don’t really wear super bright colors, but maybe King Kae wears something just the opposite of who I am out of drag. I think that’s the most important part of drag, like, “this is my alter ego.” It’s about pushing the silly boundaries you make for yourself. 

All my life I’ve believed that it’s so important to ask questions. Why do I do something a certain way, why do I think a certain way, are there other ways of thinking and acting? That’s something I’m afforded in drag, I get to question what makes up who I am. That’s not something you get to do often, being outside the home around people who are rooting for you, who want to see you be the happiest version of yourself. That can be very hard to find as queer people.

It’s all getting to question the norms, question gender, question sexuality. What makes me, me? What do I really love about myself? What are the things that make me nervous, and how can I step out of my box? Such a big part of drag is just growing and getting to know yourself more.

Kae takes drag inspiration from personalities throughout the history of pop culture, from glam rock to “The Muppets,” when crafting his high-energy numbers.

Look at Queen and David Bowie. I really haven’t done much Bowie, but I still love him. At the time, it was these men who were appearing masculine and then flipping masculinity on its head and making it fabulous. That’s something that I really like to bring to drag, the fact that masculinity can be more feminine.  

And I’m very Muppet-influenced. Gonzo is, like, a queer icon. Dean Heartthrob and I did a “Man or Muppet” number once, and I was the muppet, and he was the man. Part of drag is creating that brand. If people are assuming that I’m the Muppet in “Man or Muppet,” then I’m doing it right.

I love performing anything that excites me. Number one, anything that’s fast. I want to challenge myself and do a slow number, but it’s tough really taking your time. I have this fear of, “I’m losing them, the song’s too slow, I’m not gesticulating fast enough.” It always amps me up to do something really fast.

Sometimes it’s like, “okay, do people know this song, is it familiar? Is it something I could bring energy to?” For Good Vibes Fest, I did a song by this random German band, Eat Lipstick, “As Long as I Got a Face.” It’s a song about wanting somebody to sit on your face. And the lyrics weren’t on Spotify, so I reached out to the band and asked them to send me the lyrics, so I could learn the lip-synch. They got back to me, and the performance went over really well. Even if nobody knew it, they felt like they knew it.

Shortly after starting drag, Kae became involved in the Cleveland Kings Action Pack, a local drag king troupe that organizes shows to benefit charity and activist causes.

I had been following a few of the members from CKAP on Instagram. One of the very first times that I was out and about in drag, I think it was at a Ryder Slowly show, [CKAP performer] Rhett Corvette was there. Then I got added to the Instagram group. My first show with CKAP was the Valentine’s Day show, it’s called Loverboys. The crowd was phenomenal. I think that every single drag show that you do, you run the risk of getting all dolled up, all ready to go, and then there’s like, two people in the audience. So then, it’s an absolute delight when you go and have a full crowd, and it’s like “oh my god, yes!”

It was just this feeling of connection with people who looked like me, or at least thought like me, and I could feel the same energy, you know. Like-minded humans. CKAP always brings good vibes. It was just so positive, so loving, the second you walked into the room.

Kae questions the close-minded audience culture that compares kings to queens.

A queen comes out, she’s got a sparkly gown, she’s 6’5, and she’s the most fabulous thing in the room. 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. And I wish that audiences knew that not every single performer is exactly the same. And I think that can be kind of limiting for the performers and the people who are watching. “I deemed that kings are bad because they don’t do the same thing queens do.” You’ve gotta realize — never expect something. Expect the unexpected when it comes to any kind of performance. 

We’re so used to watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but it’s not always going to be the dips and duck walks and fancy dresses that you might see on “Drag Race.” That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It’s just different. Come to a show with an open mind. 

Before I was a drag king, there was a Q&A at my college with drag queens. Somebody asked, “what advice would you give to a drag king?” Instead of being like, “go out there and show your stuff,” this drag queen was like, “you guys should wear sparkles.”

We could go into this whole thing, where “‘AFAB performers are not as fabulous as AMAB gay performers because they don’t have the blah blah blah.” There’s an idea that gay men are fabulous and lesbians are frumpy. “Drag queens are fabulous, kings are dumpy, frumpy, and weird.” It goes back to these preconceived ideas of these people outside of their costumes, that people have already decided to put you in a box.

But in Cleveland, so many performers are pushing the idea that we shouldn’t all look the same. The whole point is to push boundaries and do something nobody’s ever seen before, to make somebody think.

When information on the drag scene is available at our fingertips, Kae encourages audiences to seek out performers.

We are living in such a digital age where all you have to do is type into Instagram, #clevelanddrag, and something will come up. Dusty Bucket’s @dragnewsohio is a fabulous place to start. Everybody is always promoting themselves and the shows they’re gonna be in, so it’s not too hard to find a drag show. Friends always promote friends, too. So if I’m not in a show, and there’s a really good one coming up, I’ll promote it on my stories anyway. We’re all just trying to uplift each other in that way.

Given the current controversy around drag, Kae sees it as more important than ever to embrace drag’s potential for community-building and creativity.

