How Hackney’s ‘drag king’ scene is a stage for the equality fight

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild, photo Peter Fingleton

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild, photo Peter Fingleton - Credit: Archant

Drag queens often grace stages and screens, but far less frequently do we see ‘drag kings’ – women who don men’s threads and paint their faces to cross the gender divide in the other direction. But a Dalston pub is helping change that.

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild - Credit: Archant

For Zoe Wild, getting up on stage dressed up as alter ego Richard von Wild is a way to forget her worries and overcome her anxiety.

She’d never heard of a “drag king” until a few years ago – but she won the Lip Sync For Your Life competition at Bar Revenge in Brighton in April, and now she’s competing in Shoreditch pub The Glory’s Man Up contest for a £1,000 prize.

One of three contestants in the first heat last week, she’s through to the next round in the show, which is trying to raise the profile of the lesser-known drag phenomenon.

While queens command substantial sums on the performance circuit, just like in the world of work there is inequality for their female counterparts dressing up as men, and “kings” struggle to find bookings with as much ease.

Zoe Wild

Zoe Wild - Credit: Archant

Zoe has found herself happily inundated with work, however, just a year and a half after she started on the scene, juggling her day job as a health and safety advisor with her performances.

The 22-year-old, of Finsbury Park, stumbled upon the phenomenon of drag kings on the web by chance, and decided to try doing the make-up herself after finding online tutorials from Spikey Van Dykey and Landon Cider. She enthused: “I kept watching more videos of them and I thought it was amazing – the make-up artistry, and the fact you can go onstage and become this character you probably wouldn’t during the day.”

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Although Zoe has shortened her make-up routine, it still takes her an hour and a half to get Richard’s facial contours, eyebrows, beard and hair just right.

“I’ve learned how to get that masculine sort of shape with the contour,” she told the Gazette. “Female cheekbones are set a little bit differently from male ones, and the shape and shadow of their faces are different.

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild

Zoe Wild, aka Richard von Wild - Credit: Archant

“I obviously base it around my own features – I try and widen my nose or make my cheekbones slightly higher, redo my hairline with eye shadow, or make my forehead look bigger.”

She met Adam All, one of London’s most high-profile performers within the “drag kingdom”, at his event Boi Box, and he took her “under his wing”.

“I love it,” said Zoe, “but I’m not one of those people who say I never wear dresses. I like being feminine.

“I know Richard is just a fake character. It took me a while to realise what I wanted from drag.

“I was getting anxiety and drag was helping me alleviate that. Whenever I went on stage with Richard I was able to forget it all.

“It was like a made-up life that I created. I could be on for three minutes or half an hour but while I’m on stage I’m in character, and when I come off stage I’m Zoe again.

“There is definitely still a split between drag kings and queens, but we are always fighting that barrier. We want to be on equal terms, purely because it’s fair.

“I really do think it will be as popular. If I’ve been to watch a drag king show, where kings perform with queens, the audience say it’s amazing to see a drag king because we always see queens.

“But we are here. We are starting to break it down.”

Man Up runs at 8pm every Wednesday The Glory in Kingsland Road until the grand final on June 15, hosted by Jonny Woo and a different drag star each week.