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Drag kings: a brief history of male impersonators

Often less well-known than their drag queen counterparts, the history of drag kings can be traced back centuries. Ella Braidwood considers the history of past performers – from 1660s comedies to activism at Stonewall…

Actress Vesta Tilley poses with a bicycle while dressed in male uniform
Published: February 23, 2022 at 3:50 pm
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Today, drag kings are generally women, transgender men or non-binary people performing in male drag on stage. Lesser known than their drag queen counterparts, drag kings often tackle problematic male stereotypes, such as toxic masculinity, with the aim of challenging the patriarchy through singing, comedy, and dance. Loosely speaking, their history can be traced back hundreds of years, their beginnings stemming from the legacies of male impersonators in the 1600s onwards. Even before this, there are records of female cross-dressers dating back thousands of years, such as women who performed in male roles during the Tang Dynasty (618–907AD) in China.

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According to Dr Jacob Bloomfield, an honorary research fellow at the University of Kent who teaches gender studies, it was “common” for women to play male roles throughout the 17th century in France and Italy. This form of theatre was known as the commedia dell'arte, an improvised version of comedy. In Britain, meanwhile, Dr Bloomfield explains that women actors started to become more common by the 1660s, “displacing the boy players who had commonly played women’s roles in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods”.

In the early 1700s, Susanna Centlivre – an actress, poet and playwright – was famed in England for performing in male costumes. Elsewhere in Europe, there are records of women performing as male characters on stage, including the actresses Euphrosyne Löf and Inga Aberg who performed in breeches roles – that is, in male clothing – in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1790s.

The first famous male impersonator

In the US, Annie Hindle is widely considered to be one of the first popular male impersonators. Born in England in the 1840s, Hindle moved to New York City with her mother in 1868, where she began performing as a male impersonator, both solo and in minstrel shows – the latter being a racist entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Her last recorded stage appearance was in Ohio in 1904, the year of her death.

Drawing of Annie Hindle dressed in masculine uniform
Performer Annie Hindle is widely considered to be one of the first popular male impersonators. “With her well-observed, exaggerated portrayals of a parody-able masculine type, she would not be out of place at a drag king revue today,” says Dr Jacob Bloomfield. (Photo by Alamy)

According to Dr Bloomfield, Hindle was well-known for a particular performance style. “She helped to popularise a theatrical masculine type that was commonly performed by 19th-century male impersonators [known as] the ‘lion comique’: a blustery, well-dressed, wealthy man – or ambitious social climber – who was somewhat sleazy, but ultimately charming,” he explains. “Hindle, with her well-observed, exaggerated portrayals of a parody-able masculine type, would not be out of place at a drag king revue today.”

It is alleged that the sight of Vesta Tilley wearing trousers disgusted Queen Mary so much that she buried her face into her programme

In Victorian England, both male and female impersonators became increasingly popular, particularly in music halls, where audiences were entertained with singing, comedy and variety performances. Among them was Matilda Alice Powles, better known by her stage name Vesta Tilley, born in 1864 in Worcester. The second of 13 children, Tilley began performing in boys’ clothes as a young child, encouraged by her father. After gaining popularity as a male impersonator in regional theatres, she began performing in London from the mid-1870s. She was later managed by her husband, Walter de Frece, a theatre impresario and later Conservative MP. During one performance in 1912, it is alleged that the sight of Tilley wearing trousers disgusted Queen Mary so much that she buried her face into her programme.

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Portrait of Vesta Tilley, dressed in a suit with a bow tie and with her hair cropped short in a masculine style
Vesta Tilley, male impersonator. "It is alleged that the sight of Tilley wearing trousers disgusted Queen Mary so much that she buried her face into her programme during a performance in 1912," writes Ella Braidwood. (Photo by Getty Images)

A patriot, Tilley turned her efforts to enlisting soldiers at her shows during the First World War, reportedly getting a whole battalion to sign up, known as ‘The Vesta Tilley Platoon’, during one week of performances in Hackney, London. She was popular among men, for her mocking of the upper classes, and also with women, as a symbol of female independence. Tilley gave her final performance at the Coliseum Theatre in London in 1920, later retiring with her husband to Monte Carlo before her death in 1952.

A rival of Tilley’s was Winifred Emms, known by her stage name Hetty King, who also made a name for herself during this period. Born in 1883 in Cheshire, King began performing as a male impersonator in the early 1900s, including starring in Dick Whittington at the Kennington Theatre. Hugely successful, King toured music halls in the UK and went on trips to perform in America from 1907. She was known for performing songs including I Want a Gibson Girl, When I Get Back To Piccadilly and, her most popular, Ship Ahoy! (All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor), written by English writer Bennett Scott and his fellow lyricist AJ Mills. Similar to Tilley, King supported the war effort during both the First and Second World War, dressing as soldiers and sailors, and entertaining troops in Belgium and France. King died in 1972 in Wimbledon, London, aged 89.

