Kingdom Comes

Girls who dress and act like boys, St. Louis' drag kings get up onstage to bend and blur the line between the sexes

"There's two things we don't want to happen," he'd said earlier: "We don't want the mustache to fall off, and we don't want to spit out our teeth."

For Justin's creator, 53-year-old Rosie Schuff, kinging's mainly common sense: "Keep your gestures low, and swing your hips more front to back than side to side. I saw one king swingin' like a washing machine, a Maytag gone nuts." She pauses. "You have to be sure of who you are to do this -- or totally confused."

Rosie saw her first kings back in the '70s, before they were called kings and before acting like men became taboo. For the past seven years, she's been performing solo in tiny gay bars from here to Tulsa, Springfield and Poplar Bluff, where she was twice kicked out of the ladies' room. According to local bartenders, she's the only truly believable king around. Still, she says she'll never get the gigs the queens get:

Amy Bautz
Luke Lonewolf, who manages the Bent Boyz troupe, tries not to smile.
Amy Bautz
Luke Lonewolf, who manages the Bent Boyz troupe, tries not to smile.

"It's hard to break in; they've got their own good-ol'-boys' network, and no matter how much of a man I look like, I'm never gonna be part of that. The plumbing just ain't there." She sighs. "Honey, the queens can't even get the pronouns straight. I've been introduced as Miss Justin Case so many times!"

Plausibly male in drag, Rosie doesn't even bother to pack: "I've got so much belly they couldn't tell if I did," she chuckles. "It's body shape that makes the difference. From the back I look like a boy, straight up and down. To get ready, I just take off my bra, put on a T-shirt and a back support -- higher than you're supposed to wear it -- and throw on jeans and a shirt. I brush my hair, spritz it to make it lay down right, put on some cologne, glue on my mustache and head for the door.

"Some of the queens get upset because I don't change clothes very often," she says. "Well, when a queen won't book you because you don't have anything fancy to wear, how are you going to get anything fancy to wear?"

On disability after years of shoveling coal in a mine, Rosie lives in a trailer that used to be a meth lab. Her neighbors inspired her most famous routine: "I looked around the trailer court and thought, 'If you did a sex change on one of these turkeys, what would you get?' -- because you know durn well it wouldn't take.'"

Thus was born Rosie's gender-bending comedy act: Justin in knee-high nylons and combat boots and a little red polka-dotted dress with a sailor collar and Taco Bell Chihuahua boxers underneath. "I've got a very sorry excuse for a blond wig, with a couple silver beads hanging from one side that fell off a drag queen's outfit," she adds, "and another wig, different shade of blonde, stuck in my cleavage and pulled out as long chest hair. I'm so not right."

One man laughed so hard, his friends had to get his heart medicine, Rosie says: "Next time he saw me, he said, 'You got your dress?' and I said, 'You got your medicine?'"

She chuckles for a while, then sobers: "I did that number in Tulsa, and a guy came up afterward, when I was sitting at the bar taking off my wigs. He told me he'd planned to come in that night and have a couple drinks before committing suicide. He said, 'You were having so much fun up there, making light of something that's caused me so much pain. You put all the hurt aside -- and I changed my mind."

Rosie does drag to make the audience laugh, cry, feel anything but shame. Justin's a low-key ladies' man with a taste for country & western, likely to lip-synch "Angels Among Us" or "God Bless America" in the wildest of bars. "I'd look silly as hell getting up there doing a rap number like the young drag kings," says Rosie, "with this thing and that thing and every other thing pierced. About the only political statement I'm making is 'I'm here.'"

So she's not worried about deconstructing what Maureen calls "the gender binary"?

"The gender what?"

A lesbian couple at Magnolia's once called her "an insult to lesbians around the world."

"I didn't think I was having that big an impact," she said dryly.

Younger kings aren't sure how to comment about Justin, who's kindly, has an obvious knack for this sort of thing, but comes at it more like Milton Berle than Marlene Dietrich.

"He definitely is himself," says Duncan B. Deepe finally. "And that's the best thing you can be." A former St. Louisan named Rena Aharanov, Duncan helped start the new wave of drag-kinging here and watched the Bent Boyz take off. He left in 2001, accepting an invitation to appear on the Maury Povich Show, then moving down to D.C. to do a string of shows and benefits. He's now performing solo on the West Coast.

Gender, he points out, is always a performance. Drag kings turn it into a show -- but the illusion rests on the audience's preconceptions. If nobody believed in the boxes, switching wouldn't even be noticeable.

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