Though RuPaul has recently insisted that drag "will never be mainstream," most of us are attuned to the idea of a man in a wig, heels and a dress getting on stage to entertain us. Paul O'Grady hosted BBC one gameshow Blankety Blank as Lily Savage in the '90s, and hit West End musical Kinky Boots has a drag queen as its central character. But the sight of a woman performing in traditionally male clothing as a drag king still feels more exotic. Even if you've heard the term drag king, can you actually name one?
In the UK, drag kings are now beginning to catch up with the queens as they get booked to perform at more mixed cabaret shows and run their own club nights. The Glory, an LGBT venue in east London, is currently midway through the second series of its weekly drag king talent contest, Man Up!. "I felt like we were doing a lot of drag performance that basically just featured gay men and I wanted to cast the net a little wider and encourage more female performers," The Glory's co-owner Jonny Woo explains. "I was surprised at how immediately popular it was. Last year's contest was basically a test to see if there was a demand for it, and we got a massive response so we've brought it back. This time there are six heats, twice as many as last year, and we've doubled the cash prize to £1,000." I've been invited to serve as the first heat's guest judge, but within half an hour of arriving at The Glory I've lost all claim to impartiality by chatting to two of the contestants backstage. A drag king called Richard Von Wild tells me he's having a second stab at Man Up! after being beaten in the final last year, while another, Georgeous Michael, says he's performing in drag tonight for the first time ever. "I was inspired to try it for myself after I came to watch the competition last year," he explains. "I've been interested in drag culture for a long time but last year's Man Up! was the first time I'd seen drag kings taking centre stage, as opposed to being just one performer on a bill. That was really empowering so I thought I'd give it a go."
When the drag kings take to the stage later on, the performances they give are both technically impressive and a lot of fun. Richard Von Wild lip-syncs to a cleverly-mixed rap medley, while a contestant called Brent Wood delivers a more comic set, sending up Essex lad culture. Georgeous Michael lip-syncs to George Michael's "I'm Your Man" wearing the leather jacket and designer stubble of the singer's '80s heyday. On the one hand, it's the evening's most straightforward performance, but on the other, it's the most confusing. We're watching a woman impersonate a then-closeted gay man who was attempting to pass as straight but coming off incredibly camp in the process. There are endless layers to peel back if you want to. "In a way, I find watching drag kings more interesting than watching drag queens," Jonny Woo says. "When you watch a drag queen, everything becomes very lifted and 'up'. And we're very familiar with the physicality, the look and the vocabulary of drag queens. Whereas with drag kings, a lot of it feels like new territory. It's more unusual to see a female channelling a male and adopting that sort of weight that a man has."
The winner of last year's Man Up! contest, a drag king called John Smith, says drag shouldn't be analysed too much because "it's there to cast a spell in the moment." Nevertheless, he puts forward an interesting theory for the growth in drag kings' popularity. "We're starting to question and satirise the role of the male in society," he argues. "There's a lot of focus on these straight white cisgender male figures who dominate politics and the economy, and I think there's a strong desire to take down those figures a bit with humour. I feel like we're potentially at a point in society where we're ready to start examining masculinity, and laughing with it and laughing at it." One of the drag king scene's godfathers, Adam All, who co-hosts Man Up! along with another popular London drag king night called Boi Box, says the boom is especially important for a group of women who've traditionally been dismissed. "Butch lesbians, for want of a better term, have often been regarded as somehow 'less than.' These are people who've been told they're not strong enough to be a man but not pretty enough to be a woman. It's harsh having to live with that and there will be kids at school who bully you – I was bullied. I really believe we are appealing to these people as drag kings. We're appealing to a lot of different people, but particularly that crowd, and we're saying, 'Yes, let's be empowered!' Which is obviously great."
Everyone I meet at Man Up! talks about how warm and supportive the drag king scene is. They tell me about regular drag king nights taking place in Manchester and Brighton and say drag kings are being booked to perform all over the country, in Cardiff, Nottingham, Birmingham and Hertfordshire. Adam All and his performing partner Apple are hailed as role models. "Adam and Apple have been an inspiration not just for me, but for a lot of drag kings because they're so talented," says Richard Von Wild. Adam says that when he started performing in 2008, he didn't know any other drag kings. "I hated that and I made a pact with myself to encourage other drag kings to take to the stage. It's so important to keep pushing people's belief in themselves. I really think there are still incredibly talented androgynous women out there who want to perform as drag kings, but don’t know where to go or who to ask for help. They don't feel like they fit in, but when they find the drag king world, it's suddenly like, 'Wow, this is where I belong. I can talk about gender identity and visual identity and I get to be be funny and sexy with it'. And for once, that feeling's not just limited to standard cis 'pretty' girls."