If you go to Vancouver and say the name Ponyboy in any queer or artistic circle, it’s likely your fellow queers and artists will know exactly who you’re talking about. Drag king culture thrives in Vancouver. Since arriving on the local (and international) scene, Ponyboy has elevated a tradition built on amateur nights in seedy lesbian bars to David Bowie-worthy glam rock performance art. Here Whiskey Blue* talks with Ponyboy about how it all began and how it’s all still going.
WB: How did you first get into drag?
Ponyboy: In 2007 I moved to Vancouver from Ladner (deep in the surburbs of Vancouver) and started bartending at Lick, Vancouver’s now-defunct dyke bar. The manager at the time was quite supportive of community folks coming in and throwing their own events, often one-offs and fundraisers, so when my birthday rolled around in January of the next year, I proposed doing a benefit party for Greenpeace. A good way to draw a crowd seemed to book entertainment, and although I didn’t know the first thing about drag, the manager put me in touch with one of Vancouver’s ‘veteran’ kings who could help connect me with local performers and book the show. (This king, Sammy Tomato, ended up designing an event poster for me as well which turned into a wonderfully unexpected crash course in event planning.) Sammy ended up daring me to perform in the show myself, and while I was totally nervous and had no idea what I was getting myself into, I accepted the challenge. I kept it a secret from all my guests, even my girlfriend at the time. The event ended up bringing out quite a big crowd, we raised $700 for Greenpeace, everyone loved the show, and a month later, Sammy approached me about teaming up (along with Majik and Edward Malaprop) to start a new monthly drag king night. We had our first “Man Up” that March.
WB: What was it like, getting onstage for the very first time?
Ponyboy: It was totally exhilarating! Of course I was nervous, but with the bright lights and adrenaline rush, in front of our crowded little dive bar of smiling and cheering faces, many who were there specifically to celebrate with me, it couldn’t have been a more rewarding first experience. However, I still wasn’t thinking about drag as something I would necessarily pursue. Even when Sammy started talking to me about the Man Up show idea, I saw it more as an opportunity to get involved in producing an event, not about becoming a king myself, per se.
WB: Do you remember the first outfit you put together?
Ponyboy: The song was “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael, and I did a straightforward impersonation sort of outfit: biker boots, tight white jeans, black mesh gloves, leather jacket, aviators, cross earring, 5 o’clock shadow.
WB: Can you walk me through your favorite outfit of all time?
Ponyboy: My favourite outfits are always ones that others put together for me; I don’t think costume styling is my strongest suit, and it’s so much more fun to collaborate anyway! So yeah it’s super hard to narrow it down (read: remember all the outfits I’ve ever worn) but top contenders might be the ensembles I wore for our Freddie Mercury tribute show in 2011, both of which were thanks to a bad ass local vintage store owner, and long time queer community supporter, named Burcu. One had tight leather pants, knee-high red vinyl boots, a sequined multi-coloured vest over bare stipple-haired chest, and amazing Freddie false teeth made by one of our kings whose day job is in special effects make up. The other outfit was a black poofy 80s glam dress, ripped red fishnets, army boots, and a crazy hair metal mullet wig.
WB: What does drag mean to you?
Ponyboy: To me drag is about ordinary people being able to find within themselves an alter-ego, or a way of being that perhaps they’ve never had the opportunity to explore, then giving it life by sharing it publicly on a stage. It’s about DIY, amateur, accessible performance art, that can be used equally effectively to simply enrich our queer gathering spaces with fun and entertainment, or to make powerful, inspiring, liberating, and much needed social commentary. It’s also, for me, about bringing political discourse about gender and sexuality to an audience beyond the gay scene, which seems to be happening with the growth of our audience. So while my first priority is to keep the space queer, safe, and women-oriented, it’s also cool to see “straight”, “cis”, and ambiguous/non-queer people coming out and enjoying our shows. With the mixing come certain challenges, but overall everyone is super respectful of each other, and of the space.
WB: Do you remember your first encounter with drag king culture?