With everything that’s going on right now in America and the political climate surrounding drag, I think the biggest thing is that drag is not here to hurt people. It never has been, it never will be. Drag is an art form, drag is self-expression. Drag is created for a community of people who may not have had a family, who now are able to have a family, through drag. It’s about pride in yourself and in your community. It’s such an important part of American culture and I don’t think that I would be the person I am without drag. I’ve watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” since ninth grade. My friend and I would race home from school, and we both just loved it. It was this feeling of, “yes, I feel seen. I feel safe and comfortable and heard.” 

Drag is so important. Make it your own. Don’t be afraid to try something really silly or bizarre or out there. This is such a good opportunity for you to do something really creative and let your freak flag fly, to quote “Shrek the Musical.” 

This is something I kind of deal with, and something I’ve been working on. I have this fear of, “oh my gosh, everybody hates me, I was the worst performer.” That’s probably not true, and if it was, does that mean you have to die now? No. It means you have an opportunity to push yourself further. At the end of the day, if it’s something you’re really enjoying, it’s something you’re proud of, that’s all that matters. At the end of the day, it’s your drag, and that’s valid. And if you’re going to sing a song from a German band that nobody knows, and you like it, do it! 

You can find King Kae around Cleveland at venues like CODA, No Class and The Grog Shop. You might even see him behind the camera at Ryder Slowly’s Kingpin, taking live photos of the competitors. 

Photo of King Kae as a king

King Kae. Photo courtesy of King Kae.


Any pronouns in drag; she/they out of drag

Echo Terrestrial is a Cleveland/Lakewood-based drag artist. Out of drag, Echo is a CSU alum who studied creative writing from 2012-2015. They also performed at the Femcon Drag Show, showcasing original numbers inspired by “Steven Universe” and “Spirited Away.” Their drag takes inspiration from characters all across the gender spectrum.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been really into cosplay. I went to and still go to anime conventions. I’ve always enjoyed dressing up as characters I identify with, or characters I just think are fun. Halloween’s always been a big deal to me, and I think that influenced my drag earlier on. 

My drag [persona] depends on what I’m dressed as, but “they” is always an easy go-to. I didn’t really care about whether the character was male or female. I just dressed as characters I like. 

And then [in 2020] I got into burlesque for a while. I still do burlesque, but there’s a lot of overlap in Cleveland with the burlesque and drag community. Burlesque was a little easier to get my foot in the door with, just because I could take classes at Cleveland Eclectic Dance, and it kind of helped me learn how to develop a character, how to dance for an audience — even though it’s a little different from drag.

I’m really grateful that we have such a good scene here in Cleveland. Ohio gets a reputation of being not very LGBT-friendly, but when you’re in a city like this, you have a strong sense of community with your fellow LGBT people, and our drag scene has really flourished in the last few years. I’m very grateful that there have been opportunities for me here, and really good peers that aren’t just trying to tear each other down.

Echo made their debut in January 2023 at Starf*cks, a charity show at the Grog Shop organized to support Starbucks workers in their efforts to unionize. 

I just happened to meet King Kae at the King Princess concert, and we kind of ended up chatting about drag and friending each other. And they had posted about the Starf*cks show, that they were looking for people. So, I decided to play with the idea of performing in it, and I reached out, and he was all for it. I incorporated a little bit of drag and burlesque for that. I did a kind of fem monster thing: I was the Starbucks siren, and it was a little fun.

After that show was when Kae said I should join CKAP, and I went to a CKAP show after that. They introduced me to some of the people in CKAP, and ThornZtar got my information, so I ended up getting added to that.

Since April, Echo has been a member of the Cleveland Kings Action Pack (CKAP), participating in their seasonal, themed shows starting with a 4/20 “Smoke Show” to support the decriminalization of cannabis.

I’ve only been in one official show with CKAP. I was involved in their 4/20 show that was raising funds for decriminalization. That’s probably one of my favorite shows that I’ve been in. They’re a super accepting, very diverse group, and they want to open the door for newer performers. 

All of their shows, they do as some kind of fundraiser. In the Starf*cks show, they ended up raising enough money to pay someone’s rent who had gotten fired from Starbucks for trying to organize. It felt really good to be able to help someone out like that, and the fact that the audience all pitched in. It was that person’s rent and then some.

I feel like there aren’t a lot of other organized groups, other than drag families. So if you’re just kind of wandering around without a drag family, it’s nice that they’re a built-in brotherhood.

Along with performing through CKAP, Echo is an emerging show producer. Earlier this fall, they collaborated with Akron drag performer Clara Tea to organize a drag show for Solon’s inaugural Neurodiversity Culture Festival. The show featured a lineup of all neurodivergent and autistic drag artists, showcasing their diverse talents for an all-ages audience.

My colleague Doug [Blecher] had reached out about the festival early on, just to send me the survey about planning and what kind of things people would want to see there. He runs a monthly meetup group called Spectrum, and it’s like the intersection of LGBT and autism. He had sent that [survey] to me and a few other people that he knew were neurodivergent. 

