Lights flash and women cheer as El Pachuco takes the stage for his encore performance. He scowls at the crowd as he grabs the microphone. When he opens his mouth, Denis Leary's voice breaks out above the applause.
“Folks, I'd like to sing a song about the American dream,” begins a lip-synching Pachuco. By this point in the evening, Pachuco has already done Frank Sinatra, Mike from A Chorus Line and a very gay performance of Cake's version of “I Will Survive.” But that's all behind him now, and for this last act, he's just an asshole.
“I'm just a regular Joe with a regular job; I'm your average white suburbanite slob,” Pachuco growls, and the way he spits out the words, you'd swear he was actually singing. The crowd is hanging on every word and cheering the off-color lyrics.
“And when I'm done suckin' down those greaseball burgers, I'm gonna wipe my mouth with the American flag,” sneers Pachuco, grimacing as he grabs his crotch for punctuation. Crumpled bills rain down around him.
“I'm an asshole, and I'm proud of it!” Pachuco crows, finishing his act with a flourish. He stalks off the stage without a backward glance.
Just another night at the lesbian bar for El Pachuco, Chest Rockwell and Evan Longwood, the three drag kings who performed that Wednesday night at Six Degrees, a Midtown bar.
The three are all members of the San Diego Kings Club, a local drag-king troupe begun by Rockwell in 2000. A nine-member troupe, two of the kings live outside of San Diego. The remaining seven keep themselves busy performing at Six Degrees every week, in addition to frequent gay-community fundraisers and Pride events around Southern California.
James Bondage has been with the Kings for more than two years. Specializing in Adam Sandler impersonations, she claims to have no musical talent and says she likes being a King because it makes her feel like a rock star. But Bondage also has the added distinction of being the only member of the Kings Club married to a man.
While it may be surprising that someone who delights in male impersonation could also be straight, none of the kings actually identifies as a lesbian. Most of them prefer to use the more expansive term “queer,” and Evan Longwood identifies as a straight man. You might find these distinctions irrelevant. The kings don't. They want to confront the common misconception that drag has an inherent sexuality attached.
Bondage says people are often disappointed when they learn the truth about her sexual orientation. She cites as an example a volunteer at this year's Pride event who approached her and grilled her on how she identified herself, demanding to know how Bondage could perform in drag and still be married to a man.
“How is it so inconceivable?” Bondage asks. “I just have to be faithful to be married and do drag at the same time.”
Randy Shaft, younger than most of the Kings and relatively new to the troupe, agrees that nobody should be excluded from the drag experience on account of their sexuality.
“You don't have to be a butch lesbian. I don't consider myself a butch lesbian,” Shaft explains. Her voice trails off as she attempts to describe herself.
“I'm just sort of a-a something. I don't know, I'm a person, I suppose,” says Shaft. “I'm a person and a woman, and I'm a man!
“I don't know-it's complicated.”
The idea for the Kings Club was conceived when Rockwell discovered a gift for male impersonation and lyrical accuracy during a monthly employee lip-synch contest at Club Bombay. Immediately hooked on drag, Rockwell found herself itching to perform more often. As she describes it, it was only a matter of time before she was performing in drag at Lips-a restaurant and bar that's the home stage for many of San Diego's most prominent drag queens-as often as three times a week.
But tensions began running high between the many queens and the single king, and Rockwell decided to look for a different venue where she and other drag kings could thrive. After cajoling her boss for close to a year, Rockwell eventually started a weekly amateur drag-king contest at the Flame.
In the early days, each week's winning king won a $50 prize, which provided an incentive for shy, aspiring kings to overcome their skittishness about performing. Now that the group is well established, they have abandoned the contest format in favor of an open drag platform that welcomes participants of all genders and sexualities.
Rockwell says the kings received a fair amount of heckling in the early days, though she adds that the house was full week after week.
“My opinion was always the same thing,” remembers Rockwell. “If you hate it so much, why do you keep coming back? My house was full every single time... and I think it was because they were so curious, and at the same time they were turned on and they didn't know why.”
