Pecs, the all female drag king collective, are some of our heroes. Ever since the project began in 2013, we’ve wanted to know more. After their sell-out run of The 80s show last month, we got in touch and finally got to ask them all about their world.
Through all singing and all dancing shows and sketches, they throw apart all our preconceptions of gender and explore all of its performance. Blokes such as ‘Drag King Cole’ or ‘Thrustin Limbersnake’ show us drag that’s both “a serious form of protest and the greatest form of entertainment”, making for a show that is not only hilariously funny but equally vital in the political climate.
We got rough n’ ready with this handsome gang and asked them all about drag in 2017.
What was the drag scene like when you started in 2013? In the four years that you have been performing, what would you say has been the biggest change?
It’s hard to tell – when we started, we had never seen a drag king show, and weren’t really part of the queer cabaret drag scene. We watched a few performances online of Drag Kings in America but our show was primarily born out of curiosity. There may have been a lot of Drag Kings around that we didn’t know about but, at the time, we were creating something that we thought didn’t yet exist in London.
I don’t think you can miss Kings now though! As we’ve been performing and got to know the scene, there has definitely been a huge growth in UK Drag King culture, with regular nights like Boi Box, Drag King Bonanzas at Bar Wotever, and awesome performers like (shout-outs!) Chiyo Gomes, Benjamin Butch, Adam All, Sammy Silver, Manly Stanley and Gorgeous Michael.
Have you ever chosen to modify your act in any way to reflect these changes?
Well, the biggest change we’ve made in the last few years is to get more political, which is more a reflection of the times, rather than anything to do with the cabaret scene. For example, when we first started Cesar Jentley (our compere) was a bit of a misogynist, a bit of a homophobe, and his comedy felt dangerous for that reason. It felt like we were both satirising and humanising what feminism was fighting against by presenting him as a woman in drag. At the time, that felt really powerful. But now, when many of our political leaders are outright bigots, that no longer feels illuminating or even funny. We’re now much more interested in using our shows to inspire action and hope against such forces, as well as continuing to arouse and entertain our audiences along the way.
Can you share any ‘breakthrough’ moments you have had during a show, where you’ve really felt that ‘YES, we are really achieving what we set out to do here’?
To be honest, our biggest breakthroughs have probably been during the creation of The 80’s Show, our latest production. Up until that show, we’d be working together for three years, experimenting with the form, trying stuff out, and inevitably having a lot of hits and misses, whereas with The 80’s Show we felt like we achieved exactly what we had set out to do – in this case, to inspire hope and new forms of activism. People came up to us after and said, almost verbatim, exactly what we aimed to inspire. It was an amazing feeling.
Let’s talk about the 80s show! What was the reason for taking us back to the 80s?
It was pretty much a gut response to the political changes that we went through in 2016; a reaction against Brexit, against the election of Donald Trump and to the rise of open xenophobia, transphobia and racism that ensued. We looked back at the 80’s and we saw so many parallels between the conservatism then and the encroaching rise of fascism that we were facing at the beginning of last year. There were so many activist movements that resisted and fought the power then, so The 80’s felt like an incredible time to draw upon to inspire people to action.
We also lost so many queer icons in 2016 that were powerhouses of the 80’s, artists like David Bowie, George Michael and Prince. It felt like a fitting politically and the perfect platform to tribute to performers that we had loved and lost in that year.
We didn’t want it to be a nostalgia-fest though, we wanted it to be a joyful, political call to arms- and I think we achieved that.
Who – past and present – have been your drag influences and biggest inspirations?
Jack Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity (written as Judith Halberstam) was a huge influence when we first started, particularly the chapter on Drag Kings. It’s such an iconic book, anyone interested in gender-queerness should get a copy.
The male impersonators of the Victorian Music Hall are also a great inspiration, particularly as depicted by Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, which we love so much we made an homage show called ‘Tipping the Top Hat’ at Ugly Duck back in 2015!
But I think we’re most influenced by contemporary Drag King performers. We mentioned a few earlier but Chiyo Gomes and Benjamin Butch are particular heroes. The acts that they’re creating with sound collages really inspire us and helped us to realise a lot of what we wanted to achieve politically with The 80’s show.
In your opinion, why do you think drag queens are more common in mainstream media than drag kings?
I think there are a lot of reasons but the most significant one is probably that masculinity is perceived as ‘normative’. It’s kind of taken to be the standard model of being. Whereas femininity is seen as an inherently more theatrical mode of gender performance.
Jack Halberstam expresses this really well in Female Masculinity. He talks about how, before puberty, when girls act like ‘tomboys’, their behaviour is deemed as normal and acceptable, in a way that boys who ‘act like girls’ when they are young are very much not.
Think of the times that, at fancy dress parties, all a cis-het-man needs to do is put on a dress to make everyone laugh! I think that has a lot to do with the inherent ‘otherness’ of femininity and the perceived theatricality of it. Whereas, when we first mentioned to someone that we were creating a drag show, a bemused friend asked me ‘What are you going to do? Wear…. Clothes?’
Yes, it’s not unusual for women to wear trousers. But Drag is so much more than what you wear and masculinity is just as much a performance of gender as femininity is. Anyone who comes to our shows gets to see that, revel in that even! But I think the mainstream media and, indeed, western culture often fails to recognise that, because of the perceived norms that patriarchy has given us. Hopefully, the shows we make can work to change that.
What do you think about mainstream drag culture? The TV series Ru Paul’s drag race has brought drag very much into the mainstream, but perhaps could be criticised for not being inclusive. What are your thoughts?
We have a lot of respect for Ru Paul and his suggestion that “we are born naked and everything else is drag”, it’s such an illuminating sound byte. The thinking behind that phrase is central to Pecs’ work. The belief that gender is a social construct is integral to our shows, and drag, at its best, can show that everyone performs their gender. But we should feel liberated to present our glitteringly multiplicitous identities in whatever way we choose.
Catch Pecs’ show at Brainchild Festival this year, closing The Forum on the Saturday night – we cannot wait. In the meantime, they’re doing lots of workshops and parties, check out their Facebook page and keep up to date.