Producing a show like this has been one of my longer-term goals that I didn’t think would happen this early. I’ve noticed as an autistic person in the drag scene that it can be really hard to find space for yourself. So much of getting into the scene relies on small talk with people and putting yourself out there in ways that we might not be as good at as neurotypicals, and it’s a shame, because there’s so much different talent. Everyone brought something different [to the show], so being able to organize that was really cool. 

I’m hoping this show helps, too, with some of the misconceptions that are out there about drag. I was a little nervous about it being a family show. We reiterated that to all the performers, but I was a little afraid of there being pushback from some of the anti-drag crowd. It ended up being a really welcoming environment. And I feel like some of these families that might have been swayed by what the news is saying — those rumors about drag — I feel like that might have helped them see that it’s so much more than a guy in a dress, or someone that wants to target children, or whatever they think. They can see that it’s about your own expression, and it doesn’t look like one thing.

Echo shared their influences and the concept behind their drag.

Part of the reason I decided to go with an alien character was that I always liked that metaphor: that being autistic in a neurotypical world feels kind of like being alien. I have a whole social media handle based around that in the autism community, and I just think aliens are cool. And that also let me be this character that doesn’t have to be just one gender performance. I don’t even have to do human performances. I know there’s a lot of performers out there that do both masculine and feminine drag, and sometimes have to change their names, and I didn’t want to have to go back and forth between a male persona and a female persona. I just wanted to stick with something that was gender-neutral and present as what I felt for the show. 

Seeing “Dragula” definitely helped, because it showed me this monster side of drag that’s not necessarily seen in “RuPaul” and the more mainstream scene. Cleveland drag has been evolving in the past ten years or so. In maybe the past five years or so, CKAP and the more alternative drag scene has really started flourishing here. Seeing it around me really influenced me.

Echo draws on alien imagery, a wide-ranging taste in music and a sense of fun to create new numbers.

I think the numbers that I’ve had the most fun with have been the ones that I’ve stuck with the most. When I’m able to have more fun, the audience has more fun, and it’s just a good reciprocal thing happening. I really liked the 4/20 show because I was able to have a lot of fun with that. For one of the numbers I was just, like, eating potato chips on the stage. And in the recent Femcon show, being No-Face was just so much fun, and the audience was really into it. Being kind of awkward and getting into that character was kind of fun, but also, being able to get a little silly about it.

For the 4/20 show again, I wanted to be kind of like a funny stoner. I have ones like that where I’ll do a more human look and incorporate little things that are kind of alien-like, like I drew this third eye on my forehead. I think I try to bring little elements of my alien persona to different shows, but it depends on what exactly I’m doing. We had that king photoshoot, and for that, I went with kind of a masculine look [pictured], but I painted my face blue. I try to go for a humanoid alien, unless I’m really going all-out like I did at the Neurodiversity show.

I don’t really have one specific genre I stick to. I have a whole playlist of songs that I want for potential performances, but it really depends on the theme of the show or the character I’m trying to get into. In general, I have a lot of rock and pop on my “future draglesque” playlist, but if it’s gonna be a show about, like, being neurodivergent, I try to find songs that resonate with that. Like, the song I did for that [the Neurodiversity Culture Festival] was called “Anxious Alien.” 

I tend to go with Halsey a lot. She’s just kind of one of my go-tos because she’s one of my favorite musicians, and I know her music so well that it’s easy for me to lip-synch. I did one of her songs for the Starf*cks show. Since I was being a siren, I did the song “The Lighthouse.”

And then sometimes I end up just picking things that aren’t on there [ the playlist]. Like, for the 4/20 show I was like, “oh, I’m gonna make a playlist of songs about weed.” There’s a process. Kind of have to narrow them down, and listen, and see which one feels like the vibe that I want.

Echo wishes that drag kings (and drag things) were more widely-known, and considered more valid in the public.

You look at who gets booked at the bigger venues, and what you see on TV, and even with “Dragula,” that’s still a niche show that’s on a horror network. Whereas “RuPaul” is more — everyone knows who RuPaul is. I guess I just wish that people knew that there’s more than just one way drag can look, and how it’s evolved throughout the years. People will make assumptions that, oh, it’s a man in a dress, or, oh, every drag performer is trans, and they just don’t even know the difference. I think more people need to understand that it’s a performance, and it doesn’t necessarily tell you who the person is under the drag. It’s just that person’s expression — so they could be cis, they could be trans, they could be nonbinary.

I look at the internet too much and see the comments. On so many drag posts, it’s like: “well, a woman would never dress as a man, so why?”  And I’m like, “yes, they would. They do. It’s called a drag king.” Just because you don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

People assume that it’s easier to be a drag king. Like, “oh, well, a drag queen is putting all this makeup, but all a drag king has to do is put on a suit.” Like, no. There’s a lot that has to go into either side of it. And as we’ve seen with the king photoshoot that happened recently, everyone looked different. There’s one person there in a banana suit, and you’ve got people there dressed like royalty, aliens, cowboys. There’s so much room for creativity within drag, and it’s not easier or more boring to be a king. It’s all about what you bring to the show.

You can catch Echo and Kae performing at any upcoming show with the Cleveland Kings Action Pack.

Photo of Echo Terrestrial as a king.

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