The Kings believe it was the relatively tasteful tone of their shows that drove their success. “We kept our shows at the right gauge where we didn't use gimmicks, pull our dicks out onstage or go to that extreme level that a lot of king shows do,” Rockwell says. “We pushed it and made it an entertainment game. We entertained you; we were a true entertainment troupe... like a cabaret act minus all the tits and glitter.”
It helps that the liquor license at Six Degrees stipulates that the kings keep overt sexuality out of their act. This means no dildos, no stripping and, certainly, no nudity. Yet even if the ABC didn't impose those restrictions, the kings say they would still strive to keep their act family-friendly.
“We want to do a show that you can bring your parents to,” explains Shaft. “It's entertainment; it's not pornography. We're not strippers.”
Shaft says her parents come all the time.
“The first time they came, it was crazy; they were so happy and glowing,” remembers Shaft. “My mother said, ‘I'm so glad we have talent in the family.'”
Rudy Ramrod, who started out as the Kings Club roadie and never imagined she'd perform, eventually found herself doing her Piano Man routine in front of her whole family at Christmas. Even Tommy Salami's father, a Serbian Orthodox priest, has seen the show at the bar.
Salami, a founding member of the Kings Club, says her name is actually an homage to her father. When he became a priest, he changed his name from Tommy to Trifune, so Salami took “Tommy.” “Salami” was a character in a TV series her dad liked, The White Shadow, a late-'70s drama about a high-school basketball team.
Most of the Kings' names are a tribute to something, although each name is not quite of equal sentimental value. “I had a boyfriend in high school named Randy who was really corny,” Shaft says of her chosen moniker. “And then from the movie Shaft, because Shaft is a bad-ass and a totally exaggerated masculine figure.”
The Kings are united by their enthusiasm for male impersonation, but they each have distinctly different motivations for performing in drag.
“People think if you dress as a man, that means you want to be one,” says Shaft, “but it's more a mockery of the concept of socially constructed masculinity.”
Bondage, on the other hand, says she likes to perform in drag to disassociate from her feminine qualities-specifically her chest and curves-that usually attract attention in everyday life. For Bondage, dressing and performing in drag are a means of “stripping down” her feminine exterior to reveal true pieces of her identity that lie beneath the surface.
“Once I'm strapped down and my hair's combed up in my pompadour, my whole body language changes. My shoulders slump, my facial muscles relax, and I swagger a bit more,” she explains. “I feel very comfortable as James Bondage.... I feel that it is part of me, so it really is just another personality of mine that I've identified.”
As Bondage describes it, performing in drag is a way of connecting with certain parts of the self that are usually hidden. But for Pachuco, who particularly enjoys impersonating gay men, the appeal of drag seems to be more about becoming someone else entirely.
“It's just like acting,” says Pachuco. “You can be anyone you want to be.”
As in acting, in real life most of the women in the Kings Club are drastically different from the male characters they portray. Though their bravado is palpable while in character, most of the kings don't exude the same kind of confidence in an everyday context.
When Pachuco's on stage clutching the microphone, she radiates fierce energy and a don't-fuck-with-me attitude. Her presence is captivating and commanding of attention. But real-life Margot Kelly, sipping a sugar-free Red Bull and vodka during a group interview, has a soft voice and gentle mannerisms. Her stories are often interrupted and talked over by her fellow kings.
Ramrod is similarly shy in person, at least at first, and describes striving for years to feel more comfortable with her act.
If there's a common denominator among the Kings' varied reasons for performing, it might be that drag provides a creative way to escape from their insecurities.
Bondage seems to think so.
“Our troupe is the most amazing group of women,” she jokes, “because we're like nine people with the collective self-esteem of one.”
While her comment might seem disparaging, it only re-enforces what anyone who has seen a Kings Club show already knows: that the Kings are masters of illusion.
