By KT Hawbaker Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Janelle Felix, a Chicago-based performer who goes by "Tenderoni," says "a king is a person of any gender presenting as a male character." She, like other drag kings, acknowledges this as an incomplete way of viewing this type of entertainment but says it's a good place to begin.
Switch on the TV. There's RuPaul critiquing Trixie Mattel's runway look on VH1's "Drag Race."
Get on YouTube. There's a whole community of queerdos from around the world giving lessons on how to "beat" your face, contoured cheekbones, exaggerated lip liner and all.
Hit up your movie-streaming service of choice. There's a documentary on Marsha P. Johnson, there's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," there's "Paris Is Burning." Divine is now so revered that her legacy lives up to her name.
For drag queens, this is quite a time to be alive, and as far as pop culture goes, audiences are living for it. But, what about drag kings?
In Chicago, there is a community of folks who perform under this increasingly loose umbrella category. During their interviews, the drag kings could often name the other major performers in the city on two hands, it's a much smaller crew than the drag queen scene. But, like those femme-presenting performers, the city's drag kings transcend the limits of gender.
Historically, drag kings have been thought of as cisgender women dressing up as cisgender men, but as fluid understandings of gender and sexuality evolve, the male/female binary of drag is fading.
Co-author of "The Drag King Book" and queer scholar Jack Halberstam identified this shift in the 1990s. He writes that the drag king is "a performer who pinpoints and exploits the (often obscured) theatricality of masculinity."
Janelle Felix, a Chicago-based performer who goes by "Tenderoni," says "a king is a person of any gender presenting as a male character." She, like other drag kings, acknowledges this as an incomplete way of viewing this type of entertainment but says it's a good place to begin.
Felix, who started doing drag a year and a half ago, sees several subcategories folding into the drag king community. "There are people who do drag king burlesque. There are male illusionists, which are about passing as a man. That's more of a pageant thing," she says. "Then, there are drag kings that offer entertainment more in the sense of a drag queen." This includes lip-synching, comedy and dancing.
When Felix is planning Tenderoni's routines, she prioritizes the energy of the audience.
"I will do high-energy Michael Jackson. Bobby Brown is another one that I refer to a lot because it's all dancing.
Prince is another that I go to," she says. "I don't always stick to songs by male musicians. I like to do Missy Ellliot too. I like to do stuff that's really sassy. My character is essentially a gay man."
This kind of blurred line runs throughout Chicago. For Gabriel Vidrine, who uses they/them/their pronouns, taking on a drag king persona was one of the first steps in solidifying their trans identity. It was initially Vidrine's husband who wanted to perform as a drag queen, but the drag bug quickly bit Vidrine when the couple attended shows. Vidrine now performs as Gabriel Nox.
"Drag became a way for me to explore my own gender. I am trans, and it gave me a chance to try out the name Gabriel, which ended up being my legal name," Vidrine said. "I started with it in drag, and I liked it so much that I kept it."
Parker Haines, alias "Switch the Boi Wonder," also uses they/them pronouns and echoed Vidrine's sentiments. "On a personal level, doing drag and putting on masculine clothing helped me find what I was most comfortable in every day," Haines said.
Like Vidrine, most drag kings enter the thriving Chicago drag community by attending drag queen performances across the city at spots like Berlin, the Baton and Hamburger Mary's and befriending the talent.
Then, the drag kings develop their characters, usually evoking a male celebrity or two as sources for their performances. For example, Felix says she pulled from her "goofy" childhood spent dancing to Michael Jackson and Prince when building Tenderoni's character.
In that respect, the character is loaded with Felix's experiences and is a physical manifestation of her fandom.
For a March 24 performance at Berlin, before starting her makeup routine, she arrived in a jacket with Prince's face painted on the back, revealing a Michael Jackson portrait tattoo on her shoulder when she took it off.
All of the drag kings have mixed feelings about drag hitting the mainstream. While they feel it's important for artists to make money from their work, a few are concerned that drag is losing its political edge as it becomes a product to be consumed by a wider audience.
At the same time, they see themselves filling a necessary void in the drag community, one that's often overlooked or underrepresented.
"RuPaul has always said that drag is punk, and now drag is the mainstream. It's up to the rest of us to punk it up," says Vitrine. "Punk has always been counterculture. The kings are the punks now."