Spending a night with the Toronto Drag Kings at the city’s one and only weekly drag king event.
Alex Rayden-Panties stands calmly in the dingy back room of Zipperz: a dark, dated space on Carlton Street just west of Jarvis. Dressed in a heather-blue T-shirt with an oversized blue cardigan and large, owl-shaped medallion necklace, Alex silently practices his dance moves and mouths lyrics to an invisible song among the empty beer bottles and kegs filling the room. As if this scene isn’t odd enough, Alex has a surprise up his sleeve: he’s not actually a real person. In fact, Alex Rayden-Panties is the outgoing male alter-ego of a rather shy woman, who occasionally lets him show his stuff on the odd Wednesday night. Why? Tonight is the weekly drag-king show at Zipperz, the only one of its kind in Toronto.
“Me and Alex are two totally different people. I’m shy and he’s outgoing and crazy. He’s got some balls alright,” Alex boasts as he waits for the other kings to arrive at the bar. A guest host himself, Alex isn’t one of the regular performers at this event. The three main men of the Toronto Drag Kings are Tyler Uptight, Chase Manning, and Cameron (just Cameron), although past kings and new kings alike often join the troupe. Tyler is second to arrive tonight, dropping a massive duffel bag and suitcase on the floor with his fireman’s hat to top it off, and heads to the front of the bar. Tyler is a seasoned performer, one of two head kings who organize the events, and the only transgendered member of the Toronto Drag King group.
“I started drag performance as a way to be myself, and it created the confidence I needed to transition. Now I guess I’m more of a male entertainer who hasn’t forgotten where he came from.”
Although every king has a specific persona and style that fluctuates with each song, Tyler admits he has a specialty. “Anything Lady Gaga. It usually involves a lot of leather and all the choreography to her newest songs.”
As soon as Tyler notices Chase Manning, who has slipped in quietly, the two disappear for a heated conversation behind the bar. Alex is still going over dance moves as the two return and Chase promptly begins applying his facial hair, using the four key tools: human hair (preferably from one’s own head), spirit gum, a cork, and a lighter. Unfortunately Chase has forgotten the latter, and starts rushing around the room in search of some form of flame as Cameron hurries through the back door. The show is slotted for eleven o’clock, and Cameron is the second head king to perform: it’s already 10:50.
Cameron slaps a clipboard onto the first table in sight and starts jotting out a set list, marking down names and songs with a concentrated look on his still-hairless face. As soon as the list is in adequate condition, Cameron strips and hurries to bind his chest and stuff his pants, at one point yelling, “Fuck, do I not have my dick?” half dressed, he rushes to the mirror, burning cork in hand, and starts to use it to paint on a five o’clock shadow. A sign above Cameron’s head in the makeshift dressing room reads “No glitter please” as he glues tiny chopped-up pieces of hair onto his chin.
“We put on a good show,” he says, turning away from the mirror for a split second, ”But we really have to thank our crowd, they bring the energy.”
Cameron has been performing for six years in Toronto, and in that time has been a crowd pleaser at almost every gay bar in town, from Buddies in Bad Times to Alto. It all began when Cameron saw his friend preform for the first time and something clicked.
“I wanted to do it, so I practiced for three weeks and just walked in with two songs and did them.”
As he applies the last bits of hair, the burly manager at Zipperz strides into the room demanding someone get on stage and start the show; the kings are 15 minutes late and an eager crowd is waiting. Within minutes, Cameron is out the door and on the stage with a microphone, voice cracking and words jumbled. It seems tonight’s show might be off to a rough start, but the boys get it together just in time. He gets the crowd going, shouting “You guys make noise and it makes my night!” The crowd goes wild as Chase takes the stage with Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment,” staying true to the rocker persona he’s become known for.
By the time Chase walks behind the red velvet curtain at the back of the stage, almost every seat in the house is full and clusters of people are pouring through the door. Cameron reappears, making smoldering eye contact and even dancing on a table in his cut off shorts and DC tank top. All signs of disarray from earlier have disappeared; each performer has a sexy, confident attitude that leaves the crowd swooning and cheering.
“This event is for everyone. We get a big diverse crowd together. Straight people come, and so do gay, trans, lesbian, bisexual… anyone is welcome,” Chase says, as he quickly changes costumes to return to the stage. Alex, back to planning and practice after performing The All-American Reject’s “Dirty Little Secret” adds, “Every woman should try drag one time. It’s an amazing experience to preform as someone else.”
Thanks to the King’s monthly “So You Think You Can Drag” competition, anyone can. With 14 new kings last month, the number of participants continues to grow so high that a second monthly competition may have to be added. But what do you need to perform?
“It just takes confidence and a character—and you can change your character every week!” says Tyler.
Photos by Samantha Lo.