Drag kings NZ: the women with foam penises and fake chest hair

It takes Natalie Hugill about an hour to transform into Gary. That's about 10 minutes to do her facial hair and makeup, and then to don her suit, attach her chest hair and stuff her (male) g-string to get her bulge. And in case you're wondering, she uses an attachable sponge penis to get her 'package'.  

Hugill is a drag king. She goes on stage dressed as a man complete with moustache and spangled leopard thong. Then she performs, dances and strips as a male character. Confused? It's actually pretty simple. "A drag king stripped down to its bare essentials is a woman going on stage, dressed in male clothes and performing as a man." says Hugill, who looks far more like a pixie than a dude. 

Kings are the less famous sibling of the Drag Queen. "Drag queens are an exaggeration of the female form" explains Hugill, "whereas drag kings are an exaggerated male form." You get all types of king stretching from those who personify bad boys to those who are sweet and shy, like her character Gary. "It's not just these typical masculine traits but also exploring other parts of masculinity that otherwise we wouldn't focus on." 

It's also not just about the stripping. Some kings strip and some don't. It all depends what background they come from. Two of the most popular schools of drag king are the burlesque and the LGBTQ forms. Hugill is from the former: she's a burlesque performer and show producer who runs burlesque school Bambina Burlesque. Because of burlesque's mixture of satirical and strip-tease elements, she takes her clothes off in her drag king sets. But other kings who don't strip at all - they may just dance or lip synch. 

"So, like, do you have to be a lesbian?"

This is one of the biggest misconceptions around drag kings. And no, no you don't. "I identify as a heterosexual cis woman and I'm a drag king," says Hugill, "but you get people who are gender fluid, people are who transsexual." It's not just one type of person who becomes a king.

And for Hugill, performing as a man just isn't that weird anyway. She started dressing in drag for school performances when she was 12 when the other girls wanted to be princesses. "I grew up watching a lot of Monty Python and there was a lot of cross dressing," she says, "so I grew up thinking it was quite normal to play with gender." 

Can you make any money as a Drag King?

Drag kings aren't at the stage where drag queens are at where it's a full time job. But it is rapidly emerging in NZ. "When I started performing in 2008 there was only a couple of kings in the burlesque circuit," says Hugill, "but the past two years it's just boomed." Now it's becoming a staple of burlesque shows and gay clubs, and this year NZ held its first ever national drag king pageant.

And while it's never going to make you oligarch-rich, you can make decent money. "I can't speak for the LGBTQ scene, but in the burlesque scene it differs. The absolute minimum I would perform for is $150, and that's for friends or a fellow burlesque show." In general, Hugill doesn't perform for free unless it's for charity because she feels it undermines the industry. "My normal rate would be $300+ for corporates and shows. That all depends on the time and preparation behind it and there is a lot of preparation!" 

Speaking of preparation, how do you, um, get rid of your lady bits?

Well, it's not a quick and easy process. "You tuck your breasts under your armpits, and you get something similar to Gaffa tape and you wrap it around so your breasts are flattened." Says Hugill. Some kings pull the boobs apart and then tape them so the tape's behind their back. That way they can strip off their shirt no one can see their breasts. You also normally attach chest hair over the top. A process that involves coving yourself in spirit gum, an adhesive used for prosthetics, and then attach what they call crepe hair. It sounds like a glittery version of tarring and feathering. 

So why do you do it?

You get the impression it's just really, really fun. "It's so fun because it's farcical! Especially if you've strapped yourself and padded your underwear with socks and you have a bulge" she starts to laugh. "You're gyrating to the audience and they find it funny too!" It's also easy for Hugill to slip into. "I love it. I find it easier to embody a male character than a female; it's easier to delve into something completely removed from myself." 

And while her performances are very much in the traditional 'taking the piss' burlesque style, kings also do it because they want to make a statement. "I've been speaking to other kings, and they say they do it because it's fun," she says, "but also because it's liberating, or sexually liberating, or they want to challenge gender norms."