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.