King of the stage

 

By Esther Tung

Drag king performer Ponyboy stays gold by breaking traditional ideas of gender identities and norms

When Paige Frewer puts on a fake moustache and takes the spotlight, she becomes Ponyboy, the ladies’ man who isn’t afraid of doing a little work to win your admiration. Often, that work involves stripping down to skivvies to a Bobby Darin number. Other times, Frewer dons a long, brown wig and trades in her chest binder for a push-up bra to host Man Up, a monthly drag king show.

Drag performers like Frewer make a real show out of gender and its boundaries. “Drag mocks the theatre and performance of gender,” she says. Frewer, who is set to graduate from SFU this semester with a bachelor’s in environmental science and a minor in dialogue, has been a drag king for over four years.

Like drag queens, drag kings are campy and over-the-top in their performances. Queens make decadent use of lewdness and vulgarity while in character, and drag kings might employ the machismo and swagger of a tough guy. Frewer tries to balance those representations with more admirable aspects of masculinity. “Chivalry and cuteness, for instance,” says Frewer. “Masculine drag doesn’t always necessarily put forth the message that masculinity is inherently bad or disrespectful, because it’s not.”

On the other hand, it can be rare to see a drag queen performance that doesn’t primarily get by on ribaldry and sass, although drag kings certainly have less pressure to have a high-energy act all the time. “I don’t look all that much different in my normal life than in drag, except for the moustache. But it’s a huge production for a man to transform into a woman. He has to shave, wear a wig, and all that crazy makeup. It does make a point about how we present ourselves as women and go through all these crazy lengths to express our femininity,” says Frewer.

Her first performance was at Lick, as part of a birthday party that she threw there. At the time, the drag king scene was tapering off in popularity, and most people hadn’t seen any performances in awhile. Sammy Tomato, another king, approached Frewer to create a four-person collective to put together a regular show to rejuvenate the scene. Man Up enjoyed some popularity in its early years, but didn’t take off until it moved to the Cobalt, just months before Lick closed down.

Frewer has held drag king workshops leading up to the Fruit Basket queer variety show in IGNITE, a youth-drive talent festival at the Cultch. Over a weekend, Frewer prepped her class of teenagers on drag history, and helped them put together a number to perform in front of the group. “The fact that these kids are involved with Fruit Basket is a testament to their gender and sexuality politics,” says Frewer.

Man Up, which celebrated its fourth anniversary this past weekend, sells out more often than not, despite minimal advertising. Frewer, who produces, promotes, and books all the shows, says that the biggest selling point is word-of-mouth. Surprisingly, Vancouver has one of the most developed drag king scenes in the region. On a road trip to Mexico last year, Frewer was disappointed and surprised that she couldn’t find a single drag king show in the cities she visited, not even in progressive San Francisco.

“There were cities that didn’t even have a women’s bar. San Francisco has one, but they weren’t open some nights,” says Frewer. She hopes that Vancouver might come to be a trendsetter in other cities. “I’ve seen the effect of Man Up far beyond just creating a safe space for women to party in and see a great show. This is a place where straight couples will come on a date night, and cross-dress. There are all different colours, sizes, abilities, and backgrounds at the show. It’s really become so much more than I thought it would.”

Man Up shows at the Cobalt every last Saturday of the month.

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