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Local group leads rise in drag king culture

BY HANNAH KRAMER | APRIL 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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Amanda Green stands in front of a large mirror and lights the blunt end of an old wine cork with a lighter. After methodically burning it, she draws sideburns and a goatee on her face with the charcoal residue.

Within minutes, the pretty, feminine woman transforms into a different person — a man she calls Hugh Jindapants.

"I didn't want to look like a girl trying to look like a guy," Green said. "I wanted to look like a guy. I wanted to fool people and work with that element of gender play."

Performing as a drag king is a large part of Green's life, and she has found an outlet for creative expression as a member of the IC Kings — Iowa City's only drag-king group.

History of the IC Kings

Historically, drag kings did not have much of a place in Iowa City's LGBT/queer culture save for occasional appearances at gay bars and drag balls.

In fact, said IC King Jill Davis, the history of drag kings across the country is still a subject that needs more investigation. But, it seems that around the 1980s drag kinging started to become more prominent. Still today, many women who attempt to start performing as kings struggle to find welcoming venues for their performances.

In 2009 for Iowa City drag kings, that changed.

"It might be entertainment, but it's important," said Lauren Seruya, an Iowa City native and University of Iowa alumna. "It's important enough that it had to get done and be handled properly."

The IC Kings exists as an entertainment outlet for many people in the gay community to come together. But the Kings' members say they have a mission to use their craft as a way to make a larger statement.

"This drag-king troupe, and all the drag that's happening, wherever it's happening, creates a queer space," Davis said. "[It creates] a queer presence in the community and a way for queer people interested in gender bending to have a safe space."

The group's performances also have a tangible effect on the LGBT community in Iowa. The troupe donates proceeds from shows to such charities as the Trevor Project and Iowa Safe Schools. These organizations defend the equal treatment of children who suffer from bullying.

"The drag world intersects with the queer world and gender play," Green said. "We have the opportunity now and a captive audience who agrees with our mentality about these issues to send messages of equality, rather than just jumping like a monkey and lip-synching like Fred Durst."

Seruya was an active member in the UI Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Union and received degrees in psychology and sexuality studies.

One of her first drag experiences came from composing a photo project that she completed for a Latina Performance, Bodies, and Sexuality class. It involved recreating images of Carlemita Tropicana, Astrid Hadad, Carmen Miranda, a chola-style female, and cholo-style male.

Soon after Seruya saw the potential of her drag-king look, she and friend Lori Eiserman — who also performed drag sporadically around the state — decided to find an outlet for drag kings in the area.

Months of finding performers, booking a venue, and planning the show led to the first IC Kings headlining appearance at (the now defunct) Firewater in April 2009.

The positive reaction at this première performance led to Seruya and Eiserman finding a home for more frequent shows. By January 2010, the IC Kings began monthly performances at Studio 13.

When the group started, audiences ranged from about 30 to 60 people at shows. But now, the troupe has hundreds of fans. The members have performed in various cities in Iowa including Clinton, Cedar Rapids, and Ames.

Roughly 10 women make up the group, but rarely does each show include every member.

"The more people who see us perform and the more people who learn our name, not only do you have people who enjoy it for entertainment value and catch people who have never seen drag kings, but you also have this amazing opportunity to use your stage time for something that is bigger than yourself," Seruya said.

Some of the faces

"I tried to think of what kind of man I would want to represent," 31-year-old Green said. "Being both gay and sort of gender neutral, I was never really a girly girl ever, but putting on a beard and being dressed as a man was really far, even for me."

Green settled on creating a male persona — Hugh Jindapants — modeled after what she labels a "douche bag" who has a hyper-masculine stereotype. This gave her the opportunity to illustrate the polarization of gender expected in society through her performance.

"I think being able to be Amanda portraying Hugh, I can bring in that feminist view," she said. "People respond better to my opinions if I can disarm them with humor."

Hugh's signature look includes a pair of loose-fitting pants, a solid colored or graphic print T-shirt, and a backwards Nebraska baseball cap. She said her look reflects the "bro" type of guy, modeled after performers such as Durst.

As the mother of two young boys, Caleb, 10, and Aidan, 4, she said it is important for her to convey messages of activism and equality in her performance.

"For the performers and the audience, I think that's why there's kind of this stir around drag because people don't understand it — what gender is," Green said. "It's an innate part of our self-identity, so when something just slightly tweaks out, it makes you start questioning all kinds of things."

When Green transforms into her alter ego, she is undoubtedly a different person, but elements of Amanda still resonate in Hugh.

"They're both desperately in need to be in the center of attention," said Green's partner, Eva Hinrichsen. "Hugh is just a little bit more misbehaved to the point of it being on purpose. Hugh is just like Amanda with a notch turned up."

Each member of the IC Kings possesses a drag persona that she spends time characterizing from performance to performance. The women select songs, dance moves, and costumes based on what the characters would probably choose.

