This punk rock drag king roared down from the mountains and claimed Brooklyn for a kingdom ages ago. Boasting some of the most creative stage looks and original performance aesthetics in his field, he’s definitely made his mark on the nightlife community, overcoming learning and psychological disorders and the unpredictable ebb-and-flow of male drag. Thotyssey’s got the skinny on Lee’s fascinating story.
Thotyssey: Thanks for talking to us, Lee!
Lee VaLone: Absolutely! Thanks for reaching out.
So, if someone asks you, “What kind of a performer are you? What do you do onstage?” how would you explain it to them?
What I usually say is something along the lines of: “I’m a drag king. I dress up like some version of a man. I dress up as whatever I feel like at that time, get on a stage, and do what I do.
Or I quote Elaine Stritch: ‘I just hope I can at least be amusing.”
What kind of guy is Lee, as a character?
I like to think of Lee as one of three characters. My favorite right now is “Hot old Southern Preacher”–I call him the Reverend Lee. He has long lush hair, beard, and mustache. Usually a black felt hat. I like doing this character when I’m in spaces I’m uncomfortable in, because I find long hair and a lace front beard very empowering.
Lee’s second main character is “Southern Trash” Lee. He likes classic rock and bluegrass and his jean jacket. This is also the look I use most of the time when I do a political number.
The third category can be summarized as “fantasy.” I love doing crazy characters or animals or Gods. I have a Pizza Rat number to The Who’s “The Seeker,” I have a Poseidon God of the Sea number. I also love doing impersonations- I do Johnny Cash and Beetlejuice.
Is Lee’s personality similar to yours, in any of those variations?
Lee and I are very similar. I find that when I’m in drag, I have noticeably more confidence and feel more comfortable in my own skin.
There was a strong presence of NYC drag kings in the 1990’s, but it fizzled for some reason. And now drag kings are on the rise again! Why do you think it’s the era of the king again?
I think we are absolutely in the era of the Kings, but I am biased. The scene fizzled out mostly because of crackdowns on nightclubs– things are a lot better for nightlife now. The venue Bizarre Bushwick, where I produce my monthly show BEEF, has been unbelievably welcoming and open to drag kings. I think that people are also very thirsty for new drag performances. Most people that come to my shows for the first time have never even heard of drag kings.
Do you think RuPaul’s Drag Race and the resulting rise of the popularity of drag queens has diminished the presence and growth of kings?
Yes and No. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has done a lot for the drag community–both good and bad–for both kings and queens. You find a lot of queens repeating other queens these days. But you also find a lot of queens learning and growing from watching the show. I started seeking out drag because of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix.
Once people realize that drag is bigger than a formula, all these amazing things start to happen. You have kings like Goldie Peacock who perform Glamorous Androgyny- or Glamdrogyny. You have queens like Cheddar Gorgeous who give a queen-style beaten face but whose bodies read as boy. Kings like Spikey Van Dykey who are giving raw masculine presence and Queens like Vic Sin with beards. Very exciting things start to happen when you realize drag is gender performance, which is to say any gender on any body type.
Where are you from, and what were you like growing up? What were your creative interests?
I am from Western North Carolina. My family has lived in WNC for the past 6 generations. Coming to terms with my identity as a queer person and a person from the South has been incredibly difficult. But I very much have a Southern Appalachian disposition. I am direct. I am opinionated. My accent can’t hide itself when I’m stressed, or sad, or drunk, or on the mike onstage. But I can be still be a little shy at times when I’m not on stage.
Growing up, I was a rather shy kid. I was raised Evangelical Southern Baptist with a very large extended family. Just about everything we ate, someone we were related to either grew in the garden or shot in the woods. I spent most of the time either at church, school, or with my grandparents. My grandparents are my treasures. My mother is a wonderful woman who raised us in the best environment she could given our circumstances. I’m not sure how all of them would react to knowing about my gender identity or my performance. I do think it would hurt them, because they wouldn’t understand what all of it meant.
Despite my less than ideal home life, I really was just a typical mountain kid. I liked to play in the woods, I went to church, I caught turtles and frogs. I liked to draw and paint, which is why I studied art at university. I was in marching band. I went to BBQ’s and ate a lot of deer meat. Most of my family lives in trailers, and we had food stamps. Typical southern Mountain family.
How and when did you create Lee?
