The Art Of Playing A Man: An Interview With A Female Drag King
The Art Of Playing A Man: An Interview With A Female Drag King

The Art Of Playing A Man: An Interview With A Female Drag King

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Hannah Vanden Boomen, also known as her alter ego, Prince Johnny, is an actor and Drag King in Toronto. She invited me to sit in as she transformed into Prince Johnny, and gave me the inside scoop on the small but growing scene of Kings.



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Photo Credit: Hannah Vanden Boomen (c) 2016

Hannah sits at a bistro set, pulls out her mirror, and places it on the table. She tilts her head forward and slips a wig cap over her hair.


HANNAH VANDEN BOOMEN: This is obviously the most flattering part.



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"This is obviously the most flattering part." | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

She takes a final look at her face in the mirror before removing her makeup with a baby wipe.


KNOWABLE: So when did this all start?


HVB: Oh gosh, um, it started last summer. I was watching random stuff on YouTube one night, y’know?


K: Late night YouTube deep dive. Been there.


HVB: Exactly. Well, I saw this BBC documentary on Drag Kings in the UK and I was like, “Whoa.”


K: Did you know much about the scene before then?


HVB: Nothing. I have a bunch of Drag Queen friends, but I’d never seen a King before.


K: What was so enticing about the documentary?


HVB: There was one King that stood out to me. She was the only one that had a similar, curvy body type to me and longer hair. I was blown away by her ability to transform. I totally bought that she was a dude.


Hannah rifles through the plastic No Frills bag at her feet.


HVB: Shit.


K: What’s wrong?


HVB: I forgot my primer. Don’t tell anyone. Jaime would kill me.


In her primer’s absence, Hannah plucks a bronzer and brush from the bag and turns back to the mirror.


HVB: Yeah, so, after the documentary ended, I pulled out my theatre makeup and started playing around a bit.


She glides the brush along the underside of her cheekbones, leaving streaks of brown along her face, and studies herself in the mirror as she speaks.


HVB: When I was in theatre school, the women had to keep their hair long for period pieces. I had really long hair all through high school and university. Almost down to my waistline. I felt like, over time, it became part of my identity, and deeply entrenched in the way I saw myself as a performer. It was my ticket to being considered for certain roles.


So, I was in my bathroom, looking in the mirror and contouring my non existent cheekbones, and a line from Mean Girls popped into my head. It’s the one when Cady talks about having this theory that if this Regina George cut her hair off, she would look like a British Man. That line had always stuck with me because I've thought that about myself. I knew I had to hide the locks.


Once my hair was hidden underneath coconut oil and bobby pins, I wasn’t Hannah anymore. I became a blank canvas, and that – that was exciting.


Hannah presses a cotton pad against her face, leaving white powder along the tops of her cheeks, under her contouring, on her forehead.


K: What are you doing now?


HVB: It’s called cooking. It was started by Queens back in the day. It uses the heat from your face to warm up the base foundation and set it into your face for a more flawless finish. Now, it’s a common technique stolen by classic YouTube makeup tutorial biddies, but they call it baking.


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Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

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Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

We wait fifteen minutes for Hannah’s face to cook, and move inside as the sun sets behind Toronto’s cityscape.

HVB: Oh! I brought something for you.

Hannah pulls a book from her bag, titled “The Drag King Book”. I flip to a page with two topless Kings called Jackie & Stafford in baggy jeans. They look like a Levi’s advert.


K
: No way.

HVB: Right? Some people were just born to be Kings.

K: But you’re a prince.

HVB: Right.


Prince Johnny is Hannah’s drag King persona.


HVB: I got the name from the St.Vincent song.

K: And what’s he like?

HVB: He’s a little sh-t. He’s 18 years old, and doesn’t give a f-ck. He likes combing his beard, re-gelling his hair. He’s got a crush on this girl who sits in front of him in Social Studies – Alvina Sharpe. He collects old Punk records and spends a lot of time thinking up clever names for his penis. He smokes Belmonts. Being PJ is the only excuse my mother half approves of for lighting up a Belmont.


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"I actually have some of my own head hair that I sometimes use as facial hair." | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

Hannah turns back to her mirror. She brushes mascara along the peach fuzz on her upper lip. She stops to look at me, gesticulating with the mascara wand as she talks.


HVB: Sometimes I use my real hair as facial hair. Like, I kept my hair from the last time I got a haircut.


K: How did you learn to do all of this?


HVB: My roommate, Jaime, who is also the Drag Queen Lucinda Miu, worked at a makeup store for a bit. He would come home at night after his shifts with new products. It became a kind of nightly ritual for him to educate me on everything. It’s kind of his duty, being my drag mother, after all.


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Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

We also watched Drag Queen YouTube tutorials. Jaime would learn those techniques, and I would do the opposite. Like, for example, a lot of Queens highlight under their eyes to get rid of dark circles. When I do the opposite, it gives me a more masculine look.


K: What's the appeal of doing drag?


HVB: It’s a new acting challenge. It’s fun.


Hannah appears to contemplate the question for a moment as she examines her now hardened jaw line in the mirror. I can see her posture begin to relax, her shoulders roll forward, her legs edge apart.


