the Company of Drag Kings
John Waters and Mo B. Dick, August 15, 1997
John Waters: So what's the difference between a drag king and a male impersonator?
Mo B. Dick: Well, I'd say there are four categories. There's the cross-dresser, the butch dyke, the male impersonator, and the drag king. The difference between a male impersonator and a drag king is that, as a male impersonator, it's a specific person that you have to resemble, you know, like old-school drag, like Jimmy James doing Marilyn.
JW: But for women, though, was there ever an old school? I mean, Lily Tomlin's the first one I remember ever being a drag king in a way. Were there drag kings in the '30s, '40s and '50s who did acts?
MBD: Historically, Sarah Bernhardt was basically doing drag, and then there was Ellen Terry. But Joan of Arc was the pioneer drag king. Then there was Rosie the Riveter. In the '50s, there was Storme DeLarverie who ran the Jewel Box Revue, which toured the US. She was the emcee and only male impersonator alongside twenty-five female impersonators. She lives in the Chelsea Hotel - so fierce! Doing drag, it's parody, it's comedy: that, to me, is the crucial element.
JW: I agree with you. But the old-school kind of lesbian that just looked like a man, there seemed to be very little humor involved in that.
MBD: Yeah, then it was cross-dressing. To me, you know, that's not performance. They're not going to get up on a stage and lip-synch a number.
JW: So a drag king, in other words, is an entertainer by definition. Do you ever walk around the streets in drag? Do you ever go out to the store?
MBD: No, no.
JW: Divine never did that either. People always used to think that Divine would get on the subway looking like his character. So it's only your show-biz job, in a way?
MBD: Yeah. I'm a performer.
JW: When you were a kid, did you dress up in your father's clothes?
MBD: No, but I did steal my brother's corduroys.
JW: So it is completely different from being butch?
MBD: Oh, totally. Because I'm not butch.
JW: But you do identify yourself as gay?
MBD: Yes. Queer. Queer-identified - which could be the gamut of anything.
JW: That has more punk connotations.
MBD: Yeah, freak, you know. I don't like to box myself into one thing. But, you know, my roommate's a Tarot-card reader and he keeps saying, 'I see a guy coming. I see a guy coming.'
JW: So, you're not closed down to that idea?
MBD: No, I mean, who knows?
JW: Are straight men turned on to drag kings? I know that drag queens and transsexuals are always chased by men who seem to identify as being straight. And most of the transvestites I know in America have told me that straight men want transvestites to fuck them up the ass, which I find truly . . . I was shocked. But they all tell me that, so it must be true.
MBD: Well, all queens are tops. You know that.
JW: No, I didn't know that. Is that because they have to be for business, if they're professional hookers? That's what I'm talking about: professional 'girls,' street-walking 'girls,' their clients usually want to be fucked. I find it hard, for myself, to imagine getting fucked with a woman's breasts hitting me in the back. That's foreign to me. But that seems to be what chicks-with-dicks hags want. So I'm asking you, is it the reverse? Who is attracted to drag kings, sexually?
MBD: Gay men are. Straight men aren't. Straight men find us threatening. I've had so many straight men say, 'Okay, I get the queen thing, but I don't know about this king thing . . . '
JW: When I was in Provincetown last summer, I went to this club for the first time on a Tuesday night - Space Pussy was playing - and there was a guy there. I wasn't cruising him, but I said, 'God, that boy is so cute,' and much later in the evening I realized it was a girl. And that's the first time that's consciously ever happened to me.
MBD: Really? It happens all the time.
JW: Yeah, yeah. So you get cruised by gay men?
JW: That's great. That's how I first heard of drag kings: I heard they would cruise gay men at Squeezebox in New York, and try to get them to pick them up and then reveal themselves. Is that true? That is the best story I've heard in my life. I want to believe it.
MBD: Who told you that?
JW: I heard it in Squeezebox and, if it's true, it's so good.
