Last year, RuPaul told ABC News that he thought neither he nor Drag Race, the televised drag competition he’s hosted for nine seasons, could ever go mainstream.
“I think that I haven’t been accepted in mainstream media outlets… because the only way they could actually have a conversation with me is to make fun of me, or if they could somehow make a joke about what I’m doing,” he told Dan Harris.
And look where he is now. The popular drag reality show has been catapulted into the mainstream and has transformed the lives of drag queens across the world. But, while the folks who strap on heels collect dollars, those who impersonate men are left in the dust. We’ve forgotten about our drag kings.
One of Denver’s favorite drag king troupes is Mile High Kingdom. They frequently perform at events, such as Colorado’s Pride events, benefit shows, and the recent Catalyst Cabaret, an anti-racism variety show.
Robin MacKinnon is the Mile High Kingdom’s troupe founder and mother. Two years ago, she saw her first drag king performance and was immediately drawn to the art of male impersonation. When she returned to Denver and realized there wasn’t a troupe, Robin called out to her friends to start up the first and only drag king troupe in Denver.
Almost two years later, MHK is a troupe of nine. They practice about 10 hours a week, choreographing routines and challenging themselves with new styles.
“I call them male illusionists because stereotypically, people would say lesbians or tomboys, but really our group is not that at all,” MacKinnon explained.
At the latest Catalyst Cabaret, the troupe took the stage, donning ‘80s hair band wigs that swayed as they worked it at the Oriental Theater to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar.” Robin has a dance background with a feminine style, but her moves become more masculine as she choreographs the troupe’s routines.
It takes a lot more than moves to transform these women into men on stage.
“A drag queen can put on a wig and a gown and she is instantly glamorous and amazing. We can’t put on a gown. We have to work pretty hard at our look, which is still developing,” Robin explained.
Sam Jones, who responded to a call-out last year for MHK, shares MacKinnon’s opinion. Jones played the cello in high school orchestra, but she said performing and preparing for drag is much different.
“I make sure I have all the makeup, clothes, facial hair, and of course, my packer set up and ready to go the day before the show,” Sam said. “It is easier to arrive for call time with at least the contouring done on your face; this way it takes less time to get into face at the venue.”
Everyone in the troupe has a drag name that they go by to represent their character. Jones goes by Gnash D’Boy (nasty boy).
“I wanted a name that was a play on words like other performers have,” Sam said. “My partner and I were heading to rehearsal and she said something like Gnash D. something, then Janet Jackson’s song “Nasty Boys” popped into my head, and it stuck.”
The troupe is made up of straight women, queer women, and trans men. Together, they are a family, like traditional drag queen groups. Robin is the troupe dad, and they call each other brothers.
“Being part of MHK is the first time I have felt like I have a family or support system,” Jones said. “I didn’t know what I was missing, but I can’t imagine my life without these guys. I do drag because it is helping me get to know a whole new part of myself, and it has made me feel more confident both as Gnash and as Sam.”
Unlike drag queens, who pride themselves on making individual names for themselves and creating a “lineage,” drag kings tend to form troupes or performance groups. While they do occasionally join houses and maintain a solo persona, this is increasingly rare in the drag king community. Many troupes are created out of the desire to forge a cohesive unit in order to book shows and performances.
When Mile High Kingdom hosts its own event, the group performs 10-13 numbers, ranging from group performances to solos from members of MHK.
Denver comedian Debbie Scheer emcees their events and helps the audience to understand drag kings. She explains to the crowd that if you see a drag queen’s cleavage, she is doing it right. For a drag king, if you see cleavage, he is doing it wrong.
“When we are at drag rehearsal or at a show, I call everybody ‘he,’” MacKinnon said. “We transform ourselves into men, so that’s how we should be addressed.”
Drag Kings are newer on the scene, but troupes are beginning to pop up all across the country. Mile High Kingdom got to connect recently with a drag king from Brooklyn, who visited and exchanged tips.
“We have an interesting saddle because we are different than drag queens, so we stick together across the nation,” MacKinnon said.
She believes drag is an important part of the community and a therapeutic way for her and her sons to artfully express themselves.
“After the Orlando shootings, we were in a drag show and it felt like the community came together, and that was the art and expression, and the way of being in our community.”
MHK goes beyond dancing on stage together: they have each other for support and to help each other grow. And as they continue to build MHK together, their performances and bonds get stronger.
“I really love those guys, and I would do anything for them. I see them growing in their drag world, and I see them growing in their lives, and it’s really exciting as a family to watch that happen.”
Stay tuned to their Facebook page for for more upcoming events in the Denver area.