HVB: Growing up female, there's a lot of pressure to be ladylike. You’re told how you ought to behave and look and feel. It’s restrictive, y’know? A big thing for me is swearing. I love to swear, but I was always told not to do it, because girls didn’t do that kind of thing. Prince Johnny says f–ck like every other word. He’s uninhibited. He doesn’t need four gin and tonics before he attempts to Parkour off the stop sign in front of his mother’s house. Prince Johnny is like, everything Hannah isn’t.


K: Does that sentiment translate to your work in the acting industry?


HVB: Yes. When I audition for roles as Hannah versus Johnny, it’s different. The acting industry is so sexist. Half the time I read a description for a character I could audition for and the only thing it will have is how they should look. When I’m getting ready for an audition as Hannah, putting on makeup and stuff, I feel like I’m masking myself, like the only thing that matters about me is the color of my hair, or whatever.


When I put on makeup to become Prince Johnny, even though I’m not Hannah anymore, I feel like I can let a different part of myself show. Like getting rid of my physical appearance, which is, a lot of the time, kind of seen as the main part of a female actor’s worth, allows me to be who I truly am.


K: So you actually go to auditions as Prince Johnny.


HVB: I do. He lands more gigs than Hannah lately. Prince Johnny got to meet Matt Damon before Hannah did. And of course, I perform as PJ with The Diet Ghosts.


K: That’s the group with you, Nick and Jaime.


HVB: Right. My two roommates and myself. We’re a family of drag misfits comprised of Lucinda Miu, Orion Miutheseer, and Prince Johnny. Lucinda is an immortal scream queen and an occasional cult leader, Orion is her oracle lover and subpar stepfather to Prince Johnny, and PJ is her post-pubescent, scrappy, wanna-be-rebel, sort of kind of unplanned, son. We are a family who is just as dysfunctional as we are glamorous.


K: What kind of work do you do together?


HVB: We do typical drag lip-sync performances, traditional theatre, music, photography, fashion design, and stay open to whatever opportunity presents itself to us. It’s an energetic melting pot of creative ideas.


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The Diet Ghosts in Toronto, Ontario | Photo Credit: The Diet Ghosts (c) 2016

K: It sounds like you kind of took an unconventional route into the Drag scene.

HVB: Yeah, I don’t really do traditional drag shows a lot. The Drag King scene is microscopic compared to the Queen scene.

K: Why do you think that is?

HVB: Good question. I haven’t thought about it too much, to be honest.

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Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

I follow Hannah to the bathroom, where she puts on a binder that flattens her chest to almost nothing.


HVB: I used to duct tape my boobs, but that started tearing off skin, so no more of that.

I press on, hoping to get some sort of opinion on the politics of the Drag scene.


K: Do you think it’s tied to gender politics in greater society?


HVB: I suppose so. I guess it’s like, more shocking for a man to become a woman.


K: Because who could possibly want to become a woman.


HVB: Yeah. But then when a woman becomes a man, it’s like, well of course.


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"It's ironic that I feel more freedom when I bind myself up." | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

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"Half of my outfits comes from my roommate's closet." | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

Hannah pulls a choppy brown wig over her head.

HVB: It’s hard to find male wigs, so I buy female ones and cut them. I put them on backwards, too.

K: Why?

HVB: It’s just something I do to get the original shape out of my head so I can start styling it in a more masculine way.

Hannah re-adjusts the hair on her head and we both look at her in the mirror. She looks like a man, and I know she can see it, too. We stand there for a few moments, taking it in.


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Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

HVB: You know, there’s this weird idea that Drag Kings can’t be glamorous. A lot of Queens are admired for their glamour, and glamour is seen as this inherently female thing. But I think Drag Kings can be just as glamorous, just as over the top.


K: Are there any other misconceptions about Drag Kings?


HVB: If anyone hears about a Drag King, they just assume it’s some butch lesbian that threw on a Fruit of the Loom undershirt and is performing some Kid Rock. Not true. Drag isn't about your sexual orientation, your style, your beliefs. Anyone can do drag.

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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016


Hannah, now Prince Johnny, struts out of the bathroom. His mannerisms are that of a full-fledged teenaged boy. A bit awkward, dramatically loose. Think of a “too cool for school” boy on the brink of manhood. He talks to me as he poses against the wall, slipping between the cool and confident Prince Johnny and the graceful, articulate Hannah.


PJ / HVB: I’m lucky to bear witness to the progression in redefining gender norms. I see models like Ruby Rose or hear musicians like Rhye and get super stoked. We’re taking steps to normalizing the idea of gender being fluid, flexible. How’s my hair?


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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016


After some pictures, Hannah changes back into Hannah. She washes off the makeup, changes back into her heart-print romper and tells me I can keep The Drag King book to read. As she collects her things into a tidy arrangement, she goes through each item to make sure it’s accounted for.


HVB: I still don’t know where I put that primer. You know what I use? Vagisil.


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Prince Johnny | Photo Credit: Sara Peters (c) 2016

Want to learn more about PJ and The Diet Ghosts? You're in luck! Check out Prince Johnny, Lucinda Miu, and Orion's on Instagram.

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