Lee started off as his character I came up with as an “all purpose drag king.” I had a shaved head when I started doing drag, and was extremely nervous about getting to know in the queer community. I didn’t know how to talk to people in an established community like the Brooklyn drag scene. So most of my early acts were about Lee doing something sneaky or creepy. I tried to utilize my insecurity and shyness.
And where did you get his name from?
The name came after I when I was going to dinner with a friend and they stood me up. I called my partner and said something along the lines of “Oh well, I guess I’ll just leave alone.” Then I realized, well, that’s a fun pun isn’t it? Lee VaLone- leave alone.
Do you notice a group of the population that responds the strongest to Lee (lesbians, gay guys, straight women, straight men, transgendered men, etc.?)
I don’t know! [laughs] In most gay male spaces the audience doesn’t know what to do with a drag king–the crowd isn’t sure how to react. Straight men are usually quite confused by all drag in general.
Many kings do drag because they want to make a political statement about patriarchy and masculinity. Did that calling motivate you as well?
I do like to make my work political, with critiques of masculinity and our perceptions of gender.
I am not trying to be a passing male when I’m in drag. There are only a few numbers I do where I bind my breasts. In those numbers it is done deliberately, and to make a point about how my breasts are bound.
I am also a musician- I am the vocalist in a punk band called There Are Four Lights. I really like the folks I’m in the band with–basically every song is about smashing the patriarchy. As a queer person, if I’m not living my life every day with the intention of bringing down the patriarchy and toxic masculinity–I’m not doing something right.
You have the learning disorder dyslexia, which affects how you process written language. Does it make it tasks much more difficult during your daily life?
It’s super annoying. I also have a stress-induced stutter, and sometimes I get a little fuzzy if I’m very stressed, or get hit in a certain part of the head from a childhood brain injury.
I had speech therapy through primary school. I wasn’t diagnosed with the learning disorders until I was 20. On my second day of class in the education department, my professor pulled me aside and asked if I needed any extra assistance with tests or essays. I asked her what she was talking about. We then went into her office and she went over my Day One assignment. The assignment was a few short paragraphs, handwritten in class about why we wanted to become teachers. She pointed out a number of tell-tale markers for dyslexia, and offered to have me tested. So we did! I have a processing disorder and a rather common form of dyslexia.
I had good grades in school and took advanced math classes–so none of my teachers thought to look into my reading and writing issues. I have a stress induced stutter, so I assume my teachers gave me a pass on writing because I did okay in class.
I am finding these differences more and more of a problem now that I’m a producer. Keeping up with all the emails and social media is very taxing. That’s why I like Instagram the best– people are looking at your photos, and don’t spend a lot of time reading the caption. But luckily, most people are understanding and patient. My partner proofreads all my big social media postings and flyers. It’s not really a Lee VaLone production if there aren’t at least 3 typos in the advertisements.
You also speak about having a disorder called impostor’s syndrome. You even perform a mix about it. Impostor’s syndrome is the belief that you’re unworthy of praise. Some studies have shown that this affects only (or mostly) women. How has this affected your life?
I think these studies reinforce out-of-date gender binaries, but I digress. I think the reason it’s perceived that this affects mostly women is because women are conditioned from childhood that they are less than. They are less than men, less than establishment, and less than other women. They have to work twice as hard to even be noticed. This obviously works to intensify feelings of being an impostor. Although I do not identify as a woman, I was raised as “girl” and was subject to these same pressures.
Some people claim that this disorder does not exist, or is not something that solely affects women. This article from Jezebel just surfaced recently, claiming this. How do you respond to those who deny its existence?
Impostor’s syndrome as it’s been described to me is absolutely something I have experienced, so that is what I’ll call it. I don’t care if people deny its existence, because I have experienced it. It doesn’t only affect women, but with women it interacts with patriarchy in a particularly toxic way.
Do you need a lot of confidence if you want to succeed as a performer?
You need confidence but more than that you need to be willing to work. It makes me crazy when folks say, “oh, but they are just so talented.” I think that talent is only about 20% of success. The folks that do the best are the ones who work and repeat and rehearse to get what they want. Confidence will come.
I’m interested to hear more about BEEF, the monthly showcase you mentioned earlier that you host on last Tuesdays at Bizarre. (August 30th). I see that you’ve recently taken charge of the production, congratulations! Can you tell us more about that?
BEEF. BEEF started out as a co-production between myself and another Brooklyn King, K. James. We co-produced for a year, but now it’s just me. BEEF is a showcase of manfulness, whatever that can mean. We have all sorts of performers, with an emphasis on drag kings and genderfuck performance.