Ponyboy: Yeah, I was a long-haired Ladnerite (deep in the suburbs of Vancouver) who was escorted to another now-defunct Gastown bar called Sonar, by a girl I met on SuperDyke.com. DKU (Drag Kings United) was performing; they were a well-known troupe that hailed from the last era of drag king popularity in Vancouver. DKU included Majik, Sammy, Ed, and several others. I was pretty self-conscious – I think that was my first ever lesbian event – so I don’t remember much about the show beyond Cazzwell Van Dyke and Dax cage dancing, and Sammy Tomato doing a politically-charged performance.
WB: Who have been some of your influences?
Ponyboy: On a local level, my collaborators and drag comrades, particularly the ones who have been around for a while, had everything to do with my development both as an organizer and as a king. The term “drag daddy” — the performer who first introduces you, or who supports you — is really quite apt in describing the role that early mentors play in influencing your development as a performer. Just about every one of the DKU guys has helped to educate me on the various political topics that, I now know, absolutely need to be understood by queer community leaders. Two of the hot topics are cultural appropriation and internalized misogyny, both of which can, interestingly, show up in drag performances.
WB: How would you describe the drag scene in Vancouver?
Ponyboy: Based on my travels and research, literally nowhere in the world has such a thriving drag king community as Vancouver’s. Drag kings have almost as much — indeed, in some parts of the city, more — of a presence than drag queens. So for kings, it’s totally amazing, and maybe the best place to be for spectators and aspiring performers alike. Most cities I’ve visited, including even San Francisco and Berlin, don’t have any actively performing kings, let alone a regular event that provides a dozen or more people with paid gigs every month.
Speaking about the Vancouver drag scene more generally, I think we’re at a very interesting point in time. I’ve always tried to avoid using terms like “lesbian” and “women” when describing Man Up events, despite these being accurate descriptors for the majority of our crowd, in an effort to create an environment where people of many genders and backgrounds would feel welcome to come party. These days, not only are girls partying with guys more (thanks in part to a shortage of women’s spaces, which totally sucks, but has had some interesting consequences) but more people than ever are openly and confidently identifying as non-binary gendered. This all seems to be blowing open a whole new queer world, where the old familiar distinctions of a “men’s scene” and a “women’s scene” are becoming increasingly blurred. I think that Man Up, and its mandate for celebrating gender diversity, is one of several intersecting factors at play right now in Vancouver, in terms of moving the community towards better integration and acceptance, deeper understandings of anti-oppression politics, and the emergence of a variety of drag that is neither king nor queen, but wacky and unpredictable gender-bendy craziness.
WB: Do you like to do collaborations?
Ponyboy: They’re the best part! I’ve gotten to work with stylists, make up artists, dancers, actors, musicians, graphic designers, photographers, film makers, sound engineers, and so many more, not to mention many amazing drag performers. Group numbers are laborious efforts but SO worthwhile. Scheduling rehearsals with these crazy busy people is probably the hardest part!
WB: Do you have any big plans for Ponyboy in the coming year? Pride stuff?
Ponyboy: We’re currently revisiting a web series about drag kings that we started last year, and we also hope to hit the road again this year, most likely to Victoria, Winnipeg, Portland or San Francisco.
WB: What’s a common misconception about drag kings?
Ponyboy: Well most people have never heard of a drag king, so it’s hard to say whether they have any conception of us at all! But perhaps within queer communities who understand the term yet maybe have only a couple kings (or none at all) within a predominantly queen scene, kings may occasionally bear a reputation for just throwing on a baseball cap and baggy jeans and hopping onstage for a less-than-electrifying lip sync. But anyone who knows Man Up knows that the energy, thoughtfulness, and complexity of a drag king performance can be totally exciting and unique.
WB: What is the greatest reward that’s come out of drag for you?
Ponyboy: Having people come up to me at shows and share how their exposure to drag has catalyzed the discovery of a part of themselves that they can now accept, share, and be proud of; this is probably the most validating and heart-melting experience I’ve had in doing this work. Our little offshoot party Amateur Hour has also been incredibly rewarding, too, as it’s created a totally accessible stage for people to try drag, be they someone who wants to do it once to challenge their comfort zone, or an ambitious aspiring performer who pursues it seriously and moves on to join our main show.
*Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica. She blogs at Psychology Today and writes an advice column for Everyone is Gay. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Believer, Ms. Magazine, AfterEllen, Bitch, Original Plumbing, and The Huffington Post. Follow Whiskey Blue @topshelferotica.