Behind the Zip: Drag King History Australia
Spearheaded by legendary drag king performer, Sexy Galexy, Behind the Zip is a documentary expedition and exhibition of Australia’s drag king culture, to be showcased during Sydney World Pride in February 2023. Shining a light on a side of drag culture that’s rarely seen in the mainstream, Behind the Zip really goes to prove that behind every great ‘man’, you’ll find a gender-bending illusionist whose very existence is a middle finger to conventionality.
Thursday to Sunday Chrissie Cotter Gallery 31A Pidcock St Camperdown NSW
Images, posters, photographic collections, video art and object installations.
Thursday to Sunday Chrissie Cotter Gallery 31A Pidcock St Camperdown NSW
Catherine Fitzgerald, first performed Ben Dover (Drag King) as part of the Vitalsatistix Cabaret Season. There was a series of cabaret nights organised by Margie Fischer and the gay and lesbian nights consisted of all Drag Queens performing. Vitalsatistix was a women’s theatre company in those days. So, I said to Margie “you are employing all men to dress up as women and mime - surely you are meant to be creating employment and performance opportunities for women artists? Stuff it - I’ll do a drag performance.” To which Margie said ‘great”. So Ben Dover was born.
He was as far as I know the first Drag King to perform in Adelaide. (Although I’m sure there were many drag performers as part of Vaudeville back in the day - they were called male impersonators tho) The crowd went crazy throwing underpants and bras at the stage. (Some of the Drag Queens were a bit miffed with the huge response Ben got as opposed to them and things were a bit tense in the dressing room afterwards. Not all the drag queens were miffed, some were super excited and helped me ‘pack my lunch’ so it looked authentic.
Ben Dover then continued to appear at many gay and lesbian fundraisers. In Late 1997, I ran a series of Drag King workshops which was attended by 21 lesbians and one heterosexual woman. The workshops were successful and were quite liberating on many levels, particularly for those women who were wanting to possibly transition (they were able to explore their masculinity in a safe and fun space - remember this was during that time it wasn’t so prevalent or accepted for lesbians to transition)
We worked up a spectacular number for the opening night of Feast Festival -featuring Ben Dover and his Beautiful Boys for Feast Festival in 1998 - the first time 22 Drag Kings appeared on stage at the same time (all at once) in the Southern Hemisphere. (or maybe anywhere according to Feast organisers) William Yang photographed the event. the local News filmed it and ran the footage. It was an amazing night, and the audience went wild.
My history of drag King. By Imogen Kelly
I had been working in the strip clubs of Kings Cross since 1989. I longed to branch out into the queer performance scene but there were so few opportunities for women.
First Drag show:
I started performing in Mardi Gras shows with the Mz Wicked crew. We made loads of group shows with Izzy and Angie. Mostly I performed with Talisa Tangental. She formed the troupe Kinky Galore with Larissa. These shows were choreographed little numbers. I was always very girly in those shows. If anyone played the king it was Larissa who was hungry for the Mz Wicked title at the time and well into the leather scene.
The dyke scene was small as not many people were out. I was out... loudly out. Mind you I wouldn't say I was made to feel welcome beyond of a very small circle of people. I was looked down on as "Femme", which is nuts when you consider I lived as a boy until I was ten and my name at home and school was actually King. My mum let me do everything my older brother could do.
My mum died when I was 9 and my dad was a high profile lawyer- my teen aged years were littered with death threats, attempted abductions and I would check under the car for bombs in the morning... home was an abusive place, a sad place. I got hit every single day. I lived in fear- and survived. No biggy. Most queer kids who were out were the ones brave enough to be out and themselves because we came from unhappy homes.
So I was pretty disgusted with being treated badly by other women because I was "pretty" or had long hair, or wore underwear as outerwear and high heeled lace up boots. I would get spat on wearing lipstick for nstance... my response was to just wear more.
I had all these "tough" dykes looking down their noses at me, because "tough" had so much currency back then. If you weren't "tough" people would go out of their way to give you a hard time. But having had a hard childhood all I could think to myself was "you're not tough, you're just mean." There's a difference. Some people really enjoy being arseholes. Tough is surviving them. It had to change.
