This veteran drag king has been a staple of the vital Brooklyn collective Switch n’ Play for a decade now, and he’s still finding ways to wow us with his fun, sexy and smart performances. While shy and introspective off-stage, there’s nothing quite like the manly magic of K. James when it’s showtime!
K. James: I loved doing that show! I had so much fun performing with Mini Horrorwitz and dream boi–and I’ve always loved Patti’s performances and aesthetic–so I was thrilled to join the cast for the evening.
How sad were your songs?
It was a really interesting concept for me to explore because I realized that “sad songs” aren’t usually part of my repertoire! I had to figure out what “sad K.James” looked like, and I liked having that opportunity to try something different.
My first sad song was a mix of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” and “One More Try” that I first performed at Nightgowns when it was still at Bizarre. Especially when I was first starting out, I made a lot of acts to George Michael songs and I thought I wouldn’t use more of his catalog–but when he passed away, I knew I had to do a tribute act. I’m definitely one of those drag kings who count him as a drag father and a butch icon.
My second sad song was Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and I really loved it because it’s a challenging lip sync, and I enjoy taking opportunities to lip sync to women vocalists as well. And it’s such a good song.
You know they recently released an early Prince recording of that song, have you heard it?
Yes, I love it! So cool to hear that. I just performed Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” as Gomez Addams at our Switch n’ Play Addams Family show, as a kinky tribute to his relationship with Morticia in the movies: “I would die for her, I would kill for her…either way, what bliss.”
Who else do you count among your “macho” inspirations for K?
Haha, I don’t know how macho I really am! A lot of my style references come from iconic masculine imagery from the 50s, 80s, and 90s, like James Dean, Elvis, and of course George Michael. And I think the way they styled themselves kind of pointed to masculinity as conscious and performed, which is why kings are drawn to them. But it’s not about impersonation for me, it’s about taking these elements and remixing them and finding ways to express myself and my gender.
I was just at the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which was definitely inspirational. And they had this section about Elvis and the stage makeup he wore to look “more masculine” vs. Bowie ushering in more glam and androgynous looks. so interesting!
So where’s your hometown, and have you always been into performing of some sort?
I’m from Maine, and I definitely wasn’t a performer. I’m a very shy and quiet person offstage, so I don’t think anyone would have guessed that being a drag king was in my future. But as a kid, I loved to lip sync alone in my room…without knowing about it as a queer form of expression. It was a lot of solitary Mariah Carey performances back then.
That’s always where it starts! When were you first exposed to drag?
I started performing as a drag king in 2008 after I moved into an apartment with some of the founding Switch n’ Play kings. At first I worked the door and did other behind-the-scenes things, but I finally got up the courage to try a lip sync, which surprised everyone because I was so quiet.
I had seen some drag queens earlier on, but I didn’t know much about the drag scene until I came to New York and met a group of kings right away. The kings asked me to join the collective that first night after I performed in 2008, and I’ve been a member and producer with the collective and consistently performing in NYC ever since.
Switch n’Play have an interesting, long history! I understand that, despite its large roster today, none of the original members are remain regularly active in the troupe.
I’m the longest running member at ten years! The group is twelve years old, and we’re still in touch with some of the founding members: P. Bigs and Max Satisfaction, who actually did a guest performance with us last year! The early members mostly retired from drag or moved on to other things, but we stay in touch about how things are going, and I’m glad they are proud
The group was originally a drag king collective, but we’re excited that the current roster (Divina GranSparkle, Miss Malice, Nyx Nocturne, Pearl Harbor, Vigor Mortis & Zoe Ziegfeld) offers such a range of performance styles.
The group is definitely accommodating a larger spectrum of gender identities! Drag kingdom in the past decade has at its highs and lows as far as popularity goes in just the past decade.
It’s true. I definitely remember years where it was just like me and Goldie Peacock holding it down in Brooklyn, and no one seemed to care about kings!
I’d say it’s on an upswing again.
It’s amazing to see how much that has changed, and to see kings being featured on a lot of bills with queens and burlesque performers. There’s definitely more interest right now from audiences and press, so it’s great to see kings receiving recognition.
In your experience as a king, has burlesque always played such an essential element in performance, or is that a more recent development? It seems like every king I see now strips down to a flesh-colored bodysuit and pasties.
