Off the Main Drag
Despite its ubiquitous presence for hundreds of years, as Joe Drennan explains, many views on who can take part in the art of drag aren’t terribly modern.
The art of drag arguably dates back to the time of William Shakespeare. The name, while, extensively debated, is believed to have come from the dragging petticoats that male thespians would wear while performing female characters onstage. Due to the heritage’s exposure to mass media nowadays, the only things that seem to be dragging on the floor are the 40-inch human hair wigs and the skulls of queens who attempt a death drop.
Despite RuPaul’s Drag Race now being a multi-milliondollar international franchise, the show has been long critiqued by audiences for its lack of inclusion for artists who don’t identify as gay men. It begs the question for people looking for another type of drag; where are all the others? GCN spoke to three artists from the craft; one queen (who happens to be straight) and two kings. Here’s what they had to say:
It was the 1980’s when a genderqueer drag king by the name of Kenny Todgers burst onto the scene. Like other kings at the time, he dabbled in gender discombobulation through the art of male impersonation. The history of it differs from that of drag in that male impersonation was not queer-coded initially. It was often performed by heterosexual women, particularly in nineteenth-century vaudeville circuits in the US.
However, for Todgers in the ‘80s, he was not only introduced to a new craft, but something for which he could realise his true existence. He admitted that, “Like so many young people questioning now, I was questioning [my identity] back then. I thought that I was transgender. Somebody was like ‘Well, why don’t you try male impersonation?’”
The opportunity automatically came with the chance to perform - something that would inevitably build Todger’s confidence. He continued, “It was the confidence of portraying a man. It was the fact that you could fool around with it. That you could make people question it, that they would look at you and think ‘Is that a man or a woman?’”
After some three-and-a-half years, Todgers eventually realised that genderqueer was a more appropriate and affirming description: “I felt that way because I am partially a man, I’m both genders.”
Kenny differentiated the intricacies of both drag and male impersonation, saying that the latter involved research much like “what you would do for a movie.” He continued: “I would often see someone standing at a bar, and then I’d stand behind them with the same stance. You need to know how it feels to stand in a certain way.”
To simplify the explanation, the king likened it to a scene from She’s the Man, when Amanda Bynes’ character walked behind random men in the streets and mimicked their laddish mannerisms.
Despite not being able to find the same community when he originally moved to Ireland, Todgers eventually found places to perform again. He became the first Miss Gay Kerry and the first drag king to hit the main stage at Cork Pride last year, though this success is met with some difficulty in the respect of visibility. The former country singer explained: “It’s that drag kings are more of an unknown thing [compared to drag queens]. It’s not that drag kings aren’t good enough, it’s that if the public doesn’t know about us, how can they ask for us and love us?”
Todgers was speaking specifically about how kings and queens are booked for shows, and how sometimes this can be decided based on “who you know,” He believes it’s important for event runners to promote a different type of drag than what is usually seen in mainstream media.
“It’s the circle; to become popular, you need to be out there performing. But they also need to let you do that first. It’s just a matter of taste; from the public, or whoever comes to see you. That’s the thing that keeps coming up, if organisers don’t give us the chance, that’s the problem that we’re facing.
“If there’s a yin, there’s a yang. If there’s a black, there’s a white. And if there’s a queen, there must be a king somewhere!”
Kara Kalua, originally from Hawaii (hence the surname, referring to how one cooks pork in the ground) is commonly known as ‘Ireland’s Maddy Morphosis’. This drag queen sets herself apart, not only for her fierce looks and sickening renditions of ‘Over the Rainbow’, but for the fact that behind it all, a straight man is playing the part.
Speaking about her first appearance in DCU Drag Race in 2016, Kalua said that the event was “the first time I was properly in drag,” and that the experience enticed her to learn more about this new world and the culture. She went on to compete in 2017, 2019 and 2021, eventually being crowned as a winner in her last venture.
