“The drag king scene in the UK, thus far, is: White, boring, old-school, white and white!”
These are the words of drag king superstar Chiyo, an artist bursting with raw, emotional power that fuses together the ever-sliding scale of hysterical highs and the exhausting lows of living in Britain as a person of colour embodying multiple identities.
Chiyo sits applying his moustache make-up in a spacious kitchen, which tonight doubles as a changing room, above London’s notorious Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He’s joined by fellow kings Izzy Aman, Romeo de la Cruz and Zayn Phallic (aka the One Direction member we all deserved) as they bind, contour and delve into the trials and tribulations of working London’s cabaret circuit as performers of colour.
The four all perform regularly as part of the KOC (The Kings of Colour, pronounced cock) Initiative; a group of black and brown artists touring major cities with a selection of unique drag king acts, including dramatic Dreamgirls renditions, unapologetic performance activism, and smooth Love Jones inspired spoken word. It’s an evening filled with cackles, adoration and pure filth – and spending time with these kings offstage is just as entertaining. In between casual pelvic thrusts, jokes about blowing each other and the horrific discovery of Ed Sheeran singing in Twi, Izzy Aman, Zayn and Chiyo get to the nitty-gritty of the UK’s current drag king scene and how they’re here to flip reverse it.
“The UK drag scene is painfully white, it really does have a diversity problem”
The KOC Initiative was set up by Zayn Phallic eight months ago, after he went to watch his first drag king show and observed the glaring lack of racial diversity in the line-up. He states that “the entire line-up of the show was white, so I did what any normal person would do and I drank an entire bottle of wine and then went to have a go at the organiser of the night and told them that they had to sort their shit out.”
It, unfortunately, comes as no surprise that similarly to the majority of the UK’s live entertainment industries, white artists have become the face of the drag kingdom whilst black and brown performers are sidelined regardless of their talent level or popularity. As Zayn notes, “the UK drag scene is painfully white, it really does have a diversity problem, not just in terms of who’s actually performing but also in terms of the types of acts we see from other performers. We’ve had a lot of situations where we’ve had to call other performers out for casual racism and it hasn’t always been well received.”
Luckily, the organiser of this event took the criticism on board, vowed to do better and invited Zayn to perform at their open mic show. This marked the start of his drag king career and the birth of Mr Phallic, the self-proclaimed “UP and COMING, newest king on the block.” As Zayn ascended into the world of performance drag, he created a space for kings of colour to perform their own shows free of event organisers racial bias. He notes that “it’s our chance to take up our part of the scene, to make ourselves known, to take up space and to just prove that there is literally no reason why people shouldn’t be booking us. They’re booking everyone else but they’re not booking us at the same frequency, so it’s really nice to just be like: We are amazing. Watch this.”
During the show, Zayn also acts as the night’s emcee and doesn’t stray away from calling out racial prejudice in the scene, which is met with cheers and fists raised high from the audience. I ask the trio what the atmosphere has been like at KOC nights compared to other drag shows and Chiyo asserts that KOC nights have been “the first drag king night where it felt safe and comfortable for me”. Izzy continues that thought, noting that it “makes [you] feel like [you’re] not alone” and how special that feeling can be.
The KOC wish to extend this feeling and have set up a mentorship programme, appropriately named “Fresh Meat,” for all baby kings to attend workshops where they can learn about the process involved in drag and be paired with an established king to help work through “any barrier that one might have that is going to stop you from getting on that stage”.
As the KOC Initiative continues to sell out shows, receives the press attention that they deserve and wows audiences across the UK, we can hope that this signals a much needed and much sought after shift in the cabaret circuit. Zayn mentions that one of the greatest elements of being a performer of colour is that your resilience and strength to break through so many barriers in life means that there becomes no limit to your work: “there is nowhere that this can’t go, it has to get bigger and we’re not going to stop until it does.”