King of the Hill
Drag kings come to New York for Murray Hill's drag fest

Murray Hill
‘I want the audience to see something they’ve never seen before,’ says Murray Hill, organizer of the Oct. 7 drag king festival.
(by Roberto Portillo)

By Bill Roundy

Murray Hill describes himself as "the hardest working middle-aged man in show business" and you can’t dispute his hard work. This weekend Hill heads to New Jersey to perform for the National Organization of Lesbians of Size, then heads back to the city to produce an ambitious spectacle of 45 drag performers, three dance troupes, and a rock band.

Murray Hill, who declines to give any other name, is one of the most beloved drag kings on the scene today, bringing his middleaged, thrice-divorced, Sinatra-loving shtick to venues around the city.

"I’ve probably played in every dump and dive in the city," notes the former mayoral candidate (he stayed out the current mayoral race, he says, "because I drink too much."). But Hill takes a step up to the classy Lot 61 on Oct. 7 to host The Kings, New York’s first annual international, invitational drag king festival.

The Kings has drawn an assortment of kings from as far away as Japan, bearing names like Sir Real, Harry Krishna, and Sir Lix-a-lot. Hill recruited most of the kings from the Internet, where there is an active drag king community and mailing list.

"I got a ton of responses" from the initial announcement of the show, says Hill. "I was going to just kind of take a few and keep the show manageable, but I got such a response and people were so excited I just decided to take everybody."

That openness is partially a legacy of The Murray Hill Show, says the host.

"When I do The Murray Hill Show, it’s kind of a rule that we take anybody." he says. "I’m the only show in Manhattan that will take walk-ons, and I’m very proud of that."

But the openness can also be attributed to the relative youth of the drag king scene -- they can’t afford to be too picky. Drag queens have been around forever, but the idea of women performing in male personae and lip-syncing onstage does not have nearly the same sort of legacy.

"It’s not at the point with Wigstock," says Hill. "A lot of those people are super, super, super talented. They’ve been performing for 10 years. We don’t have that yet. … We’re working on it."

Hill has been around since basically the beginning of the drag king scene.

"It started in 1996 at Club Casanova," says Hill, and a regular crowd performed there for about two years. "At the end it sort of trickled out. Myself and Dréd have been performing all along, though."

The famed drag king Dréd, aka Mildred Gerestant, saw her first drag kings at the Pyramid in 1996.

"It was so fierce and empowering seeing women on stage being free," she recalls. She got some makeup tips from another king, Buster Hymen, and started doing shows in what was then a very united scene.

"I kind of miss that sense of community," she says.

But Hill says there has been a sort of renaissance for the drag king scene in recent years, and that the time has come for drag kings to break into the mainstream.

"It’s about time," he says. "I think the drag queens have been out there. Pretty much everybody knows what a drag queen is. For drag kings, it’s still pretty underground… Culturally, I think it’s time, I think people are ready. They may not be ready for drag kings, but they’re ready for something new from the gay underground nightlife."

Even straight audiences have been receptive to her act, says Gerestant -- she has even performed at a co-worker’s wedding. "I tell everybody about what I do," she says.

The goal of The Kings is not only to further raise the profile of drag kings, but to raise the bar for future performances.

"There’s only one way to get better in show business, and that’s to be heckled by a New York crowd," says Hill. "What I’d like to see happen in the future is to really see some drag kings develop their art, start singing, and really start working on this as a career. I hope people will say, ‘Oh, The Kings is coming up, I’ve got to work on a great show, a really fabulous act for it."

Stacey Whitmire, of Washington, D.C., who will be performing in The Kings as her redneck alter-ego Johnny Kat, says that drag kings in her city are only beginning to really develop their shows.

"I think as an art form, in D.C. at least, it’s evolving as people develop a way to put on a stage-worthy show, as they develop their characters in greater depth, as they begin to choose their songs with more care."

Whitmire is relatively new to performing, only having developed Johnny Kat slightly over a year ago, once drag kings began monthly performances at a local club.

"I’m really excited to perform for a larger audience and a more diverse group," says Whitmire. "I expect that being in New York, with bazillions of people… I’m looking forward to performing for folks who might not normally find themselves at a gay club, but who are coming on Murray Hill’s appeal."

Whitmire only knows Hill from the Internet, but notes, "I have admired him from afar."

Gerestant is looking forward to a chance to "hang with my fellow brother kings," she says, and hopes The Kings will lead to "more exposure for all of us, and more inspiration for people to be free to express themselves in any way they feel."

The upcoming show is intentionally diverse, with participants ranging from Elvis impersonators to the band Le Tigre.

"Woo!" says Hill of Le Tigre. "Those women are out of control! I like Frank Sinatra, so their music is a little hard on the my ears -- they’re kind of feminist punk rockers, but they’re amazing."

The Kings
Oct. 7 at Lot 61
550 W. 21st St.
Doors open 8 p.m., first set at 9:30 p.m.
Tickets are $15
(212) 539-3197

With the broad range of performers, Hill says that everyone can do their own kind of show, and hopefully bring their own set of fans.

"I’ve never liked to do just lesbian events," says Hill, and this way, new crowds will be exposed to the antics of the go-go dancing Pontani Sisters ("best of the best," says Hill) and The Dazzle Dancers, an all-gay dance troupe who plan to open the show with a "special tribute to America."

"I think the outcome of Sunday’s show will be a full-sized, mixed crowd, from the performers to the people working it, to the audience," says Hill. "I want them to see something they’ve never seen before."

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This article appeared in the issue of:
October 5, 2001