On a warm night at Bizarre Bushwick, a bar in Brooklyn, I saw Johnny Cash walk on stage. It looked like him, moved like him, and sounded like him. But it was not Johnny Cash. It was Mr. Lee Valone Velour, a drag king who gave the character of Mr. Cash a flamboyant twist.
“A drag king is anyone who has the intention to perform some version of masculinity,” Valone explains. “That can be any gender. It can be burlesque, lip syncing, performance art, or poetry.”
Drag kings have been a significant part of the queer community since the late 1980s. But their roots in the United States go back two centuries: Annie Hindle, the first popular male impersonator, began performing in 1867. The crackdown on New York City nightlife in the 1990s slowed down the scene, but now drag kings are ready to reclaim their space.
Valone moved to New York from Asheville, North Carolina, in 2010. Binge-watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” during his first winter in the city was an early inspiration, but it wasn’t until he saw a live drag king show in Brooklyn that he decided to go all-in. Valone started doing drag three years ago and has been doing it full-time for the last two months. A former art student who worked as a preschool teacher, Valone is one of the biggest names in the drag king scene.
In addition to performing at least four times a week, Valone also produces five monthly shows. One of them is BEEF, NYC’s only all-drag king showcase, which has a distinctly anarchist vibe. With the BEEF show, Valone wants to show that masculinity is exciting.
“People think drag kings can be boring, but masculinity isn’t boring,” he says. It can be flamboyant, silly, soft, loud.” Valone underscores the importance of diversity, saying: “I book performers of every gender, every size, and every race.”
One of those performers is Maxxx Pleasure, a sexy character inspired by rock ’n’ roll personalities like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“I identify as a cis female in my real life, but I find that exploring gender in such a theatrical way has helped me form the way I want to perform my gender on a daily basis,” says Maxxx. He says that being a drag king has upped his confidence in his identity as a whole.
In the beginning, Maxxx was at a loss for ideas, because the only thing he associated with masculinity was strength, aggression, and violence. “I had to find a masculine character that was performing strength without being violent, and had a sexy appeal without being predatory,” he explains.
On stage, it shows—his routine has mojo, whether he’s performing as Rock Lobster with giant red claws, or dressed up as Woody from Toy Story. “It feels so freeing when I’m lip syncing, and I make a funny or ugly face and dance my body around in such a confident way that completely lacks self-consciousness.”
A Growing Scene
According to Valone and Maxxx, the scene is getting bigger, even if sometimes Valone and Maxxx are still the only drag kings in the lineup. “If I’m performing with mostly drag queens, I’ll be ready to put on the best show that I can, because I can tell that I’m kind of representing drag kings as a whole,” says Maxxx. But by the end of the performance, he usually feels very welcome. “People come to me and say ‘Wow, I have never seen a drag king. Where I can see more?’”
Valone feels the same way: People are often skeptical, but they get turned on by the performance as soon as he starts doing it. “The drag scene will start getting more and more interested in drag kings because we are doing very exciting things.”
Drag’s Impact on Everyday Life
Before doing drag, Lee says he wasn’t a big part of the queer community. “I didn’t understand gender as I do now. I didn’t understand there were words to describe who I am,” he remembers. Lee came out as trans a year ago. “I’m not a man, and I’m not a woman. The word for what I am is simply non-binary. It’s so empowering to know there’s a word for me: trans non-binary.”
An email marketer by day, Maxxx started doing drag in 2014. As a cis woman, he struggled a lot with the way femininity was forced on him as a woman. “Performing femininity can be such a taxing thing for women to go through and it’s taught to women as a default,” he acknowledges. “Becoming a drag king has changed me because the way I perform my gender is entirely up to me. I can perform femininity any way that I want, and I can also perform masculinity anyway that I want.”
Through performing masculinity, Maxxx found the freedom to inhabit a new body language. “It’s about realizing there are options to walk or dance in a different way, and that I can do whatever it is that I want to do.”