Drag King Beauty Is Ready to Take Center Stage

Courtesy of HercuSleaze | Tenderoni / Majic Dyke and Illustration by Michelle Alfonso
Courtesy of HercuSleaze | Tenderoni / Majic Dyke and Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

When it comes to historical royalty, kings take up a considerable amount of space. But if we're talking about drag royalty, more often than not it's all about the queens. Drag kings have occupied modern queer spaces just as long as the former, taking part in the 1969 Stonewall riots and becoming mainstays in the club scenes at historic lesbian bars like Cubby Hole and Henrietta Hudson throughout the '80s and '90s. You may have even seen them on television, with "The L Word" character Ivan Aycock appearing opposite Pam Grier in the early 2000s. Nonetheless, despite devoting decades to drag excellence, kings seldom earn the same praises — both in mainstream media, online, or in the drag community — as their sisters.

If you assumed drag kings receive less attention because they're not as fabulous as their queen counterparts, you'd be mistaken. The transformation also involves artistry, imagination, and makeup, but it's not one in the same. Whether they're drawing on a contour or painting on a beard, the kings of today are defying convention across the board. Here's how.

The Art of Becoming Kings

"When I'm not in drag, I like to say I look like a boiled potato, and when I'm in drag, I'm like a crispy potato chip," says Tenderoni, a Chicago-based drag king. "Drag king makeup is kind of like the opposite of drag queen makeup. Drag queens are always trying to create a softer, rounder face and I'm always trying to create a square, more angular face." Each artist's aesthetic differs depending on the person, but there are a few makeup techniques drag performers of all genders rely on — makeup, hair, and body.

Contouring has remained a constant step in a performers' drag makeup routine. It's the art of using shapes and colors to trick the eye and for many artists, figuring out their ideal contour pattern starts by studying facial anatomy and going from there.

"If you look at photos of men, you can notice where the lines are on their face and where you'll want to put your shadows and highlights if you're going for something more masculine," says Spikey Van Dykey, a Memphis-based drag king. "I like to accentuate my jawline by applying darker makeup under it. Then I contour below my cheekbones, on my nose bone and add a little line of shadow below my nose straight down to my upper lip. Then for the forehead, men generally have an indentation on the right or left side above their eyebrows when they make an angry face, so I contour up there as well."

Photo via Spikey Van Dykey

For many kings, facial hair is the stage in the process when their character comes to life. There's so much room for play when it comes to facial hair and often kings will fall back on a signature mustache, goatee or beard when creating a look. "Besides stamping on that clown white, I feel like a mustache is very much a staple for me," says Showponii, a Brooklyn-based drag king. "I use a lot of drugstore eyeliners for my mustache, like NYX Professional Makeup or Wet n Wild, and they're amazing for precision work."

Kings take many approaches to facial hair, beyond just the style they choose to incorporate into their drag look. Application and mediums vary from king to king, with artists like Tenderoni and Showponii frequently sticking with painting on their facial hair with eyeliner, eyeshadow or cosmetic paints. Then there are those who opt for something a little more three-dimensional.

"I actually cut up hair pieces, either from wigs or braided hair," says Majic Dyke, a Nairobi-based drag king. "Then I use a water-based glue, Pros-Aide, which is the best glue on the market for when it comes to applying stuff on your face, in my opinion."

After finishing with their makeup and hair, many kings decide to push their looks even further by extending the illusion past the neck and shoulders. This could range between wearing a silicone chest piece to mimic the contours of a masculine body, or taping down the chest and painting on abs.

Then again, not every king is intent on adhering to a strictly masculine or even cisnormative presentation. "I find power in femininity and I translate that into how I am outside of drag," says Showponii. "My drag has always been inspired by my transness and out of drag, I'm a transman. I've gotten mistaken for wearing hip pads before because I have a curvy body, but out of drag I'm also a curvy man. Everything with my drag is a parody of my own transness and f*cking around with gender."

Photo via Showponii

Kings, Queens, and Everything in Between

Much like gender and sexuality are spectrums, so is drag. Drag performers are no longer confined to prove their talents through their ability to adhere to the characteristics and stereotypes of one gender or another. Now, there's room for individuality, expression and artistry under the umbrella of drag. Not only are you seeing transmen performing as kings and transwomen performing as queens, there are drag performers who are working outside of that binary entirely.

"Who's to say what's typically masculine or feminine anyway?" says HercuSleaze, a Montreal-based drag king. "You can recognize the fluidity of all of this when you start to deconstruct the gender norms. Kings of today, as well as drag creatures, drag clowns, drag queens, and everyone else are having a lot of fun going between these realms."

I find power in femininity and I translate that into how I am outside of drag.

If you're a fan of drag, you may have noticed this fluidity beginning to make its way into the media you consume. Within "RuPaul's Drag Race," we've seen a slow shift take place, with early seasons praising queens who "pass" as women through controversial words like fishy, using the phrase butch queen in a derogatory way to slam less polished contestants and maintaining largely cis-passing casts. Now, we've seen many trans and non-binary queens, a bearded queen and three AFAB queens take the stage. And yet, there hasn't been a single drag king in the history of the entire franchise thus far.

The Future of Drag King Representation

There's something to be said about kings having their own space and their own show to share their drag. In watching shows like Drag Race, we as a culture have been able to better understand and appreciate the nuances, perspectives, complexities and experiences of drag queens. The same cannot be said for kings. Although there has been minimal representation here and there, these select few do not speak for the thousands of kings around the globe — nor should they have to.

One of the most important impacts that Drag Race and other drag shows have had is highlighting queens as a collective — not merely fringe individuals or tokens, but a group of diverse performers and artists worthy of taking center stage. The importance of community within drag collectively cannot be understated and that's something kings are striving for both on and off screen.

The drag king community is a subset of the larger drag community and it's a place where you see kings supporting kings both on and offline. It's not always easy being a king in a queens' world, especially when even today you don't see kings booked nearly as often and when you do, they're frequently the one king in a sea of queens. This can make it hard for kings to break into the industry and it's inspired some kings to take matters into their own hands.

"I decided to move back to Nairobi, Kenya and I really wanted to bring my art here," says Majic, who founded drag collective Kings of Kenya. "I wanted to continue being me, because even though it was scary being in an African country where there's very strict laws around homosexuality and gender presentation, I really wanted to bring an element of myself back home. And when I started Kings of Kenya, I put out a call being like 'Is anyone interested in doing this thing, if so come to this place and I'll teach you all the things that I know.'"

Since founding Kings of Kenya, Majic has mentored numerous kings and allowed them to be their authentic, unapologetic selves — perhaps for the first time. And while Kings of Kenya is a collective that faces its own unique set of obstacles, it speaks to the larger importance of having a drag community. The value of community for drag artists is something that cannot be understated and it's integral to achieving progress— in beauty techniques, representation and beyond. "Now we're asking for a bit of space and sometimes, that's met with backlash because we're told we don't belong," says HercuSleaze. "We're saying 'Hey, we're part of the same community and we've actually been here, kind of in the shadows, this whole time.'"

Drag kings: they're here, they're queer, and it's their time to show the world their undeniable artistry, performance abilities and, yes — undeniably glamorous beauty looks.