When Talisa Salmon, S'ra Albion and Cairo gave me an opportunity to perform a solo at Strut at Kinselas in 1995, I decided I would do male drag, but in an effeminate way- and I would do it to a track with misogynistic overtones because I felt they were all misogynistic too. I felt many lesbians at the time were full of hate for femmes, yet objectified us in the same way as sexist men. Rather than lean on the cool BDSM trend of leather chaps/ strap on and with drawn on moustache or sideburns, I came out as a gentleman dandy in a top hat and tails to Sir Psycho Sexy by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.The curtains opened to reveal me smoking a fat cigar as I lounged across a black velvet couch. Then I tore that stage apart. And when I had stripped to my bare skin, I gave them a flash of a big ugly dong before tearing it off and finishing as a super femme, long hair, lipstick and all.
I wasn't sure if anyone would like the act as dyke performers were not very high profile and no one had really done an act like this. If you wanted to be sexy in dyke land you really were supposed to reinforce the butch tough guy image and attitude. My act bought the house down and made me an instant dykon... which was unexpected... and very cool.
I was suddenly booked everywhere and in all the mags.I performed it many more times including in P-Space's cult show Club Bent.I feel that act ushered in a new way of thinking in the lesbian community. We wanted to be free of misogyny- not reinforce it. I still have so much gratitude for those producers and that audience.
I created Mr Monster after I was forced to leave Gurlesque which was such a bad experience. I had to reclaim myself from striptease, and have a break from the scene and do something entirely different.
I created Mr Monster in London in 1994, but we were expected to sing. I was a bit too shy for that so didn't really push myself. I wanted my King character to be super fun and colourful.
I had just gotten into NIDA Directors! And I was performing at The Opera House! Suddenly my star was rising and I have this character to thank. Mr Monster gave me an amount of legitimacy as a cabaret performer. I wasn't just a stripper from the dyke scene, I was the host of my own variety show. I do think Mr Monster was a rather seminal figure in drag in Oz. Drag King action was brilliant in the late nineties- The King Pins and Dvinyl were there for the LGBTQAI+ scene. But I wanted everyone to be able to come along. I didn't want to be pigeon holed anymore.
Mr Monster was sideshow and circus. It was a kids show for adults and the appeal was really broad across many underground genres. It made me a name in variety and circus. In terms of drag, again I wanted to change things up- drag kings could all be so serious in presentation. The play on masculinity was very sincere- not that we all weren't satirising it- but I wanted to make drag outlandish, fun and colourful. Mr Monster- he was just fun. Like something out of Yellow Submarine. He was a combo of Peewee Herman, Kermit the Frog and Elvis.
King Victoria was Melbourne’s popular weekly drag king cabaret event, running every Friday night for 11 years, from 2000 – 2011. More than 500 distinct cabaret King Victoria events were produced – 6 acts plus MC, then DJ, every Friday night. Over its life, King Victoria gave a platform to thousands of artists, with performers eventually coming from all over the world to perform – including heroes Jack Halberstam and Del Volcano. It is still the longest running weekly drag king club in the world. As Jack Halberstam notes, in their seminal book Female Masculinity;
‘Masculinity’ is assumed to be the normative and authentic ‘core’ of gender that is unable to be ‘impersonated’ or ‘performed’. Drag Kings ‘makes the exposure of the theatricality of masculinity into the mainstay of (the) act...’
Between 2000 and 2011 Bumpy Favell was producer and owner of King Victoria Drag Kings collaborating for the first 3 years with Tom Erge, then Ray Jalil, then continuing solo for the next 8 years. Favell was always responsible for booking performers, creating publicity, and
show production - including co-writing skits,and making soundtracks for performances.