It definitely wasn’t always a part of my kinging – especially because in my early years of performance, I didn’t have that level of confidence with my body. Part of that was because I hadn’t had top surgery yet, and that was something I needed to do to feel good in my body. I feel like elements of striptease became incorporated as I spent more time around incredible burlesque artists I admired, and who helped me see how the art form could be empowering or help me reclaim my body. I don’t always strip, but showing my chest especially is a way of feeling visible as a trans person and claiming that gaze. Sometimes I use pasties, too!
Would you say that drag helped you realize your gender identity, or were you already on that path when you started performing?
I had come out as trans four years before I started performing, but I was definitely still figuring how how to define my gender. The drag community helped me a lot because it steered me away from the more toxic, rigid definitions of masculinity I saw when I first came out. Drag helped me explore different versions of boyishness and masculinity, so I could find what felt right for me and not feel pressured to conform to cis het norms.
Are you similar at all to your stage persona in your daily life?
Could not be more different. I’m still shy and reserved offstage, and K.James is the total opposite. But I don’t think of K.James as a separate character. It’s more like an outlet for me to express myself through lip sync and dance in a way I can’t always access when talking to people as myself
Let’s talk about gigs where we can find you this weekend, starting with Hot Face at Bizarre this Friday! That’s a mixed burlesque revue you’re taking part in. Is there any sort of theme for this night?
Yes! So excited. It’s Divina GranSparkle’s inaugural show there, and it’s described as celebrating “all things nasty with a side of filth,” very John Waters-esque, which is perfect for her. I’m doing one of my favorite acts, my 1950’s era milkman stripper fantasy act that ends with me pouring cream on my chest. Divina requested messy acts, so I’m not holding back!
All amazing! Then on Saturday, you’ll be with Switch n’Play for one of your two monthly shows at Branded Saloon! What kind of audience do you get for these shows–queer, mixed, etc?
It’s always good to be home at Switch n’ Play. I’d say it’s a queer audience…and a very enthusiastic, joyful vibe. We have a lot of regulars, but we also love seeing all the new faces coming in and becoming part of the family.
SnP members Divina, Zoe Ziegfeld, Miss Malice and I are performing at this one, and we have Neon Calypso, Michelle Wynters, and Genie Adagio joining us as special guests. Such a great group, so I can’t wait. And my brother Vigor will be at the door!
What are some other favorite numbers of yours to perform these days?
I’ve had a lot of fun with my act to INXS’s “Need You Tonight” recently… but my favorite recent performance was the Chippendales duet I do with Vigor Mortis! It’s so much fun to do, and I love the audience response we get to all the RuPaul’s Drag Race inside jokes we put in.
I’ve seen some things popping up, but I haven’t really followed it!
Yes, it’s nuts! But whatevs, people are crazy.
Are you planning on making any sort of appearance at DragCon when it comes to NY? I’m not sure how well Kings are represented there.
I did go last year in NY, and I will probably go again, but the crowds were a little overwhelming. Would love to see more kings represented, but a few of us were definitely there walking around last time!
Last year, SnP got some Brooklyn Nightlife Awards love… do you think it’s gonna happen again in June?
Yeah! We were so excited to win “Best Burlesque Show” after being nominated previously in both drag and burlesque categories. It meant a lot to us to receive that recognition. We definitely hope to be nominated again!
Good luck! Anything else to report?
Switch n’ Play is at Branded Saloon every second and fourth Saturday of the month, and in June we will be producing again at Coney Island USA for their Burlesque at the Beach series on June 1st! We’ll also be doing a crossover show with Zoe Ziegfeld and Fancy Feast’s Fuck You Revue at Bizarre in June for Pride on June 19th. I’ll also be a guest at Veronica Viper’s Wormwood Burlesque at Bizarre on June 29th. So it’s going to be a busy month, for sure.
Cool for the summer! Okay, last question: would you do / have you done Trump drag, or is that too gross?
Too gross for me, personally! I don’t think I could handle inflicting more of him on anyone – but I’m sure there are kings who have done it well.
Indeed! Thanks, K.!
K. James performs with the Switch n’Play troupe at Branded Saloon on second and fourth Saturdays. Check Thotyssey’s calendar for all his scheduled gigs, and follow K. on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.