CHICAGO — Local artist pb discovered their drag king persona and gender identity on a whim, doing their makeup with friends during a digital drag show.
After four hours of painting their face, pb discovered their drag king alter ego and a sense of “gender euphoria,” a state of bliss that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel when their gender expression aligns with their identity. Since creating that first drag king mug, pb has claimed “they” and “he” as their pronouns and flourished within Chicago’s drag scene, performing digitally during the height of the pandemic and on stages across the city after bars reopened.
“Doing drag literally cracked me open,” pb said. “I have been slowly coming out as trans over the years, and then I did drag and realized it’s time for me to fess up that I’m kind of a guy.”
pb is one of many drag kings — performance artists who take on masculine-leaning drag personas — who have burst into Chicago’s nightlife in recent years.
“Drag kings are booming in Chicago, with so many entering the scene these past few years, which has been a really beautiful and exciting thing,” said Luc Ami, a masculine-leaning drag performer who started in 2016. “A lot of kings started drag during quarantine because there was access to a lot more drag with it being digital, and now they’re all coming out into the scene and physically into bars.”
Opportunities for drag kings can still be sparse, with bookings in shows going mostly to drag queens. Even “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which has taken drag to mainstream heights, excludes drag kings from its competition.
But the scene is still flourishing in Chicago, where drag kings are pushing the limits of what’s deemed valuable on drag stages while creating more opportunities for kings to come up within the scene.
“It’s exciting to see a lot more kings now to the point where you’re not going to be the only king in a competition and fight against people who don’t understand your art,” Luc Ami said. “It’s being a lot more normalized to have kings alongside queens in shows and it’s making the scene very exciting.”
‘Drag kings, quings and things’
Part of what makes Chicago’s drag king scene stand out is the breadth of styles among performers, Luc Ami said.
Tenderoni, one of the city’s most popular drag kings and biweekly host of Berlin Nightclub’s “Saturday Night Drag Show,” is known for his high-energy numbers and dance skills. Luc Ami is known for his “sad boy numbers” and androgynous, otherworldly aesthetic, he said.
“I’ve always wanted my drag to be very non-human,” Luc Ami said. “I’ve been defining myself lately as an alien drag deity, very much how the Greeks and Romans had their gods and goddesses. I feel like in some alien planet, my drag persona is their deity and it transcends gender.”
To craft this storyline, Luc Ami paints his face with alien-like features and pitches the songs he lip-syncs to so they have deeper, distorted voices, he said.
“When I pitch music down a little bit, it gives the song this more androgynous, non-human quality,” Luc Ami said.
Luc Ami is one of many drag kings or masculine-leaning performers who are using the art form to challenge notions about gender.
“A lot more people are doing nonbinary or gender-f–kery drag,” Luc Ami said. “It makes sense because people identify as nonbinary outside of drag, so why shouldn’t drag explore that, too?”
The drag community has created terms to encompass that wide variety of drag, said Luv Ami, Luc Ami’s drag son — or drag mentee that Luc Ami has taken under his wing and welcomed like family.
“We’ll say ‘kings, quings or things’ because that embodies people who are kind of in between king and queen,” Luv Ami said.
Mercy Me Girl, another masculine-leaning drag performer, said they are more of a “drag creature” than a king.
“I basically just like to be a bad trip come to life or your favorite nightmare that keeps coming back,” Mercy Me Girl said. “I’m scary, a little sexy and a bit stupid all rolled into one.”
Mercy Me Girl said they’re often inspired by monsters and horror stories, which they bring to life using bright colors and flashy patterns.
“What drew me to drag was the realization you can fully create your own character and be whatever you want,” Mercy Me Girl said. “Creating all these creatures in my head and bringing them to life is what keeps me going.
New opportunities for rising drag king talent
The lack of visibility compared to their queen counterparts and misconceptions about drag kings means masculine-leaning drag performers face added adversity when it comes to securing gigs, performers said.
“I think the biggest misconception is that we’re boring,” Luv Ami said. “People will write off a whole subset of drag because they don’t understand it. For people who aren’t super familiar with local drag scenes and only know their drag from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ drag kings might be unfathomable. That overall lack of knowledge and ignorance stems a lot from us not having as much exposure as queens.”
Luv Ami and Luc Ami have been creating new opportunities for kings, quings and things to perform to help increase drag king visibility. In December, the drag duo launched “Boyz 2 Men,” a bimonthly drag competition at Berlin Nightclub exclusively for kings.
The competition, which returns July 4, pairs newer drag kings with more experienced performers in Chicago. Each pair competes in gameshow-style activities and performs a duet lip-sync at the end, Luv Ami said.
“It’s really special because we’re all just so grateful to be around so many kings,” Luv Ami said. “The energy is different and it’s powerful — the same way it is when I’m in an all-Black show, an all AAPI cast or in an all-trans showcase.”
“Boyz 2 Men” was created to give newer kings more experience performing live so they can use the show as a launching pad to other drag opportunities, Luc Ami said.
“A lot of times people will have excuses for not booking kings, like claiming they’re not experienced enough,” Luc Ami said. “Well, the only way to get experience is by physically getting on the stage, so Luv Ami and I are trying to give more kings those opportunities.”
The show is also live-streamed, so performers leave the competition with footage of their drag numbers that can be shared on social media and used to land more bookings, Luc Ami said.
“I’m giving kings the tools to make sure people can find them, and I’d rather newer performers figure out the learning kinks like how to send your music and all those other things at my shows. Then they’re ready to hit the stage running when others want to book them,” Luc Ami said.
The first run of “Boyz 2 Men” had 35 drag kings, quings and things sign up to participate, Luc Ami said.
“I realized there is a market for this kind of drag and that people were very excited about it,” Luc Ami said. “There’s clearly a need for this show to give kings a stage and an opportunity to be in a space where they feel respected as artists.”
Luc Ami also hosts “Queeriod,” a weekly drag show that regularly books kings 5 p.m. every Sunday at Charlie’s Chicago, 3726 N. Broadway.
Other king-hosted or king-centric shows in Chicago include “Notes on Masculinity,” a drag king-centered cabaret presented by Po’ Chop and Switch the Boi Wonder at the California Clipper, 1002 N. California Ave., and “Creamworks,” a dyke-centric party hosted by local drag king Travis Fiero every month at Hydrate Nightclub, 3458 N. Halsted St.
“Chicago is a really good place for drag kings,” Luv Ami said. “A lot of people, especially show runners, want to support drag kings and find new ones, and it’s great seeing how open the community is to drag kings.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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