I asked my drag king buddy, Herbie Hind, if he would apply my beard makeup before I made my stage debut as a man. Herbie offered to advise me, but said I must take responsibility for my own facial hair: "It's your beard, so you should own it." What sweet irony, considering how much I've spent on electrolysis over the years to get rid of my beard.
For Human Guinea Pig, a column in which I do things that readers are too well-adjusted to try themselves, I have subjected myself, and innocent audience members, to many excruciating performances. I have been a street musician, a beauty pageant contestant, a song recitalist, and, most appallingly, a children's party entertainer. But none of these brought as much psychological stress—and revelation—to my family or me as cross-dressing as my alter ego, Johnson Manly, and performing in a drag show.
Watch the video of Emily's performance as "Johnson Manly"
I was familiar with drag queens—men who dress flamboyantly as women for shows or events, but I wasn't aware of a complementary drag king culture until a Slate colleague suggested I enter it. I quickly found the D.C. Kings, founded in 2000, which bills itself as "The World's Longest Running Drag King Troupe." The first thing that struck me when looking at their Web site was that drag kings are nice girls. "[W]e are extremely supportive of one another," they promised. "We are here for you and we want you to have fun."
Their shows—consisting of 10 individual or paired-up performers lip syncing to popular songs—occur twice a month. To get on the roster, all I had to do was attend their monthly meeting. There were about 18 of us, a mixed-race group mostly in their 20s and 30s. Some were feminine-looking women with long hair and makeup. Some were clearly female but with short haircuts and mannish clothes. Some just looked like men.
The meeting was run by the troupe's founder, Ken Vegas, 34, a graphic designer whose real name is Kendra Kuliga. Ken (I will refer to people by their preferred names and pronouns—usually male) began the meeting by suggesting we all introduce ourselves by giving our names, astrological signs, and packing preferences. This last item does not mean Styrofoam versus bubble wrap, but what kings like to put in their pants as a simulated phallus. The answers ranged from socks, to Mr. Bendy, to half an apple.
At the meeting, Herbie, 23, volunteered to be my guide. He is stout, has a blond crew cut, and describes himself as a "non-op female-body transgender person"—essentially a lesbian who identifies as a male but is not doing anything surgically about it. Each day, he packs and wears what's known as a compression shirt to bind his breasts. "I call it 'manning up,' " he explained.
Herbie was full of helpful advice. He told me about the special pancake makeup and stipple brush applicator I needed for my beard. He suggested I try shopping in the men's department at thrift stores. Most important: My package needed to be in good and tight. Other drag kings had tales of wandering packages that embarrassingly ended up in the toilet or around the ankle. And wearing the package would rapidly help my transition. "You'll understand why guys are always grabbing their crotches," Herbie explained.
I also had to choose a song and pick a stage name and persona. Strangely, I didn't have to do much thinking. Bubbling up from my subconscious came the name Johnson Manly. I also immediately knew that Tom Jones was the man I would model myself on, and whose music I would perform. For decades, I have wanted to be with Tom Jones. Since that will never happen, I figured I might as well be Tom Jones.
My first order of business from Herbie: Start watching men around me, squaring up my shoulders, and walking in a relaxed state—leading with my package. "Men don't care, they just move. Women are much more intentional," Herbie instructed.
I promptly ordered the three-disc set of This Is Tom Jones, Tom's 1969-70 television show, and studied Tom's moves with the same intensity as I did when I was a pubescent fan. There was only one song that made sense for me to do: his theme, It's Not Unusual.
Although my daughter, now 12, has accompanied me on many previous Human Guinea Pig adventures, I tried to protect her from this one. But I had to explain my Tom Jones imitations in the living room. I told her that I was going to be in a show where women dressed up as men and performed to recorded songs. She made a disgusted face and then looked alarmed.
"Mom, I don't have to go as your son, do I?" she asked. I assured her she didn't have to be a drag prince.
One night, after my daughter went to bed, I decided to pack. I took a wash cloth, rolled it up, and stuck it out the left leg hole of my underpants. In the 20th lecture in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud writes, "Of little girls we know that they feel themselves heavily handicapped by the absence of a large visible penis and envy the boy's possession of it; from this source primarily springs the wish to be a man. …" I don't want to say the much-maligned Herr Doktor was right, but there was something revelatory about walking around with this cotton appendage. I suddenly felt I wasn't alone in the world. I now had a secret friend nestled by my leg, giving me strength and encouragement.
I asked my husband if I was right about this, and he nodded yes. "No wonder you guys are always checking to make sure it's still there," I said.
It was time for me to shop. Thrift shops did not carry clothing for men my size, and I wanted to look sharp. So I went to Lord & Taylor and cruised the men's department. Even their smallest jackets made me look like I was dressing up as my father. On to the children's department. I picked up a navy pin-stripe suit on sale in the boy's section, along with a blue dress shirt. I then came face to face with my favorite saleswoman, a regal lady in her 70s who knows my daughter and me. "Well, hello!" she said. Seeing I was alone, yet heading to the dressing room with boys' clothes, she looked confused. I silently ran into the fitting room. The size 18 jacket was perfect, but I couldn't get the pants over my hips. I snuck out and found some jeans I could barely button. By the time I was finished, my saleslady, thankfully, was on break.
