When I meet ‘Flirty Bertie’ in a pub near Leicester Square, nothing seems out of the ordinary. There are men in suits drinking pints after a long day at work, while the news flickers on the television screen in the background. However, when descending down the stairs, the atmosphere instantly changes. A stage is set up for the night ahead, numerous drag queens pop in and out of the dressing room, and Flirty Bertie seems to visibly relax as they come over to greet him. Though, Flirty Bertie is no drag queen himself. In fact, he is quite the opposite: During the day, Flirty Bertie is known as ‘Lisa’. Please be introduced to the fascinating world of drag kings.
Lisa isn’t in drag when I meet up with her. She tells me, however, that she is wearing some items of clothing that Flirty Bertie might wear. Lisa explains: “In a way, I am Flirty Bertie. That is the persona I take on. I always thought it was a separate and different thing, but recently I’ve come to realise that it’s an extension of me that I’ve kept hidden. Through life experiences I’ve got a lot more confident to express myself.”
From her impressive amount of experience it might seem like she has been involved with the drag king scene for quite some time. However, Lisa tells me she only started dragging up in 2009. Nevertheless, her fascination with drag started a long time ago.
“Many years ago, I lived with a drag queen who was a lodger. I completely loved the way he could change the way he looked just by what he wore; the wig, the makeup, everything. And then a few years ago I started chatting to a couple of drag kings up in Manchester. One of them convinced me to take time off work and come up to Manchester. So I booked a room, learnt how to be bearded up, dragged up, went out with them, and had an amazing night. That’s when I realised why people enjoy doing it,” Lisa says.
At that particular point in time, Lisa loved being a drag king as it felt like taking on a completely different persona. She said: “I was able to be somebody else, and did not have to live up to everyone else’s expectations. That gave me that complete and utter freedom, I was in a new place as well, where nobody knew me. From there, I started going up to Manchester once a month for their get-togethers.”
The name ‘Flirty Bertie’ itself was a random concoction. “I came up with a few names to start off with, but they didn’t quite work. I’ve always been accused of being quite flirtatious, so I woke up one night and thought: ‘What goes with flirty? Flirty Bertie. You know what, that sounds freaking good.’ It just stuck. And I am told that when I am in Bertie mode, I am really flirty.” [Lisa’s friend nods frantically in the background]
However, having looked at it a bit deeper in the last couple of weeks, Lisa realised that Flirty Bertie is more like her old self, how she used to be. “I put quite a lot of myself back into that character. I am finding myself again in some ways,” she concludes.
I work in a hospital, and have had colleagues come and watch me, which is quite something
After Lisa first explored the drag king scene, she realised that it had done her so much good, that she wanted to show other people. So she contacted all the [gay] prides across England, and started doing workshops, which went down an absolute storm. “I show people how to beard up, bind, how to dress, pack, and how to create a name. I basically give them the building blocks for what to do. I’ve also taught women who are just about to start transitioning, so for them, learning to beard up, walk, dress, is really important.”
Unfortunately, according to Lisa, London’s drag king scene is lagging behind enormously. “There is a massive scene in Manchester, and they seem to have welcomed it with open arms. They are completely ahead of London, and we’re only catching up very slowly.” Lisa attributes this to London’s bars being quite gay men orientated, while the bars in Manchester are also placed together in one street. “London appears to be a lot more spread out, it’s a bigger area,” she concludes.
However, this fact is actively challenged as Lisa has recently launched the first drag king night in London, called Boi’s Night Out at Candy Ku Bar. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. London is notorious hard to break into, but due to recent media exposure [The Independent wrote an article on drag kings recently], the second night was a real success. There were a few gay men who came along, there were straight women, it was a good mixture.”
So what does Lisa ultimately want to achieve through Flirty Bertie? “Drag kings aren’t that well-known, and a lot of people don’t know what drag kings are. For me, this is why I do the workshops. I want people to actually understand the whole concept of it. I do a lot of photo shoots for exhibitions, so people can see what it’s all about. I’m very passionate about it because of what it’s brought into my life. It’s given me a hell of a lot more confidence, and self-belief and a lot of friends, surprisingly.”
The next Boi’s Night Out will take place at Candy Ku Bar on the 10th of April. Please check back with #DRAG for a review of the night!
Flirty Bertie on…
The outfits: “I have a very wide wardrobe. Most of my stuff comes from charity shops. Bearding is all about theatrical hair. I get it off Ebay, as it’s a lot cheaper, and the same counts for glue.”
Recommendations for anyone wanting to try it out: “Find a drag king who is willing to show you the ropes and offer some advice. I was really lucky, ‘cause I had the whole drag king gang up in Manchester.”
Burlesque: “A lot of straight women do drag as well, and burlesque and drag kings seem to go together now. I do a lot of photo shoots with burlesque performers. Part of their burlesque act is that they’ll bring themselves on in drag.”
The general public opinion: “Everyone I have come across has been very positive about it. Most of the negative comments in the past have come from lesbians who want to know why I want to dress like a man, as it goes completely against being a lesbian. It’s just a persona, and has got nothing to do with me personally. But mainly everyone seems to be very positive. I work in a hospital, and have had colleagues come and watch me, which is quite something.”
Bearding up: “I’ve got putting a beard on down to a fine art. If I’m using glue it takes me about ten minutes. At first it took me about an hour.”
What makes a good drag king: “It’s all about confidence in the way you look, and most of that comes with time.”