“To be honest, I would describe Pittsburgh’s drag scene as pretty intimidating at first,” says Mx. Softboy, a Pittsburgh drag king who first came into the scene last summer after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, and before the surge of the Delta variant.
Softboy began by performing at open stages at Lawrenceville’s Blue Moon, and they found that the gay bar where RuPaul’s Drag Race-famous queens Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Sharon Needles kickstarted their careers offered not only the competitiveness which the show is known for, but a welcoming space where more experienced performers mentored and invited them to participate. But the welcome, while crucial, didn’t totally satisfy.
They say the Blue Moon Bar, and drag culture more broadly, focuses on queens. For drag kings, “bookings are slim and it can be challenging” to find venues in which to perform and audiences interested in what they have to offer. Softboy is “hoping that a monthly show can change that.”
“There’s a misconception that drag kings are aesthetically inferior to queens,” says Eddie Alabaster, a Pittsburgh drag king who will be performing at the first Heart Throb.
Both Softboy and Alabaster emphasized that monetary compensation for drag kings is much more rare than it should be, and that the performance of masculinity is particularly undervalued because popular culture expects it to be natural, and for its performance not to take effort or work.
“Every drag king I know,” Alabaster says, “is consistently self-taught.” When describing their own king persona, Alabaster says, “I want to look like I don’t exist, like I’m not real but like I’m verifiably male.” Alabaster, a nonbinary transmasculine, cites influences including Bert from Mary Poppins, the movie Fight Club, and actor Clint Eastwood. “Just guys that are caricatures of a particular style that’s a little fantastical, I’ve always loved that.”
Softboy’s drag persona, with pink makeup behind their mustache and the occasional pointy goblin ears, they are quick to say, is more than just an act. “My gender and my drag are really kind of hand in hand,” they say. “They are really dependent and independent of one another.”
It was as “a little alien in pink makeup,” Softboy says, that they first really “felt power in my identity, a unified energetic feeling.”
“So many of the best kings you see,” Alabaster adds, “they look insane. You have to stand out so much from the crowd to be recognized as a drag king.”
Softboy hopes that Heart Throb will be “a safe space for any person to come in and find themself entertained by something they don’t normally see on stage at a drag show” and will give them a chance to question what masculinity and femininity even mean.”
But drag in general, including king drags, has a much longer history in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s first drag king troupe, the Distinguished Iron City Kings (DICK), formed in 2002, though they are no longer active. Currently, there’s no shortage of drag queen events in the city, and the all-inclusive gender performance group Hot Metal Hardware, which got its start as a drag king troupe, began doing once-monthly online drag shows during the pandemic, and moved to in-person events in the South Side at TFS Bar & Grill (2512 E. Carson St.) in October 2021.
In addition to Softboy and Alabaster, drag kings performing at Heart Throb’s launch on Feb. 27 will be West Virginia’s King Perka $exxx and Pittsburgh-based Mars. “All of us kings,” Softboy says, “we kind of keep tabs on each other, support each other endlessly.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, both Softboy and Alabaster suggest, is part of what made drag more accessible and Heart Throb possible. The kings both note that the rise of online drag performances has made the process of drag more visible to newcomers, and has lowered barriers to entry.
“Drag can be so much more than what we see on a typical Saturday night. It can really take you places,” says Softboy. “Kings haven’t really been taken seriously for a long time, but [drag] doesn’t have to be limited to big pageant gowns and cis men impersonating women.”