BEEF is going through this exciting change right now, I’m excited to see where it goes.
You have some really elaborate mustache wigs, I see. Where do you generally get them?
Why thank you! I like them too. I get some of them from local wig shops, but I also make a lot of my own hair pieces and wigs. I have become a little obsessed with wigs and fake hair. As far as I know, I’m the only drag king in Brooklyn who is usually wearing a wig of some kind.
I know I use the most make up of any king in NYC. I enjoy a greater transformation on my face because I can never really hide my traditionally feminine figure (I’m a 38″ 26″ 42″ figure, for goodness sake) I also really enjoy how much the mustache and beard change my facial shape. I have a rather fleshy face–its fun to make myself look more chiseled.
How about your wardrobe, is a lot of it vintage?
Most of my drag is second-hand, so I suppose it is vintage, but less on purpose and more from financial necessity. Having three complete wardrobes for yourself can be expensive (My drag queen persona Heather has a lot of clothes as well. She’s the worst. You’d love her).
I enjoy wearing suits, both in and out of drag. I can sew and alter clothing, so I do buy a lot of Goodwill things and then tailor them.
And I love that David Ayllon photo of you in the wizard beard with the briefcase, which is part of his Posters for Pulse campaign (and also on your BEEF poster). Have you ever worn that look onstage?
That’s my look for my “House of the Rising Sun” number. The character is a preacher on the run from the law, and he has this suitcase full of cash. In the act with the organ solo starts- the Reverend opens the briefcase, and light radiates from it (think Pulp Fiction). He then starts throwing wads of money into the air. It’s my favorite act I have.
Okay, your other appearances! On August 20th, you’re going to perform at the Parkside with the burlesque troupe D20 for their tribute to anime! That sounds fun!
The D20 burlesque group is a treasure in the community, and a real fun time to work with. The first show I did with them was Game of Thrones themed. They put out a booking call asking for submissions. I submitted a proposal for a Hound number, and they said yes. I think it was most of that audience’s first interaction with drag.
Has anime influenced your look and performance at all?
I have always had love of what many people would consider “nerd stuff.” I play DnD, I love fantasy stories, I read comics. Working with the D20 Nerlesque group has been a great way for me to meet people and do numbers that are both drag and burlesque–draglesque!
I can say that anime proper has very little to no influence on my look or work. But cosplayers, and what those kids are doing with wigs/makeup, has greatly influenced how I think about constructing a look. I have learned more from watching cosplay tutorials than I have just about any drag tutorial. I am doing a number paying tribute to one of my favorite cartoon movies of all time–My Neighbor Totoro.
And on Tuesday, it looks like a drag and punk show called GRIT that you’ll be performing in at the Silent Barn! What’s that night going to be like?
GRIT is a new show concept that I’ve had floating around in my head for almost a year. The idea is to bring drag and punk together. I’m co-producing the show with J, my bandmate. He’s extremely knowledgeable in all things local punk and a overall rad person. It’s fun producing with a non-drag performer.
The night is basically going to be three bands–Tin Vulva, Little Waist, and There are Four Lights (the band I’m in)–and three performers –Nyx Nocturne, Vigor Mortis, and myself–melting your face for a few hours.
To me–drag is very punk. Drag is saying fuck what you think to the patriarchy and the gender binary. The two worlds belong together. I’m hoping this show will start happening monthly, and eventually create a community of people and shows. Someday. I hope to have events like the GRIT zine exchange or book fair. I’d love to set up a GRIT gender identity support network. I want to bring the drag community and the local punk community together because I think a lot of good could come of it.
Anything else you want to mention?
Folks should keep an eye out for wig and costume commissions in the next few weeks. I’m on Instagram at Mr.LeeVaLone.
Last question: What is the best thing about being a drag king?
Oh, definitely all the funny things I find on my to-do lists. For example, today I actually said out loud, “Oh crap, I forgot to buy glow in the dark duct tape for my dick. I have to go back to the hardware store.”
I think the absolute best thing about doing drag is, I get to dress up as anyone or anything I want four or five times a month. I then get to be as ridiculous or serious as I want on a stage for someone to see. There isn’t a better feeling in the world.
Lee VaLone hosts the monthly showcase BEEF on last Tuesdays (August 30th this month, 10pm) at Bizarre Bushwick. He will join D20 for their burlesque tribute to anime on August 20th (8pm) at the Parskside Lounge, and will host the punk/drag showcase GRIT at Silent Barn on August 23rd (8pm). Lee can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.