Saturday, March 29, 2008 | By day, he’s mild-mannered Alexander Williams, the sweet, somewhat nerdy boy who pampers pooches at the South Bark Dog Wash. By night, he’s a hyperkinetic star who lip-synchs before a screaming crowd at a North Park bar, pelvis thrusting under the dizzying spotlights.
Williams, 21, recently earned a spot on the San Diego Kings Club, a troupe of drag performers who mimic male icons, through a three-month contest styled like American Idol, with new themes and competitors voted off week by week. His brand of offbeat, exuberant drag won over the judges and earned him fistfuls of dollars, flung at the stage by fans. His stage name is a bit too raunchy to print. As his alter ego, he’s swaggered like Elvis, stumbled like a lounge lizard, and torn off a dress and wig to the tune of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.”
Unlike many drag kings, who identify and live as women, Williams is transgender, and lives as a man every day. Born female, Williams came out as lesbian at age 14, and led the gay-straight alliance at Granite Hills High School. Years ago, when he started doing drag, he was still living as a woman, and had to pencil in his sideburns with eyeliner.
“I stumbled across the Kings’ website as a lonely 17-year-old lesbian in El Cajon, and I was like, wow — there’s other gay people out there!” he recalled. “And the ball got rolling.”
Though he now identifies as a man and has started taking hormones to transform his body, Williams hasn’t given up his drag career. His participation in the Kings Club contest raised some eyebrows among spectators, who contend that any man — transgender or biological — can’t perform as a drag king.
Williams shrugs off the skeptics. Newly crowned, he joined us for a chat about gender, losing his singing voice to testosterone, and his extroverted alter ego.
Tell me about the first time you performed in drag.
Oh, it was terrible. The first time I performed drag was at Youth Pride (an event for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth) in 2005, and the auditions were miserable. … I did a really terrible Weezer song, and I dropped my brand-new guitar and broke it. They were like, “Um, thanks, but you need to work on that.”
But you stuck with it.
I realized that it was probably a temporary thing, and I worked on it. My next show was at the Hillcrest Youth Center, and it went considerably better. But I had a drag queen steal a bunch of my stuff out of my bag that night.
So it’s been a long road.
(Laughs) Exactly. It’s been a very long road.
How does a drag act come together for you?
All my drag numbers start with songs that I really like, or songs that I think would be really funny, or if I hear a song and think, I could put a story together in my head, and present it in front of people — if I think it’s something they might find entertaining or funny, I go from there. I practice my butt off, and try to learn the words. … During the competition, I’d practice a good half hour or 45 minutes every night. That’s just stand-up practice — it’s not listening to the music, trying to figure out the words. For songs where I didn’t know the words, I’d just read the words off the page and rewrite them so they’d stick in my head.
How do you quell pre-performance anxiety? Do you have any special tricks?
I used to be a complete mess before shows. I was a total jerk. I’d yell at my friends. I was really mean to my girlfriend. It was so terrible. I was a total douche bag. But I got a lot better. I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I seem really calm before shows. But it’s a facade. I’m freaking out on the inside.
Are you performing as yourself, or do you take on a persona?
I feel like [my stage character] is a persona. It’s definitely me in there, because I love the songs. I lost my singing voice when I started hormones, so for me, it’s as close to singing as I can get now. But it’s [the persona] that’s up there. He’s got this bravado, he’s bigger than me. He does a lot of things I probably wouldn’t do, in everyday life, a lot of ridiculousness. … I don’t do as much hip-thrusting in real life!
There’s this difference between drag, which is gender crossing as performance, and being transgender, which is an identity. How do you negotiate those two things — drag, and being transgender?
Drag was like my gateway drug into transitioning. I got into drag, and I looked at myself with the sideburns and the facial hair, and I said, “This is pretty cool. This is way better.” That planted the seed. And I started doing more research. When you do research on drag, a lot of trans/FTM [female to male] resources come up, too. The two are closely linked. You’re doing the same thing — you’re trying to look like a guy, trying to pick up the mannerisms. So the two went hand in hand, for a little bit.
Then it got to this point where I was like, you know, I’m comfortable enough with my own self to say, “It’s my gender, and I’ll f— with it if I want to.” I do girl drag too, sometimes. I’ll do girl drag, and boy drag, and for me, I’m comfortable enough with where I’m at in my transition, and with my body, that I can do these kind of things.
Plus, it’s so much fun. I didn’t want to give it up. And I definitely went through trying to figure out, okay, once I start doing hormones, when do I stop doing drag? Because I have a little bit of facial hair now, I don’t really need the makeup [to draw on a beard] as much. But at the same time, I still want to do it.
Do you anticipate having to decide, at some point? Giving up drag?
I don’t know. Maybe in years and years. I’m seeing how it goes. Right now I’m so excited being a San Diego King that I don’t really want to stop. But it’s probably going to come to that.
Have there ever been tensions over that? People questioning how you can do drag, and transition at the same time?
Definitely. People have definitely questioned me about it, and I anticipated it. I knew it was coming. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Isn’t that cheating?” And I say no, it’s not cheating. Drag isn’t about just looking like a boy. It’s about the whole persona. You have to put this stage presence out, learn the music — looking like a boy is a very small part of the equation. Maybe two or three people came up and actually talked to me about it. But I’ve heard of a lot more people saying stuff, who haven’t come up to me. I don’t really care. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to go.
It seems like the way you define drag is more about performance and the persona than specifically crossing from one gender to another.
I don’t have that big of a concept of gender. When I look back to when I was a kid, I never had this concept of gender. I knew I wasn’t a girl, but I didn’t really know the difference between me and the rest of the boys. Gender doesn’t play that big of a part in my life. But I definitely see where a lot of people use [drag] as a gender expression, where they can’t do these things in their regular life, so they do them onstage and have less anxiety about it. Where normally, they wouldn’t go out with facial hair and [chest] binding and stuff.
What does it feel like when you perform?
It’s just this rush. When I get there, I try to forget all these people in the room staring at me. I look at the back wall, or people I know. Generally, it’s awesome, to get that attention.