"I have to say that creating a persona is the most difficult part of being a gender performer," Seruya said. "It's the hardest thing to do, because what ends up happening is that the name of your character sets up what people expect."

Seruya choose Franky D. Lover because the name Franky is masculine and matches her Italian roots. And Lover was a fitting last name because of Franky's personality, which Seruya described as cheeky and welcoming.

Her Franky D. Lover act consists of a range of performances, many based on pop hits and tunes from the '80s and '90s. Seruya said she would never choose to perform a song as Franky D. that she personally finds offensive. For example, neither in the pair is fond of Nickleback.

For Seruya and many of the Kings, they continually try to push the boundaries of who their character is while staying true to who their character is.

"I play around with my look," Seruya said. "It doesn't have to stay the same; you can change the way that your facial hair looks without changing your persona. You can do that all within the same character."

Franky D. Lover's looks range from suits to cargo pants, combat boots to tank tops, and more colorful tuxedo costumes.

The preparation that the Kings put into their shows is a big commitment, especially for women who have day jobs. But they say performing with the IC Kings is not a burden.

"It's a hobby," Seruya said. "It's a fun extra thing that we all do, but it has become so much more than that. At this point, if we were to stop doing it, I would feel like I was doing something incredibly wrong."

Davis is a 34-year-old graduate student at the UI working toward a Ph.D. in anthropology, with an emphasis on performance and drag research.

But in her free time, the grad student takes a less textbook approach to her research. On drag nights, the books are closed, and the dark leather jacket and muscle Tee are on — Davis performs as Joey D.

"I'm really very shy, typically," she said. "[I'm] very shy and would never go to a club and dance. But I always secretly liked to dance, so when I started doing drag, it was this whole other persona; it was totally different from [me]. Stepping out on stage as Joey D. was this whole other expression."

Since 2005 — before the beginning of the IC Kings — Davis tested her Joey D. persona in Minnesota and Tennessee.

She said it was difficult to show people the value of drag-king performance, which has been overshadowed by drag-queen culture in the past. Drag-queen shows often highlight a flashy and competitive side of entertainment, but typically, drag-king shows offer a more varied view of masculinity.

After mastering some acts at amateur nights at clubs and bars, Davis said, things snowballed, and she found a niche for her talent.

"Some people think, before they really know or see people doing it, that it's easy," she said. "People think you just get up there in jeans and a T-shirt and that it's going to be very boring."

But Joey D.'s performances are far from dull.

When this King takes the stage, it's electric. Women in the audience swarm the stage to give him tips and get a hug or kiss back. It's clear that Joey D. is a heartthrob. His charisma, disarming charm, and smooth dance moves leave the crowd cheering.

And it's not by accident.

Davis spends hours, weeks, and months perfecting Joey's performances. She said she memorizes the lyrics to the songs he performs, practices choreography endlessly, and takes time to craft the best costumes.

At the IC Kings' most recent performance, in March, Joey D. performed the finale with the song "We Are Young," by Fun.

The energy in Studio 13 grew throughout the night, and the finale was highly anticipated. Joey D. dressed in a sleek black button-down shirt, a teal bandana, and black leather pants. His face was adorned with a large, glittery, silver star covering his right eye. The rock-star look suited the aura of the crowd, which was filled with women cheering and flocking to the stage, dollar bills in hand.

During the final chorus of the song, a group lifted Joey D. from the ground and spun him in circles — he was on top of the world.

"I love to do drag," Davis said. "I feel really lucky that I have this thing as a pastime; it's a very big part of my life. I love getting to combine all of this stuff and get on stage, and I get to pretend like I'm a rock star — who gets to do that?"

Community relevance

Professionals in the community see the value of drag performance from a didactic and activist perspective.

"They can make gender visible to us by making it invisible in a sense, by making us have that double-take kind of moment," said University of Iowa Assistant Professor Isaac West.

West, who teaches courses dealing with gender issues, said that the distinction between drag kings and other gender performers is important.

"In a drag-king performance, often, there is a much more varied sense of masculinities," he said. "Oftentimes, drag queens, when they are performing together, they often have very similar styles."

UI graduate student Michaela Frischherz, who teaches Gender Sexuality and Media, said she has noticed a rise in the popularity of the drag-king culture.

"I think the fact that it provides a sense of community is very important," she said. "And also that those small communities go out and spread the word makes a huge difference."

West agrees.

"I don't want to discount that entertainment is important," he said. "But many times, that entertainment oftentimes serves a larger purpose."

Many of the IC Kings acknowledge these professional opinions and see that their performances have an effect beyond entertainment because of its style.

"It's really such a strange thing that we do this," Green said. "The concept of drag is so weird, because I am a female and my physical body is a real thing. But I want to convince people that I am now male."


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