Next up: undergarments. At a sporting-goods store, I bought a sports bra a size too small that did the job, although wearing it was about as much fun as a mammogram. For safety's sake, I decided to tuck my washcloth into an athletic cup. I had no idea where they were, so I asked a saleswoman for the jock straps. She replied in an Eastern European accent, "What is?"
"Supporter," I tried.
"For foot?" she asked.
"No, for …" and I circled my hands around my crotch. She directed me to the lower level, where I was stunned by the choices of sacs and slings, some with detachable hard cups. Making sure no one was around, I stepped into one and pulled it up to make sure it fit over my hips. It had a secure-looking kangaroo-type pouch. Maybe I could slip my cell phone in it and set it to vibrate.
It was now the weekend before my Wednesday performance, and Herbie came over to the house to give me some coaching. I told my daughter to do something in her room while I rehearsed, then I slicked my hair back, got dressed, and patted on my beard. Before I practiced in the living room, I went to get something in my office, and found my daughter sitting at my computer. She let out a little yelp when she saw me. "Oh Mom, I thought you were a burglar!" she said.
Herbie told me I was too tentative. "Use your shoulders, big arm movement. Women dance with their hips, men dance with their arms. Bring your chest up. You think you should hide your chest, but men have big chests and they show them." By this time the music had drawn my husband and daughter down to watch my performance. They were both wide-eyed and slack-jawed at my transformation.
After Herbie left and I washed off my beard, my daughter came to me, upset. She hated seeing me trying to be a man. I reassured her that I wasn't doing it because it came from a desire within me; it was an experiment for work, like being an actress. Then I brought her over to the computer and we looked up the drag photos of Rudy Giuliani. "Look, this man could be president of the United States," I told her as she stared, repelled, at the sight of Rudy looking like Dame Edna. My daughter was both appalled and somehow mollified.
But her reaction that I was a burglar was right, too. I was robbing her of her safe assumptions about who her mother was. Before I was turned in to social services, I turned to Carl Jung. He believed each person has within them elements of the opposite sex. For men, it's the anima; for women, the animus. To reach true maturity, one must accept and integrate these shadow parts. As he wrote, "Thus the animus is a psychopomp, a mediator between the conscious and unconscious … the animus gives to woman's consciousness a capacity for reflection, deliberation, and self-knowledge." I felt so much better knowing Johnson Manly wasn't just a little guy with a washcloth in his shorts, but my psychopomp.
It was time to take the subway to the show. I dressed at home—it was one time I was going somewhere special that I didn't have to worry about shaving my legs or underarms. I stuffed my washcloth in my jock strap but decided to put on my beard at the club.
At the club, Herbie supervised my beard application, then I started penciling in my eyebrows. I had a heavy hand and quickly went from Tom Jones to Groucho Marx before Herbie toned down my brows. A man (I think) who worked at the club kept passing by, and finally said to me, "Where are your sideburns?" I drew those on. That I now had a beard seemed less important than the fact that I was out in public without eye makeup. Surveying my drag colleagues' final results, I realized that though real bearded ladies are sad and pitiable, women with fake beards make attractive men—some more convincing than others. Ken, the troupe leader, exuded masculine energy as he surveyed his domain, moving around propelled by his broad shoulders.
It was showtime. Because of bad weather the crowd was sparse, down two-thirds from the usual 75 spectators. As I waited for my turn, I tried to rehearse my Tom moves, my pumping shoulders, my thrusting pelvis. I felt strangely calm—the song was exactly two minutes long, and I knew both the audience and I could last that long. Then the announcer said Johnson Manly was making his drag king debut, the music started, and I was onstage. I was trying to keep so many thoughts in my head: "Be a man," "You're the cock of the walk," "Johnson, you're Tom Jones, the ladies love you." But mostly I couldn't remember my choreography, and as I flailed my arms I felt less like a sex symbol than a flapping chicken (not even a rooster) with facial hair. The audience, as promised, was supportive, and they handed me dollar bills (seven of them!) during the show and cheered when I finished.
I came off the stage, and the other kings, like the girls they were, patted my back, gave me thumbs up, and said I was "awesome" and "fantastic." For a reality check, I went over to Andy Bouvé, Slate V's cameraman, who was there to capture the show. "So how was I?" I asked. In his blunt male way he looked at me quizzically and shrugged.
In her fascinating book Self-Made Man, journalist Norah Vincent describes her 18 months passing as a man. At the end of her experiment, Vincent checked herself into a locked psychiatric ward. I knew if my experiment went on any longer, someone in my family would need hospitalization. So my brief life as a man was over—it was time to say goodbye to Johnson. I came home, undressed, and unpacked. I put my jockstrap in my husband's closet, unrolled my washcloth, and tossed it in the hamper. I still have a thing for Tom Jones.