The fascinating legacy of male impersonators, the gender rebels that history forgot | Stylist

Thanks to the meteoric rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag is now thoroughly mainstream. But while drag queens have extended their six-inch heels into the spotlight, drag kings, performance artists who critique masculinity, have been left on the margins of pop culture. Christobel Hastings explores a forgotten era when women were crossing gender lines, experimenting with their identity, and becoming international stars on their own terms

The year was 1912, and on a warm summer’s night, the first ever Royal Command Performance of Variety took place at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. The bill was a rich and eclectic mix of entertainers; singers, dancers, comedians and magicians, each one hoping to impress the crowd, and more importantly, win the approval of George V and Queen Mary. By all accounts, the Royal party enjoyed the spectacle, except for one moment when a male impersonator by the name of Vesta Tilley took to the stage to perform a lively rendition of Algy, The Piccadilly Johnny. Scandalised by the sight of a woman wearing trousers, the Queen reportedly buried her face in her theatre programme.

Tilley’s performance was no wildcard. She was, in fact, the highest-paid female entertainer on the British stage, commanding sums of £1,000 a week for impersonating men from all walks of life. Over a century later, and while drag kings, a movement of performers who don masculine drag and critique male gender stereotypes have grown in visibility, they nevertheless remain on the margins of mainstream pop culture. But while the scene may still be in its infancy, there have always been women who have pushed the boundaries of gender. 

150 years ago, in fact, a rich seam of female performers were skewering masculinity on stage in a subculture that’s all but been forgotten. To trace the legacy of drag kings, we have to travel back to the mid-19th century, when the first generation of male impersonators were treading the boards of British music hall, and becoming international stars.

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