While the Kings make it look seamless, pulling off the illusion is not as easy as you think. Hair, makeup and costumes are planned well in advance and changed throughout the evening to fit the character of the band or artist a King is impersonating. For instance, the mutton chops Bondage sports for her Rodney Carrington country number won't work for her Adam Sandler routine. Each King will change characters at least three times per night.
Of course, there's another element required to complete the transformation from female to male. Beginners have used socks, strap-ons and appropriately shaped vegetables, but most of the Kings have upgraded to something called a Soft Pak that's designed for the purpose.
The Kings dispute the importance of the Soft Pak. Shaft believes that as long as the illusion is maintained on the outside then it doesn't matter what is used to create the necessary bulge.
Bondage, on the other hand, feels very strongly that a Soft Pak is necessary in order to fully embody the role. “To be a respectful king, you do need to upgrade-or hide in a closet when you get dressed,” she says.
In any case, the Kings say that no matter how much time and money is spent on costume, makeup and, er, packaging, the most critical element to sustaining the illusion can't be bought. It's the make-you-or-break-you factor:
You have to know all the words to your song.
It sounds like a no-brainer for a show built around lip-synching, yet the Kings say it's the biggest flaw in most amateur performances they see at their weekly shows. For the Kings, being consistent with the lyrics is a big part of what makes them a true entertainment troupe.
“I went to see [a drag act] in San Francisco, but they didn't get their lyrics right; they were just stripping,” remembers Shaft. “It was more about the stripping than the drag. It's different-I don't want to say better or worse-but it's a totally different emphasis.”
Thanks to their devotion to lyrical accuracy and attention to physical detail, the kings have become famous within lesbian and gay circles in Southern California. But their fan base isn't strictly homosexual.
“I've had more drinks bought for me by straight men than anyone else,” says Ramrod. “[They say], ‘That was so great. I felt so comfortable. I thought I'd feel so weird watching this, but this was just wonderful-let me buy you a drink.'”
Rockwell also gets a lot of positive attention from straight men, most of whom are initially dragged to the show by their girlfriends. Rockwell theorizes that even if a straight man is turned on by a performance, he can reassure himself that the Kings are really women where it counts the most.
Yet Shaft isn't so sure. “We get scowls and stuff from straight guys because they feel like we're taking something from them,” says Shaft. “It's totally different for a man to dress as a woman because he doesn't have to claim anything that's not his; he's not taking anything from anyone.”
Shaft says that mostly younger girls-both gay and straight-come to compliment her after the show, while Pachuco says gay men are some of her biggest fans. Bondage says she can't really generalize about what kind of people like her the best. “A lot of James Bondage's personality is a womanizing letch, a bit of a drunk,” she says, “so people who approach me usually look like they're absolutely terrified to talk to me. They come up, they say something, they turn around and run away.”
Always keeping their eye out for new members, the Kings say they're willing to watch an amateur king develop for as long as it takes to hone her act and demonstrate a real commitment to the troupe. Longwood, another one of the youngest and newest Kings, started out as a spectator and performed as a guest for months before he was eventually invited to join the Kings Club.
With a diverse and ever-growing selection of musical genres from Billy Idol to Broadway, the Kings are confident they have something to please everyone at their weekly show. For those who think only lesbians can go see the Kings at Six Degrees, Shaft says all are welcome to attend.
“Everybody and their mom can come, if they're straight or not. People are always hesitant about that,” says Shaft, who sometimes works the door at Six Degrees. “We love you. It doesn't matter. If you show up at the bar, it shows you're not hostile to us.”
Unfortunately, the Kings may be about to lose their weekly venue. Bondage recently reported that the owners of Six Degrees are thinking of selling the bar, possibly as soon as the spring. The Kings aren't going to stop performing if the bar is sold, but they're not sure what'll happen or where they'll end up next.
In the meantime, there's still one big chance to catch the Kings in action before it's too late. Their fifth anniversary performance is Friday, Dec. 30, and will feature all the Kings performing an array of their repertoire from the past five years. The show starts at 9 p.m. at Six Degrees, 3175 India Street in Middletown. The Kings will be there, waiting for you-if you're man enough.