MBD: Before people knew who I was, I would definitely go around in drag. I'd be in Squeezebox and guys would definitely cruise me. They would be checking me out, and I would be like, 'Oh my God, okay, wait, I have to get out of this.'
JW: So drag kings then are basically parodying gay men? Or gay fantasy men?
MBD: I don't know. There's a difference here, because on stage I don't always parody a gay man.
JW: Right, you parody a straight man. Then, in some ways, that is the same as drag queens, because they sometimes parody the worst of straight women, like hookers. And gay women sometimes dress like the worst of straight men, like the most tough, macho, blue-collar guys. You know what I mean? Neither actually imitates the best of the opposite sex.
MBD: Right, see I think hookers and blue-collar guys are the sexiest.
JW: Yeah, me too, they're amazing . . . Have a drag king and a drag queen ever fallen in love? Or had sex - for the first time, heterosexually, in reverse? That would be like 'coming in.'
MBD? See, there are so many layers to this. Do you know about the shinjuku boys in Japan? In the movie, Sinjuku Boys, which was shown at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, there's a king and a queen in Japan, and they're in love, they're like married, you know, which is interesting. But, here, no, not so much. Not yet.
JW: But your pack of drag kings has no desire to be men or to have a sex change? that is not something that has ever entered your mind?
JW: The dicks they give in women-to-men sex changes are really bad. You have to put a rod in them to get them up.
MBD: It would be like a big, enlarged clit, I guess. But I like my tits.
JW: So how did you start out being a drag king?
MBD: I was in Provincetown two years ago doing parties with Misstress Formika, New York's premiere punk-rock drag queen, who's been the host of Squeezebox, New York's premiere punk-rock queer party, for three years, and I also met Buster Hymen, who was a drag king.
JW: You were her understudy, or her prot'g'?
MBD: No, no. I saw her, but I was never interested. I was like, 'Oh, I'm too femme to be a drag king.'
JW: So even then you didn't even identify yourself as butch?
MBD: No. I was go-go dancing and being topless and crazy and stuff. But I met all these performers - Nora Burns, Julie Wheeler, Jimmy James - and I was watching them, completely enamored. As a kid, I was always on stage and wanted to be a performer, but I didn't want to do the hokey theater thing.
JW: Oklahoma! wasn't for you.
MBD: I was in Oklahoma! in my senior year of high school.
JW: You were! As a man or a woman?
MBD: I was Aunt Eller - the funny, bawdy, tough matriarch. I was always a character actor.
JW: All right, so how did you get to be a drag king?
MBD: So then I traveled by myself on Amtrak all around America after Provincetown, in the fall of '95, and I saw this article in San Francisco about the drag-king scene there. They had this cover story, and there was a drag king in there who was very femme to begin with and, when I saw the pictures and the transformation, I was like, 'Oh my God, anybody can do it, you don't have to be butch.' So, when I came back here, I went over to Misstress Formika's house, with my hair slicked back, dressed in drag.
JW: This was the first time you were in drag?
MBD: Yes. I was just like, what the hell, why not? So I said to Misstress, 'Oh my God, help me get in drag . . .'
JW: Were you friends with drag queens before? Were you a drag hag?
MBD: Fag-drag, fag-hag, yeah, totally. So I had this handful of hair and this really butch outfit. And I was like, 'Help me.' And Misstress was like, 'Girl, you're crazy. What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Come on, come on, come on. Help me.' I totally talked him into it. he only had eyelash glue. So I went to Meow Mix, which is, you know, the dyke bar in the East Village. I went there in drag and people were like, 'Mo, is that you?' They didn't recognize me. They were totally astonished.
JW: That was your drag debut?
MBD: Right, and I had a bowling shirt on that said 'Dick.' My names' always been Mo, so it just kind of became Mo B. Dick as a natural extension.
JW: So then how did it become a showbiz thing?
MBD: Misstress and I were doing different parties, trying to make money, you know, and I had this idea, 'Let's do a drag-king party.' So I came up with the name, Club Casanova, and the parties started in March of '96.
JW: When did you first become Mo B. Dick?
