Guises and Dolls | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Guises and Dolls 

Michelle Campbell's dissertation is turning out to be a real drag.

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Occasionally while she's performing as Mick Mounter, a gentleman heartthrob with sideburns and a soul patch, bits of Michelle Campbell's real-life identity show through. "[Mick] smiles too much and uses his hands a lot when he talks," says Campbell, who, as a straight woman, is a rare bird in the world of drag kings. When she expounds on this contradiction, another of Campbell's personas is revealed: the grad student. "It's hard for me to police my feminisms that are so ingrained in me socially," she says. "Part of it is that I just want to let it be, because why not challenge what can be seen as masculine?"

As a member of the mostly female drag troupe the Chicago Kings (two Kings are female-to-male transsexuals), Campbell performs at clubs and colleges as Mounter and as Natalie Woody, an ambiguously Puerto Rican female character in the "femme drag," or "bioqueen," tradition. She does it for fun, she says, but it's also part of her PhD dissertation, an autoethnographic analysis of the Kings. (Autoethnography is what it sounds like--the study of a group that the researcher belongs to.) A chapter of that dissertation, which she's just begun writing, will look at the politics of race in the performance of gender, and this weekend at the Sixth International Drag King Extravaganza she'll present a paper called "Performing Gender, Performing Race: The Racial Meanings of Drag." She'll also be performing twice during the four-day fest, which is hosted by the Chicago Kings.

To become Mounter, Campbell, who's 26, uses a nail polish-type wand to brush spirit gum onto her face. She then applies a very finely minced synthetic hair weave in a dark shade that matches her real hair--a common technique, she says, though some drag kings use clippings of their own hair. "If the pieces are too long it's awful," she says. "It's totally an art." Mounter's sideburns work similarly, though lately Campbell's simply brushed down her own short hair instead. "Maybe that's laziness," she says, or "maybe that's just being a smarter king." The finishing touch is the packy--a silicone model of a flaccid penis and testicles--that Campbell stuffs down her pants.

Campbell became interested in what defines gender during her freshman year at UC-Santa Cruz, when, on a school-sponsored backpacking trip to the Colorado Plateau, the girls separated from the guys for a few days of bonding. "It sounds really hokey, but it's the truth," she says. "We talked about things that up until that point I thought that only I experienced, such as dissatisfaction with sex, or being obsessive about my body image. I had never put it together that these are gender constructs. That was the moment for me--literally going backpacking with women, sitting around a campfire and sharing experiences."

Four years later, in the fall of 2000, having received bachelor's degrees in women's studies and theater, Campbell left California, where she was born and raised, to begin her graduate studies. She chose Northwestern for its performance studies program, then one of only two such programs in the country. She wanted to study with two of its professors, the director Mary Zimmerman and Dwight Conquergood, an ethnographer, in particular. "It just seemed like both sides of me would be nurtured there," she says. "The side of me that's a performer and the side of that me that constantly wants to make inquiries into gender and queer theory."

At first Campbell planned to focus her research on intersexuals--people born with characteristics of both sexes. But a year into her course work, a colleague invited her to a Chicago Kings Halloween show. There Campbell was "turned on in many ways": by a comic send-up of pop femininity in a Britney Spears act by a Kings founder named Kristin Lohr (stage name: Harley Poker) who had "actually stuffed a bra--he had bound breasts and a bra on top"; by the boyish charm of Debbie Linn, another founder (who performs as Maxx Hollywood); and by the "explicit performance of desire" evidenced by the audience's hooting and hollering. "There was a lot of sexual tension in the room," she says. "Intellectually, I started thinking right away, Ooh, I want to write about what I'm seeing here." A few interviews and papers later, she was welcomed into the Kings' fold as their first and only ethnographer.

The Kings were founded in February 2001 as "a place for butch women to feel appreciated," says Sam Bryer, also a founder. The troupe came of age quickly; for a brief time in 2002 it was the largest of its kind in the nation, with about 40 members. They've since instituted a 30-member cap. "It just got to be a lot of work to track down so many people and hold them accountable as far as how involved they were," says Bryer, whose drag name is Mr. Big.

Currently there are 28 Kings. They're known for their elaborate, theatrical productions. Acts have featured cyborg factory workers; U.S. flags printed with images of Laura and George W. Bush being ripped, spray-painted, and spat upon in a Sex Pistols act; and the popular "bug act," a battle royal between bugs and exterminators choreographed to Queen's "We Are the Champions" and "Another One Bites the Dust." Many troupe members believe the bug act, which they performed at the 2002 IDKE, cemented the Kings' reputation nationwide. "We didn't expect the kind of reaction we got," says Bryer. "It was almost tear-jerking to get this kind of rock-star applause for something we spent a really long time putting together. We went beyond the traditional 'I'm a girl dressed up as a guy' thing and took it to a new level: 'Let's be girls dressed up as guys dressed up as bugs!'"

More than 250 kings from 34 cities and seven countries are expected to set up camp in Chicago for IDKE 6. Campbell will perform in an act called "Escape" at Friday night's Dragdom event and in the Kings' Saturday-night finale at the Metro, a 13-king ensemble act called "Rollercoaster in Love" that requires the use of long red and yellow tethers loosely binding the performers, stretching and crisscrossing, at times calling to mind the string game Jacob's ladder. "There's something for everybody," says Campbell, putting her grad-student hat back on. "There's all kinds of genders being performed, including female genders. That open playfulness is itself sexy; it takes a kind of confidence that I don't think most people have."

When Campbell joined the Chicago Kings two years ago, she worried that her heterosexuality might be an issue. "I felt like I had to come out as straight," she says. "They didn't even flinch. They were like, 'Sure, OK, whatever.' I was surprised how quick they were to accept it." Campbell's boyfriend, James Hayford, a DJ, has accepted it as well--he's often the first person to greet Mick Mounter when he emerges from the dressing room. "It's great," says Campbell. "He comes to shows, he'll tell me I look hot, stand guard for me while I adjust my packy or something, and get my facial hair in his teeth when he gives me kisses."

Dragdom

When: Fri 10/15, 8 PM

Where: Dragon Room, 809 W. Evergreen

Price: $8 before 11 PM, $10 after

Age: 21 and over

International Drag King Showcase

When: Sat 10/16, 10 PM

Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark

Price: $16

Age: 18 and over

Conference sessions

When: Fri-Sat 10/15-10/16

Where: Columbia College

Price: $45

Info: www.idkechicago.com or 312-458-0747

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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