Brooklyn’s K. James is a boundary-shattering transmasculine drag king who is one of the founders of Switch ‘n Play, one of the premier active drag collectives in the US. I chatted with him to get his thoughts on drag and gender identity.*
Ennis F.W.: Hey, congrats on getting nominated for Favorite Drag King by GO Magazine!
K. James: Aw, thank you!
E: Okay, so first things first, tell me about you (the drag king), you (the artist), and how those two identities overlap.
K.: K.James is campy, over the top masculinity, lots of leather, mesh, dancing and a smooth lip sync style. I try to take iconic images of masculinity like George Michael, Elvis and James Dean and re-interpret them through a queer lens and my trans body to create playful performances that push the boundaries of gender and sexuality.
When not doing drag, I’m a shy and reserved person and people are usually shocked the first time they see me perform. Drag enables me to be more confident and outgoing. It’s an important outlet for me.
I think about drag as a hyperexpression and deconstruction of gender, but for me it’s also an expression of my own kind of masculinity as a trans person.
E: There’s been a lot of discussion lately online about trans* and gender-nonconforming individuals performing drag. What’s your experience been like?
K.: Generally my experience has been positive though I do encounter people misgendering me and making assumptions about what it means to be a drag king. I am happy to see more visibility for trans* and gender nonconforming performers because people trans* people, especially trans women of color, have always been a big part of drag community and culture and that shouldn’t be erased.
E: Definitely. I think drag has an important role in opening up that discourse.
K: Yeah! It would be good to see more of these histories acknowledged in mainstream drag.
I recently did a number that was inspired by Zdenek Koubkov, who was a transgender runner from Czechoslovakia. He competed in the 1932 Olympics and then transitioned. Then later in the 30s, he came to New York and performed a “living picture performance” of his gender where he ran on a treadmill for audiences at a club. I ran for 5 or 6 minutes while lip-syncing.
E: Whoa, awesome! What music did you use for that number?
K: Haha. It was a really campy number. A mix of Blues Traveler’s “Run Around”, Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over” and Whitney Houston’s “I Run to You.”
I wore my real race number from a half marathon I did so it combined drag with my real life and gender.
E: So how long have you been performing?
K: I have been performing for 8 years
E: 8 years! Always in New York?
K.: Yes, my base has always been Brooklyn. When I moved to NYC in 2006, I moved into a shared apartment from an ad I saw on Craigslist. One of my roommates was one of the founding members of Switch n’ Play. That’s how I was introduced to the whole drag king community and scene in NYC at the time.
E: It seems to me that New York is one of the most influential places for drag in the entire world. I lovingly stalk you, Switch n’ Play, and other prominent New York performers all the time.
K: Haha yeah, I love it here. There’s a lot of room to be creative. And there are always so many shows and so many diverse types of performers and performance styles.
E: For folks who don’t know (seriously, what are you doing with your life), can you talk a bit about Switch ‘n Play and you all’s regular shows?
K: Switch n’ Play is a Brooklyn drag and burlesque collective, established in 2006. It started off as a drag king troupe and has evolved over the years to include drag queens, femme performers, and burlesque.
We have two monthly shows at a local Western-themed bar called Branded Saloon. Our second Saturdays rotate, and on fourth Saturdays we have Staches & Lashes, which is a variety show featuring drag, burlesque and queer performance.
We’ve been nominated for “Best Drag Performance Show” and “Best Burlesque Show” for the Brooklyn Nightlife Awards. The show is pretty unique for the city; it’s one of the only places where you can regularly see kings, queens, and burlesque on the same stage.
E: Two more questions. First, what inspires you? What’s the process of creating a number like?
K: Sometimes it’s a song I hear or a movie I watch that gives me an idea – like a character or pop culture reference that would be interesting to take into a drag context. Sometimes the inspiration is the need to work through something emotionally as a catharsis (dancing it out is very therapeutic for me!). Or collaboration with the other members of the Switch n’ Play troupe as we’re always coming up with new ideas together.
E: Awesome. Second, what’s your advice to new and aspiring kings?
K: I would tell aspiring kings to be themselves, and to find others that inspire you. For me, it’s important to be around performers with heart, who have an openness onstage and off. Everything doesn’t have to be a competition…I enjoy performers who use their creativity to create community.
Instagram Performance Clips:
*K. James gave this interview in August 2016. Ennis F.W. apologizes for being a total Toolhead McDoucheface who takes almost a full year to publish interviews. Sorry K.! I love you and your entire collective!