MBD: December of '95.
JW: How did the character start?
MBD: I kept going out in drag.
JW: The same drag or different drag?
MBD: Different. I was a sailor one night. Like a sleazy sailor, I went to Jackie 60 and I was smacking boys around and they were smacking me around . . .
JW: You were 'trade.' that's what you were. Male trade. That's a good one. A woman dressed as male trade. That's very sexy. It's confusing. See, to me, sex is always the best when you're confused. And you say it still scares people, right?
MBD: Yes, it is confusing. In Provincetown I'm handing out flyers in drag, saying, 'It's a drag-king show,' and they're looking at me and saying, 'What? Are you a man or a woman?' So then the parties started and my character was still not fully defined. I was still searching. I was trying out a lot of different personalities.
JW: You were voguing in reverse.
MBD: The birth of my character came when they asked me to perform at Slimelight, as I used to call it - the Limelight - at the 1996 New York Lesbian and gay Experimental Film Benefit. So I did this whole piece, this monologue about films and Pamela Anderson Lee and Showgirls: 'Beautiful tits, those girls are real actors. I'd put them in all my films.' I was just a schmuck, but I was feigning sickness through the whole thing. Then I fell tot he floor after the monologue, put these wings on and this headgear with these big eyes, and lip-synched the song Human Fly, you know, by the Cramps. So the subtext of that was that men like this are pests. But then when you really look at the pests, they have survived for centuries. So what are you gonna do? Instead of being an angry woman, I chose to become a funny man.
JW: That's good. I mean, I understand that.
MBD: Because of the way I look, too, I get hassled all the time. I get, 'Hey baby, nice hooters,' and all that.
JW: Now, tell me, do your parents know you're a drag king?
MBD: I finally told them last year at Thanksgiving time.
JW: That must have been nice for them. So what happened?
MBD: I told them first over the phone.
JW: Did they even know you were gay?
MBD: Yeah, but they didn't talk about it. I didn't tell them. My mothers' a spy and she found out. She came up to new York and took my brother, Danny, who lives here, out to lunch, and said, 'So is Mo with woman.?' I was living with my girlfriend at the time. They were all upset and everything. This was the summer of '94.
JW: And how long had you been so-called out of the closet?
MBD: Officially since the summer of '93. But I had wanted to be with women since I was twenty-one. I was going to school in Paris when I had my first encounter with a lesbian. She drove me wild with lust!
JW: So how did you say it? 'Mom, happy Thanksgiving, I'm a drag king.'
MBD: Well, I called them. I don't come home and see them often because I'm their science project - they just look at me.
JW: You should learn to get along. you will. I always say that to transsexuals who come over to me at autograph signings. They're complete attitude and they're standing in line in full regalia, and I say, 'Thank you so much for coming. Have you called your parents recently? You really should.' And it all melts. They lose it. From the top of their heads to the bottom of their feet, their act is ruined - which I don't mean to do. It's just that they could make up with their parents. Divine did and they can too.
MBD: My father and I get along great. I adore my father. He laughs his ass off at me. My mother will never be able to understand me.
JW: They don't have to understand to be friends.
MBD: Well, she's just a weird bird.
JW: So how did you tell them?
MBD: God, I can't remember exactly. I said, 'Mom, I've got to tell you something I'm doing. I'm getting a lot of notoriety, a lot of press, and I thought I'd let you know now, before you find out somewhere else.' And she was like, 'Oh, okay, what?' So I said, 'Well, you know, I'm a performer, and the kind of performing I do is unusual,' and, you know, that kind of roundabout stuff. And she said, 'weeelll, send me an article and some pictures.' then, after Thanksgiving, we all had lunch and sat down and talked. My father wouldn't look at me. He's like my hero, he adores me, I could do no wrong in his eyes. So finally I tell him, 'You know, from a feminist perspective, this is what I'm doing . . .' And he got it. I told him the stories, told him about the birth of my character, told him some of the things I've done, some of the performance pieces, and he loved it. he was laughing his ass off. My mother as like, 'Weeelll, you never cease to surprise me.'