Hetty King dressed in a sailor uniform and sat on a barrel. She has a cigarette in her mouth
c1930: Actress Hetty King, who often performed in male clothing. Her ability to roll a cigarette in one hand was considered a very masculine skill. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King made considerable effort to perfect male mannerisms as part of her performances. “She would play a cowboy and would be able to roll a cigarette with one hand, a very masculine skill,” explains Dr Stephen Farrier, a reader in theatre and performance at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

Another male impersonator, Ella Shields, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1879. “Shields wore a top hat and tails, that kind of thing,” says Dr Farrier. “She was a bit more famous in American vaudeville [a type of entertainment featuring burlesque comedy, dance and songs].” Lured to England by a talent scout in the early 1900s, Shields became famous for her song Burlington Bertie from Bow, which Farrier describes as being “about being poor and pretending to be rich” and was also a parody of a song sung by Tilley called Burlington Bertie.

Ella Shields dressed in military uniform and leaning on her knee with a smile
c1920: Music hall performer Ella Shields in male military uniform. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An early LGBT+ movement?

Male impersonators of this time often did not associate with the LGBT+ community as modern drag kings do today, says Farrier. “It’s very easy to say that drag kings are like male impersonators. But it was a different time and so, therefore, different identity positions were available,” explains Farrier. “Lots of the key male impersonators were reportedly very careful to manage how they stimulated desires in audiences so that it was socially acceptable, particularly desire from female audiences. Hetty King, for instance, would be quite awful to women who wrote her kind of love letters and wanted to get to know her.”

Actress Hetty King dressed in a man's suit standing with her hands on her hips
c1925: Actress Hetty King dressed in a man's suit. "She would be quite awful to women who wrote her love letters and wanted to get to know her,” says Dr Stephen Farrier. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite this, Farrier draws some parallels between drag kings of today and male impersonators of the past. “Both current kings and male impersonators of the Victorian stage really questioned ideas around masculinity, particularly things like competence and who gets to occupy masculine spaces in our culture,” he says. “The current kings do that often with sex appeal, but Hetty King, for instance, would do it in terms of what I refer to as a drunk toff, you know, singing a song because he’s getting married in the morning, and he’s going to lose his freedom.”

Male impersonators of this time often did not associate with the LGBT+ community as modern drag kings do today

There are also limitations to the current understanding of drag history, explains Dr Amy Tooth Murphy, a lecturer in Oral History at Royal Holloway, University of London. “This is very much an under-examined area among historians,” she says. “Drag has suddenly become very popular in mainstream culture, just over the last few years. It certainly has a very long and important history in queer culture but, like a great deal of queer history and queer culture, it has been overlooked or not deemed ‘important enough’ or ‘appropriate’ for academic study. Luckily, that's changing now and I predict we’ll see a lot more on drag and male impersonation to add to a small but highly significant existing body of work.”

  • What are the challenges of telling LGBT+ history?

It was in 1920s America that male impersonators became more associated with LGBT+ culture. Born in Philadelphia, blues singer Gladys Bentley, known for her masculine attire, was a major figure during a cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s in New York City, which saw an outpouring of culture, theatre, and music by black artists. Though it was not legal at that time, Bentley ‘married’ at least one woman, and was open about her lesbian relationships, though she later claimed to be ‘cured’ of her sexuality by hormone therapy.

Gladys Bentley, dressed in a three-piece suit and top hat, carrying a cane, poses for a photograph
Blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, who was known for her masculine attire. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Also in New York, Stormé DeLarverie (1920–2014) was a drag king performer at the Jewel Box Revue, a touring drag cabaret that catered to a mainstream crowd, from 1955 through to 1969, the year of the Stonewall uprising, which paved the way for modern LGBT+ rights movement. DeLarverie is believed by some to have thrown the ‘first punch’ that precipitated the Stonewall Riots.

“Often seen cutting a debonair figure in a tuxedo or elegant suit, both on and offstage, DeLarverie as she appeared in her Jewel Box days has been compared to actor and singer Harry Belafonte,” says Dr Bloomfield. “DeLarverie’s dashing masculine looks and baritone signing tended to misdirect spectators until she revealed her ‘true’ sex at the end of the show.”

Drag kings became more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, including in New York, Sydney and London, alongside the modern LGBT+ rights movement. Pioneers included Canadian-born Diane Torr, who ran drag king workshops in New York in the 1990s before taking her work to countries in Europe, alongside Turkey and India. In 1980s London, a burgeoning scene took off – recently documented in the film Rebel Dykes – including performer Karen Fisch, who started performing as king Georgie Michael in the 1990s.

Today, drag kings are starting to break into the mainstream. In 2019, drag king Landon Cider won season three of American TV show The Boulet Brothers' Dragula. In the UK meanwhile, drag kings such as Adam All, Chiyo and Prinx Silver are commanding large fanbases. While their origins lie with the male impersonators of the past, these performers are now paving their own unique artistic legacy, one which aims to dismantle the patriarchy and is embedded in LGBT+ culture.

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Ella Braidwood is a freelance journalist with bylines in The Guardian, The Independent, Time Out London, and more. Find her on Twitter @ellabraidwood

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