Bumpy - why did you start performing/producing shows as a Drag King? In 1999, me and my and best buddy Tom Erge were obsessed with all things sex positive, trans and queer masc - and drag kings, especially after devouring the Drag King Book by Del Volcano and Jack Halberstam. There was nowhere to perform this kind of gender fuckery in Melbourne at the time. I was an experienced cabaret producer (Club Core, Ruby Lounge) and a musician and Tom is an artist and adventure addict. We had no fear started up King Victoria Drag Kings with a drag king competition at Salon Kitty in Collingwood. The club was a hit from that first heat, totally packed - with over 300 patrons turned away at the door. The shows soon became weekly and ran for 11 years mainly at The Star Hotel in Collingwood. Featuring a huge variety of performers, both professional and first timers – comics, musicians, gender showoffs, strippers and performance artists, with very loyal (and participatory) audiences, King Victoria garnered an incredible amount of attention from queer press, then mainstream media, documentary makers and plenty of PhD students writing their theses on gender.
Below is the very first press release, sent out by Bumpy in early 2000:
KING VICTORIA – Press Release, April 2000
The Drag King phenomenon - the clubs and competitions - is sweeping the world - shoving gender boundaries out of the way - turning girls on across the planet. Now its Melbourne’s turn. King Victoria will be held once a month at Salon Kitty, from 26 May 2000 - featuring a notorious MC, drag king competitors, celebrity judges, and assorted bent entertainers. Kitty Kitty Tomboy nightclub with DJ Ambi will follow. King Victoria is a welcoming and relaxed club for those who celebrate, eroticise or immerse themselves in the creativity of gender identities. The lines between onstage male drag and off-stage female masculinity can be blurred.
At King Victoria butch drag, femme drag, drag layered over transgender, parody, tribute, controversy and humour can all mingle, compete, cause too much laughter or just hang out at the bar.
The Drag King Competitors: Are you authentic? Do you live it every day? Or are you outrageous, funny, debauched, or simply packing the biggest shlong? Do you strut, perform, make a speech, sing, or just be the sexiest boy/girl, F2M, butch, tomboy, fag/dyke or cross dresser in town? * 4 heats, one per month, with the grand final in September, to crown King Victoria. * Judges specially selected for their gender instability whose decisions can only be ... subjective.
Everyone’s a winner baby – Everyone’s a star.
Late 2002, Kingki Kingdom, a Drag King/Alternative performance night, began at the Slyfox Hotel with Sexy Galexy at the helm as Promoter, Host and Drag King Performer and it quickly grew in reputation as THE place to be every Wednesday night with queues forming around the block.
This was once again the space that Sexy had envisioned as an all-inclusive, equal opportunity night where performers both established and emerging were celebrated. This groundbreaking night ran weekly for three years, only changing its branding when Sexy moved overseas in 2006.
It was in 2003 when Sexy travelled to the international Drag King Convention in Minnesota, USA - as a participant and performer- that Sexy realised their Drag King aesthetic was truly unique. World renowned Drag King Landon Cider from California, USA, would many years later go on record as saying that Sexy was their major inspiration for his own look, validating that Sexy Galexy was the original Drag King to create looks well beyond male impersonation, and the one to express the male character as glamorous, camp and colourful.
That same year Sexy won their first of three (2003, 2004, 2005) DIVA awards (Drag Industry Variety Award) for Sydney’s Favourite Drag King after campaigning to have Drag Kings included in the award line-up. Note that at the time women were vastly underrepresented.
This was strategically done over two years by raising the profile of Drag Kings through gaining visibility in the community papers with their successful monthly women’s night Moist at ARQ, now the biggest gay club in Sydney.
This night wasn’t just handed to Sexy, in the beginning the club tried out Sexy and fellow Drag King Divinyl in a night run by Drag Queen Portia Turbo. After a small run, Sexy had their first opportunity to create a twenty-minute production show, working with Kings Divinyl and Rocco D’amore and Drag Queen Dallas Dellaforce, naming it Arrival. Sexy was then given the space with two female dancers in the basement level calling it Wet Pussy.
It would be only a few months until Sexy’s night was upscaled to the entire club and rebranded as Moist, a dream come true for Sexy as they could produce large scale production shows with a large cast and create the themes that changed every six weeks. Sexy would also mix the music and design and make the costumes.
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