JW: Well, that's all right. What can you expect her to say, really? You know, if everyone else is scared, why shouldn't she be?
MBD: Yeah, but my father, he says, 'Can I come and see you perform?' God bless him.
JW: So drag kings get along with their dads and drag queens get along with their moms. That's the clich'. Maybe it's true.
MBD: Right, right.
JW: Your family is very well-known in the sports world in Baltimore, where I live, which I didn't know until today and find completely amazing.
MBD: Yeah, and Gino Marchetti is my godfather.
JW: They were Baltimore Colts, your whole family.
MBD: Yeah. But I grew up in the very Catholic northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia commonly called the Main Line - a very snooty, white bourgeois area, the setting for The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. My parents are still there. They work in the restaurant business, and I'm the youngest of ten kids. I am the gay statistic: one in ten.
JW: Now, what's a drag king beauty tip? How do you do it all? Facial hair, you use what?
MBD: Crepe hair. It's not like human hair. Human hair is more fine and silky and doesn't stick very well. You can get it from costume shops. I cut it up in small pieces. Generally I do a mustache and a little goatee.
JW: Fu Manchu?
MBD: Yeah, and sideburns.
JW: And how about with your body?
MBD: Strap my tits down. I use an Ace bandage and a jogging bra to hold it in place. And then I strap on a dildo.
JW: In your pants?
MBD: I wear one all the time when I'm in drag. And I hang to the left.
JW: Is it an erect dildo?
JW: They don't have soft dildos, do they?
MBD: They don't call me Mr. Dick for nothing, right?
JW: That's true. Have your parents ever actually seen you in drag?
MBD: No. That would be probably the one and only time I would not wear a dildo.
JW: That's very touching. I won't let my parents see Pink Flamingos either. Same reason.
MBD: They've never?
JW: No, and my father gave me the money to make it. I paid him back with interest. Why make my eighty-year-old father watch Glenn Milstead, who was my neighbor when I was growing up, whom he knew, and who was really Divine, wearing a dress an blowing somebody eating dog shit? You know, they don't make me watch Forrest Gump either, or go to ball games anymore. So it's fair. They don't make me do the things that I would be nauseated by. Now, tell me, drag kings aren't separatists at all?
MBD: Separatists? How so?
JW: You know, like old-school feminists that hate men? Drag kings love men. I mean they're not anti-men at all?
MBD: No, no, not at all. in a weird and comical way, we are honoring men. I think the gay and lesbian community is very segregated, and I can't stand that.
JW: I don't like it either. That's why I like Squeezebox. that's why I like drag kings. I think there should be straight people at the clubs too.
MBD: When you go to Club Casanova, it's a complete mixture of people - dykes, fags, hets, dudes, chicks, freaks, etc. All are welcome. It's one of the few women's parties that freely and comfortably allows men in. And from Sunday to Sunday it's a different crowd.
JW: I have a dear friend Chris Mason, who ran a dyke bar in Baltimore a long time ago, and all of her customers would give her shit for letting me in. lesbian stopped my lesbian film, Desperate Living, from being shown at the Orson Welles Theater in Boston, when it came out in 1977.
JW: How dare a man make fun of lesbians? Today I go to the colleges and the young cool dykes are in the front row; they're the biggest fans of that movie. it's gone 180 degrees in this amount of time.
MBD: Yeah, that's the younger crowd. The older dykes don't get us. They're like, 'If I wanted to be with a man, I'd be with a man.'
JW: There's a bar that I love to go to in Baltimore - I always used to take Debbie Harry there - where there are really old-school lesbians who look like Johnny Cash, slow-dancing with hillbilly women with beehives who left their husbands because their husbands beat them up, and now the dykes beat them up. There's not really a lot of difference from a straight redneck bar, but it sure is more interesting to me.
But it seems to me that the drag-king thing is not that world at all. This is a new generation of hip lesbians. Could drag kings have happened ten years ago in the feminist movement?
