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Your ultimate guide to drag kings

Robyn Exton

Sep 06, 2022

Your ultimate guide to drag kings
  • Once an underground art form, drag — a style of performance where one dresses to exaggerate a certain stereotypical gender expression — has danced its way into mainstream culture. 

    Your city probably has a handful of local drag queens that perform at bars or other entertainment venues in town, and RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a must-watch both in and out of the queer community. 

    We know and love the drag queens on these shows and in pop culture, but what about drag kings? Drag kings are lesser-known performers, often underpaid and rarely given the attention it deserves as an art form, but they can still be sensational talents.

    We’ll break down everything you need to know about them here. 

    What does drag king mean?

    Maybe you’ve heard of drag kings and aren’t exactly sure who they are, or maybe you’ve never heard of them at all. While drag queens are entertainers who traditionally dress and perform in highly feminine attire and makeup, drag kings are their masculine parts. They were traditionally cisgender female performers who embodied or played up cisgender male stereotypes.

    The drag king meaning has expanded in past years, and they today can be trans, nonbinary, cisgender men, and everything in between. A drag king’s performance can range from lip-synching to burlesque dancing to spoken word to comedy. 


    A drag king, meaning someone who dresses and performs in traditionally masculine clothing and makeup, can be a person of any gender or sexual orientation, as with drag queens. The practice is an artful expression and often dramatization of stereotypical gender norms, where one group plays up the traditional associations with one gender to perform and sometimes poke fun at rigid ideas of masculinity or femininity. Though oftentimes a drag king or queen is a person of one gender portraying a character of another gender, this isn’t always the case.

    What is the history of drag kings?

    Drag kings — and drag culture in general — have a complex and rich history. We can see examples of cisgender men performing as women dating back to Ancient Greece or in Shakespearean times when only men were allowed to be actors, so some had to assume the role of female characters. The modern drag movement as we know it has been credited to the early 20th century, and shows like Pose explore the influential role of drag balls in the 1980s.

    Drag queens were traditionally cisgender men — sometimes identifying as queer but not always — who dressed and performed as women. Their counterparts — drag kings, who tended to be cisgender women — emerged in theater and opera in the late 1800s. One of the earliest well-known drag queens was Annie Hindle who found stardom in 1860’s New York. Black drag kings like Stormé DeLarverie and Gladys Bentley became pioneers as well in the early 1900s. By the ‘90s, big cities like London, NYC, and San Francisco had thriving drag scenes, though the practice became less common as drag queens took the spotlight. 

    What does drag king makeup look like?

    While drag queens are known for doing extravagant and exaggerated feminine makeup like bright and full lipstick, dark and wide eyelashes and eyebrows, and sharp contour, drag king makeup leans toward masculinizing one’s features. 

    Of course, it varies between the performers, but the idea is that a drag king’s makeup will attempt to portray a stereotypical masculine appearance. This could involve contouring the face to appear more angular or boxy. It could include drawing on or pasting on faux facial hair. Makeup could also be used to darker or thicken the eyebrows. 


    But the transformation doesn’t just stop at makeup. Drag is a full-body performance, and drag kings make no exception to that. Some of them may wear a binder or binding tape to make their chest appear smaller. They might put on a short-haired wig or otherwise pin up long hair. A drag king may also dress in traditionally masculine clothing, ranging from a formal suit and tie to something more playful like a leather harness and pants. 

    At a drag king show, just like at a drag queen show, you can expect to see dancing, lip-synching, actual singing, and, if they’re funny, stand-up comedy. In 2019, Dragula on Amazon Prime became the first show to feature a drag king, Hollow Eve, but these artists have yet to get their own TV show. Even though they deserve it!! At least there’s still time, *cough* Netflix *cough*. 

    As evident with the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race (or even checking out your local drag show), we see that drag queens are more popular than drag kings, but why is that? 

    Unfortunately, some credit much of this disparity to the patriarchy. As men have historically been more prominent in most forms of life, the same has carried over into drag culture. 

    Although the culture is changing to a more progressive and accepting one, sexism is still alive both in and out of the LGBTQ+ community. Some cisgender female drag kings have noted facing more discrimination than their cisgender male equivalents. While RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought great visibility and normalization to the drag community, some critics say the show perpetuates this lack of drag king representation, as the show tends to focus more on cisgender men who perform as drag queens. 

    Still, drag kings are out there, and many hope to work toward a community that is equally accepting of all expressions of drag.

    Can only women be drag kings? 

    No! Just like how cisgender women, nonbinary, or other gender nonconforming folks can be drag queens, the same is true for drag kings. One of the beautiful aspects of drag culture is the rejection of binaries and rigid gender stereotypes. Not only is drag an entertaining performance, but it can also be an empowering expression of one’s self for those both in and outside of the queer community.

    Who are some great drag kings to follow?

    You might already keep up with some of the most famous drag queens, and that’s great! But if you’re interested to learn more about the drag king community, here are some prominent figures you should know about:

    Murray Hill is considered a trailblazer in the modern drag king movement, performing as a mid-century comedian while challenging gender norms both in and out of the drag community.

    Dr. Wang Newton is an Asian-American king whose vintage Vegas act can be seen from New York to LA.

    Vico Ortiz self describes as “the sensitive Latino lover you dream about,” and their act brings this sensuality and drama to life. 

    Kate Sisk is a comedian and drag king who performs as Luke in New York, most recently at their LUKE ASS SPECTACULAR variety show. 

    Adam All, who can usually be found in a colorful and dapper suit, has been dubbed the “Godfather” of the UK’s modern drag king scene and is a force when it comes to both performing and advocating for their community. 

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    Robyn Exton

    Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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