Lela Graham shares a spacious two-bedroom prewar apartment with his partner Evan Dahm near Prospect Park. In theory, the couple shouldn’t lack for space and yet, they sleep in a bed placed in the living room that seems to be drowning in piles of dramatic costumes, glowing colorful wigs, and fake mustaches that flawlessly match each wig’s color — all these are for Graham’s drag alter-ego, Lee VaLone. The whole apartment is for his drag character, even the bathroom and the kitchen, or as Graham puts it, “All of these are drag!”
Since moving to New York from Asheville, NC, Graham has been performing as a drag king in nightclubs all over Brooklyn. Drag kings, mostly performers who wear manly makeup and dress in hyper masculine costumes, tend to get much less media exposure in popular culture than queens and hence people rarely speak of them or know of their existence. To introduce his art form to more New Yorkers, the 31-year-old performer hosts a biweekly drag-king showcase named “Beef” featuring all types of performances ranging from drag, burlesque, to simply singing if one desires.
I met up with Graham on a Friday night after he finished his day job as a nanny. “The parents I work for are amazing and know all the details about my drag,” said Graham. “It’s amazing not having to hide anything from your employers like so many drag and burlesque performers have no choice but to do.” Graham was not yet transformed into his king character–dressed in a sleeveless tank top and tight black jeans with his breasts clearly tucked away, Graham told me even though he was born a girl, he identified as a trans man and had just started hormone replacement therapy to fully transition into a man. We talked about Lee VaLone (get it? “Leave alone”?) and the current state of drag kings in the queer community.
A drag king is a performer or a person that presents a conversation on masculinity with the intention of entertaining you. Drag, to me, should be about entertaining. Entertaining doesn’t always mean laugh; it doesn’t always mean excite. Sometimes, it can mean bringing you to tears; sometimes it can mean emotionally eviscerating you. That is still entertainment because it’s escapism. So for me, drag kinging is simply the masculine spectrum performative drag moment.
When I moved to New York, I was deeply miserable. At the time, RuPaul’s Drag Race was on Netflix, all four seasons of it. I watched all of it and I fell in love with the medium. I thought it was so great, but I didn’t realize I could take part in it. I didn’t know it was accessible to me, so I kind of put it out of my mind. Then I was walking down the street one day and I saw a hand-made glitter-filled sign that said “Drag King Show Tonight” and I went, fell in love with the medium again, and then got started couple months later.
Haha. Itchy! I guess that was the main feeling. It felt very strange. I was still pretending to be a woman. I was still living a life that was no long compatible with who I was. It was all very strange and shocking, as opposed to now when I get into drag, I feel like myself again.
Sure. Lee, as the character, is usually the older gentleman, kind of a silver fox, grounded in his swagger and his sexuality. I really love narratives, so most of my drag pieces are about telling a story, less about thrilling and exciting an audience. I thrive off of dark fantasies, like vampires and cowboys and blood, and the type of masculinity that often get swept under the table because they are not mainstream or they are too flamboyant, or they’re just not really in vogue any more.
Yes, always! I think of drag often as war paint. I know a lot of other performers think of it that way as well. There is a certain kind of protection just being in costumes, the process of getting ready, and the making of all the costumes. It just amplifies whatever that is inside you that you want to say and it makes you feel invincible. And for that however long time that you’re on stage, if you can hold the audience, and you can make the connect with you, you’re a fucking god. And it’s the best feeling in the world and I recommend it to everybody to try.
I’m so boring — I’ve been wearing the same outfit for literal years: black jeans, black T-shirt, black hoodie, and leather or wool jacket. Maybe, if I’m feeling crazy, a ring or two. Having a day uniform makes my life infinitely easier.
About the same in a lot of ways. Hahaha! Maybe that is not quite true — I’m actually quite shy. I am a mentally ill person. I’m a trans man. That comes with its own social set of hurdles. I am a former addict. I also, depending on my depression level, have agoraphobia — it’s really hard for me to leave my house. Lately it’s been getting a lot better because the sun’s been coming out. I’ve been doing a lot better, but this past winter and most of the fall, I barely left my house, which surprises people.
Well, Lela isn’t really around anymore. I guess the primary difference, between who I was before I came out as trans and the person I am now, is that now I have no skeleton in my closet and I have nothing to lose. It is very liberating. Right now, it is a very scary time to be a human being, a gay person, or a trans person. Once you come out to your chosen family, in your social spheres professionally, everything is a lot easier because it makes it easier to come out about anything else in your life that might be holding you back. Lately the thing I’m most thankful for is I have nothing fucking left to lose and it’s great.
I think the simple answer is misogyny. I think there’s just a lot of misogyny and trans misogyny in cis gay spaces. I think that a lot of it has to do with preconceived notions that masculinity is not interesting and that is hilarious to me because once you dissect and break up masculinity, it’s just as diverse as femininity. Those stories [of masculinity] haven’t been told yet. So why not? Why not tell all these stories? There is so much to say!
I think that the show of course has made drag more visible in the public eye and has made drag performance more interesting to people who don’t know anything about drag. But it’s hurt the king community a lot because a precedent has been set by RuPaul and the drag queens that are on the show, that this is what drag is and if you don’t meet the standard, what you are doing is not drag, which is completely obnoxious and hurts kings and queens alike.
This past season I did not watch, but I’ve seen a lot of screenshots of Miley Cyrus in very sad and unfortunate king makeup. It’s very disheartening ‘cuz if this is what RuPaul thinks of a drag king and think of as gender blending and bending with kings and masculinity, then there is a problem here — when RuPaul brought Lady Gaga onto the show, it was out of respect and from a place of honor; when they did the king stuff with Miley, it was for a joke and she was meant to be a joke. That is extremely discouraging to me.
Absolutely not. I have seen first-hand what being on that show does for a person’s privacy, mental health, craftsmanship, and their relationship to any space outside of their own home. As a mentally ill person who has trouble with substances and doesn’t like being away from home, I couldn’t handle it and I’m not really interested.
Hopefully [I’m] still doing drag and producing more upscale shows, but the main thing I want to be doing is developing as a sideshow performer. I am the current reigning “Mr. Coney Island.” Coney Island is so important to me as a performer that I’m interested in pursuing those traditions a little more. I feel like the drag scene is changing so very much right now. I hope I’ll still be part of it. If I’m not a part of the scene but still doing drag in another sort of space, that sounds good to me too.