She continued: “I was very nervous, of course. I remember it feeling so exhilarating and liberating. Just knowing that you can be anything you want.” She acknowledges that the skills needed some refining, particularly ‘the strut’, just like any other emerging drag queen. Though the initial experience was overly positive, Kara admitted that she “went a long time questioning, ‘Am I allowed to call myself a drag queen?’ or ‘Can a straight person be a drag queen?’” She admitted that throughout her time performing, the question of appropriating queer culture had been infrequently raised.
Kara Kalua knows her place; she’s a straight person in a queer space. That doesn’t hinder her from appreciating the value drag has in LGBTQ+ history, and she’s conscious not to “step on any toes” when it comes to specific songs or anything sacred to queer people.
“Other people in the queer community have told me that’s not fair to say [it’s cultural appropriation] and it’s kind of gatekeeping. Drag is for everyone; it can be anything you want. I do believe though, as a straight person in this space, it’s important to educate yourself and respect history.”
Besides that, other drag artists have been nothing but accepting and the topic of Kara’s sexuality often engenders intrigue from audiences. The drag queen has a lengthy to-do list when it comes to her budding career, including a book, podcast and the prospect of running her own show.
Julian Mandrews is a drag king who had a different introduction to the scene. He got his start while campaigning for marriage equality prior to the referendum in 2015. He described the blossoming drag career and the fierce activism as “one feeding the other.”
He explained: “I was part of a group called LGBT Noise that was campaigning for marriage equality back in the day. We were trying to raise a few quid for the campaign, and we thought ‘Why don’t we put on a variety show?’ I thought that I’d really like to give this a shot, and I’ve all the musical theatre experience. I was also a huge Eurovision fan, so I decided to do a Eurovision number [in drag].”
When asked to pinpoint a date for the start of it all, he chuckled, “This will tell you now. Increasingly over the last couple of years, I’ve been introduced at shows as ‘Daddy Julian Mandrews’.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m a Daddy now? Okay, cool.’ I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been doing drag for like 15 years.” Mandrews agreed with the suggestion that ‘Daddy’ was in fact a synonym for ‘established professional’.
He reflected on his participation in the famous Alternative Miss Ireland pageant, saying: “I was very proud to have taken part in AMI while it was still happening. I wish that we had something like that come back. It was such a flagship in the calendar for the community and drag. I would love to see it come back with the newer generation. I was inspired by being in the audience and seeing all the things that you don’t get to see on television.”
The established professional (or Daddy, whichever you prefer) also offered some insight into the evolution of Irish drag. He said, “I think there’s been more gender diversity in drag generally over the years. More people are embracing all different types of drag and what it really means to be a drag artist. You can be a drag king specifically presenting a masculine character and you can also wear something very ostentatious, glittery and fabulous and it all still works.”
Though this raw and eclectic nature of drag is observed across queer spaces in Dublin, Mandrews believes it’s something that’s still being awaited in other places. He said: “We’re seeing alternative queens like Gottmik from RuPaul’s Drag Race just opening that crack in mainstream drag but I think there’s still this idea [of drag kings] that ‘it’s just not fun, it’s not that interesting.’ It’s really, really, really slow but there’s still progress being made.”
For the musical theatre fanatic, world domination or the prospect of a crown from RuPaul herself isn’t on the cards. Instead, it’s about preserving the sense of community and identity around the art that he loves.
He concluded: “I recognise that I speak to a certain age group and demographic and if I only ever have a few shows that those audiences enjoy, that’s enough for me. I enjoy seeing other artists doing their thing, especially the off-the-wall stuff. I love to see the new and interesting things being done in drag. I’m excited about the future and what the young people are doing, they’re amazing.”
Drag artists like Kenny Todgers, Kara Kalua and Julian Mandrews exist in all corners of the scene. They’re on stages and in venues across the country, waiting to entertain and celebrate a tradition in our community. Though this may be the first time you’ve heard of them, they certainly aren’t hiding. In fact, they’re waiting and ready for us. They’re sickening; we just need to find them.