A Brief History of Drag Kings in the UK

Drag Kings

Lada Gaga stepping out as Joe Calderone was the tip of the iceberg. FrustratedPoet checks out Drag Kings in the UK from their historical beginnings to their thriving Now.

A Brief History of Drag Kings in the UK

When Lady Gaga made every member of the LGBT community question her sexuality by taking to the stage as Joe Calderone she was one in a long line of awesome women sticking two fingers up at convention by donning mens’ clothes, adopting a casual swagger and drawing (or sticking) on facial hair.

Victorian Drag Kings

History has been repeating itself since the 16th Century. Back in Shakespeare’s time, women were known to bind their breasts in order to appear on stage at a time when women acting was considered reproachable.

Fast forward a few centuries to Queen Victoria’s day, and there was an explosion of performance for the masses. Victorian Variety Theatre and Music Hall altered the face of England’s theatres. Women performing onstage at this time were looking to stand out by doing something a little out of the ordinary.

burlington bertie

Ella Shields as Burlington Bertie from Bow

Performers like Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields and Hetty King began performing in drag, shocking and thrilling audiences across England. Ella Shields’ most famous character, Burlington Bertie from Bow, was a caricature of a certain kind of London man about town.

These women didn’t have the vote and they weren’t allowed to own property in their own right, but they could dress up and mock the patriarchy (well, as long they were funny).

The Eighties and Nineties

By the end of the 20th Century, Drag had gone underground and found a new following in the Lesbian community. In 1985 in London, Annie Toone met Della Discrase, Sophie Moorcock and Billie Goodfellow. From ’87 they all performed as part of the Chain Reaction Collective for an LGBT-only audience. From 1989, the amazing Diane Torr pioneered “Man For A Day” workshops all over the world.

In the early 90s, the burgeoning UK scene simmered under the surface of queer culture. Kings were performing in the gay clubs of London’s Soho, but the scene was still dominated by Drag Queens. This was a time when Lipstick Lesbian Chic was in, and being a Butch Babe was, apparently, only OK if you were KD Lang.

In 1996, Cherry Smyth published “Damn Fine Art by New Lesbian Artists” and held London’s first Drag King contest. Three years later in 1999 “The Drag King Book” was published, showcasing Kings across Europe, the UK and USA.

Brighton and the South

In 2006, the Hot Frollick Drag Collective formed in Brighton. With their exquisite costumes and convincing facial hair they were the toast of the Lesbian Scene, modellng and performing in the south. For a long while they were the only online Drag King presence in the UK.

Stevie Wonderful

Stevie Wonderful – with thanks to Lennaland

In London 2008, the first King of the Castle competition took place at the Purple Turtle in Camden. The winner, Stevie Wonderful (Fiona King), went on to run the annual competition which in 2011 celebrated its fourth year.

Valentino King and The Manchester Connection

The following year in a small North West Village, Gizell Timpani – already known throughout Europe as a vocalist – decided that she wanted to do something different. Over the course of the next year she became Valentino King, the UK’s best known Drag King. She sang live with a smooth baritone, just like the original Victorian Kings.

Drag king valentino king

Valentino King

A year later in 2010, Vanilla bar held the first HRH Manchester Pride Drag King competition for Manchester Pride.Hosted by Valentino King, the first heat attracted seasoned Drag King Jack The Lad (JTL) and newcomer Our Kelly. The three finalists chosen to perform live at Manchester Pride’s Women’s Stage were Don Dick Realis, Our Kelly and the eventual winner of the competition, The Dyke Kings.

Drag Kings Alex Valentine Jack The Lad

Alex Valentine and Jack The Lad, with thanks

In addition, in a first for Manchester Pride, a Drag King was chosen to lead the parade in front of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Manchester. Our Kelly, representing VIA, performed live and was crowned King of the Manchester Pride Parade.

Drag King Our Kelly

Our Kelly

Over the course of the Drag King competition, the Drag Kings of Manchester Facebook page was set up by Drag Model Boi Wonder. The Facebook page (and community) are still going strong.

The Drag King Scene continues to this day.

Within months, performers from all over the UK were looking to Manchester for information about King Culture. Flirty Bertie, inspired by Valentino and the Manchester Kings, began performing in London and across the South in late 2010.

Today there are active Drag performers all over the UK.