JW: But you're saying that the drag king thing did start from feminism?
MBD: For me, it did. Absolutely. When I walk down the street as a woman, I get hassled all the time. When I'm wearing a dildo, being Mo B. Dick, I don't condone that behavior, but I can understand it. Because I've got a hard-on, all of my energy is going toward this dick. it's like 'Feed me, do me, get over here.' So I can understand where men come from and why they behave that way.
JW: Well, straight men love lesbians. It's their top fantasy. I mean, in Hollywood, every movie star wants two women. 'I'll give you what you really need.' Which is not what the women really need, but men think it is.
MBD: Right. Sure. Well, look at the porno mags, come on . . . But you know what, John? Here's an interesting thing: We white drag kings are parodying men and are slanderous to that particular type of man. Whereas you look at the black drag kings in New York, and they feel less comfortable being negative about black men. There's too much negativity going around as it is. So they're more positive.
JW: Yes, you can be as mean as you want about white straight men and it's fair because they're the top power group. Now, in jail, there are definitely drag kings. But they're more like male impersonators.
JW: Oh my God, I have a friend, a woman in jail I've visited for fifteen years, and in the visiting room I've seen some of the scariest-looking women who would make you as Mo B. Dick look like Chelsea Clinton.
MBD: Why do you say they're male impersonators?
JW: Because they look like men and they're the butch ones in all the relationships. They are the men in prison. That is their role. They completely identify with the butch man. It's complicated, though. And that's why the new drag kings scare people, because they can't quite fit into the sexual stereotype. Would you say that gay men find it easier to accept drag kings?
MBD: Yeah, totally. but then they get very frustrated. They come up to me and say, 'God damn it, I was cruising you and then I just found out who you are.'
JW: That's a good review.
MBD: They'll come to my party and be so frustrated they'll walk out and say, 'I don't know who the fuck is who. I gotta get out of here.'
JW: So where do you want to take this? Vegas? Do you plan to have a show-business career?
MBD: Yes. Or film. Doing Provincetown spurred me to take this on the road more. San Francisco has been screaming for me; they're dying for me to come out there.
JW: So there is a whole movement? A whole scene?
MBD: Totally. And I'm the leader of it.
JW: So you're a cult leader. Can you get them to kill for you? Can you get them to take poisoned Kool-Aid? Are you truly a cult leader? Will you send them out to murder competing drag kings in San Francisco?
MBD: Start a revolution!
JW: Drag-King Skelter. Have you had any social disasters as a drag king? When you go to clubs, do you leave the house dressed as Mo B. Dick? Do your neighbors do double takes? Or are you like Superman - do you change in a phone booth on the way?
MBD: Kids laugh at me. And I get people on the street saying, 'Hey, Elvis!' because my hair's in a pompadour.
JW: but you don't have a doorman to deal with?
JW: That's good. No one saying, 'Who the hell are you?'
MBD: The neighbors definitely stare at me and my super . . .
JW: So he knows?
MBD: Uh-huh. And I tell people, you know. I'm friends with people in the building and I'll show them articles: 'Hey, I'm in Time Out, I'm in this, I'm in that.'
JW: But you've never, as Mo B. Dick, just gone out on your own to pass as a man in the world?
MBD: No, I haven't come on to a straight chick.
JW: Or had sex with a straight chick - which you could without her knowing.
MBD: Oh, she would know.
JW: Not if you just performed oral sex. There have been marriages where they claim that they've been married twenty years and . . . I mean, have you ever been tempted to see how far you could pass? You've never been into a redneck bar as Mo B. Dick and tried to get laid and see what happens? Would that be the final drag king terrorism act?
MBD: Right. It would be great fun.
JW: Or a safer way would be terrorism against a man. Get a gay man to go home with you and then right when it happens, reveal. Sparks would fly out, like when the wicked witch tried to touch Dorothy's shoes.
Like in The Crying Game. But I haven't taken it that far, because I'll
play with people's minds but not their hearts.