Drag isn’t just for queens anymore. At least that’s what the H-Town Kings say.
In just shy of two years, this drag-king collective has taken Space City by storm. At the city’s annual Drag Awards in July, fans voted the H-Town Kings’ weekly program at Pearl Bar the Best Drag Show in Houston. In August, the Wednesday-night Pearl Bar show got so popular that the Kings expanded to another recurring show on Sundays at Barcode.
Ian Syder-Blake, cofounder of the H-Town Kings, believes the group owes its success to creating a platform for folks who don’t often see themselves represented in drag. “When you stop forcing drag artists to fit into a box, you start to see some amazing artistic expression,” Syder-Blake says. “The H-Town Kings don’t limit any of our performers. This appeals to many people who have never found any reason to care about drag.”
Despite the show’s popularity, establishing a recurring drag-king show in Houston was a challenge. For six years straight, Syder-Blake approached nearly every queer bar in town with the idea of starting a drag-king show and was met with rejection. “Bar owners would say, ‘Our audience doesn’t like drag kings,’” he recalls. “How did they know if they had never experienced us?”
In January 2018, Syder-Blake, who has been a drag king for almost seven years, finally got his wish when Pearl Bar agreed to host a weekly show by the H-Town Kings. The group, created and led by Syder-Blake and Richard Long, includes a dedicated cast of drag kings and male entertainers, along with an opportunity for up-and-coming kings to get their start.
View behind the scenes shots from OutSmart’s photoshoot with the H-Town Kings at Pearl Bar Houston below.
So, what is a drag king? Traditionally, drag kings are people who were assigned female at birth that dress up and perform as a masculine character on stage. However, the H-Town Kings is open to performers of all genders.
“Drag in itself is the over-extension of one’s gender,” says Long, who has done drag since 2016. “In old-school terms, a drag queen is a hyper-feminine character, while a drag king is a hyper-masculine one. Those definitions have evolved to include an array of alternative performers. If you’re ever unsure of a drag performer’s pronouns, you can always ask them politely like you would anyone else.”
While Syder-Blake and Long both identify as male in and out of drag, other performers choose to take on characters with gender non-conforming identities. Ryder Moore, a “baby king” who has done drag for one year, is non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them/their onstage.
“I’m a very tomboy-esque girl out of drag,” Moore says. “My character is an extension of me, so when I’m in drag, using they/them pronouns feel most comfortable.”
Moore discovered drag kings two years ago at Comicpalooza when Syder-Blake was one of the convention’s scheduled entertainers. While Moore wasn’t sure about becoming a performer, they worked with Syder-Blake to begin experimenting with the art. Moore is now a recurring performer in H-Town Kings shows, and calls Syder-Blake a drag father.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d ever become a drag king,” Moore admits. “Then I performed in one show and haven’t been able to stop. My favorite part about it all is that I’ve never stepped on stage and felt judged. That excitement extends to the audience. When you’re performing and clearly doing what you love, they see it. I say ‘you can do this too, fam.’”
Syder-Blake and Long say they have been approached by dozens of other baby kings who need guidance in becoming polished performers. The two collaborated to create Drag King Bootcamp, an in-person and online training course that teaches folks to become bookable drag kings in Houston.
“There are hundreds of drag queens in the community, so beginner queens have tons of resources to guide them through the process,” Syder-Blake says. “Since we started the H-Town Kings show, we’ve had an influx of kings who needed help and didn’t have any, so we developed Drag King Bootcamp to teach as many as we could at once.”
The boot camp is currently in its third session. The first occurred at the Montrose Center, the second in online videos, and now it is being taught at Pearl Bar on Wednesdays at 6 p.m., just before the H-Town Kings take the stage at 9:30 p.m.
“This boot camp is eight weeks long and super-extensive,” Long says. “We teach everything from makeup tutorials, to dressing room etiquette, to how to host a show.”
According to Syder-Blake, there are nearly 50 Houston drag kings and aspirants in a group chat that he manages. In order to become an H-Town King, one must show up at an audition night where baby kings compete for a spot in an upcoming H-Town Kings show.
There are seven official H-Town Kings cast members who perform weekly and monthly. In addition to being able to showcase various types of drag to audience members, the H-Town Kings have included two drag queens as cast members to show their commitment to uplifting all types of performers.
“Many drag queens see drag kings as equal, but quite a few still don’t,” Syder-Blake says. “We can’t expect these queens to book us at their shows if we leave them out of ours. Also, drag queens are just fun. I want them to come party with us, too.”
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have made it even harder for drag kings to receive community support, according to Long. “While drag TV shows have brought positive aspects of the LGBTQ community to light, many local performers feel like [these shows] cheapen drag because you only see a polished, overproduced version of what it actually is,” he says. “I’d say it’s 10 times harder for drag kings, because we’re not mainstream. Some people even assume that we’re not as talented as our queen counterparts.”
Syder-Blake says drag kings face many misconceptions, including the belief that they are not as entertaining as drag queens because drag kings don’t put as much effort into costuming. “On the contrary, drag kings also wear makeup, and it typically takes over three hours to get ready for one performance,” he notes. “Where drag queens tuck, we pack. They wear high heels, and we wear dress shoes with risers in them to make ourselves look taller. For everything that they do, we have an equivalent.”
But the fans of H-Town Kings love the group nonetheless, and Long believes that’s because of their mutual respect. To begin each of their shows, the Kings promote consent between audience members and entertainers alike. “If anyone ever feels uncomfortable, we are approachable, we are the guys you come and tell,” he says. “We literally love our supporters, and they love us. They’re not just audience members to us. They’re family.”
The H-Town Kings perform at Pearl Bar every Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m., and at Barcode every Sunday night at 8 p.m.
For more information about the H-Town Kings or Drag King Bootcamp, visit facebook.com/KingsofHouston.
This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.