Paving the way for today’s vibrant drag king scene, Pepi Littman eschewed early 20th century gender norms, performing satire and dressing in traditional male hasidic garbs
RuPaul may have made drag queens superstars of the world, and drag queens of the underground and the mainstream have pushed at the boundaries of queendom with aesthetic, gender, and identity – but commercial success for drag kings hasn’t reached the scale that would yet compare to drag queendom. We worship at the altar, of Ru, Lady Bunny, Divine, but history’s drag kings have never enjoyed the same lauding. Interestingly, there have also been no fictional films made about any contemporary performers – never mind about historical figures, artists who have long been shaping a drag form that women, non-binary, and gender diverse people engage in.
A new film, Make Me a King, which is currently in development, is trying to fix that. It tells of a story of the real-life Pepi Littman, a Yiddish drag king, through the eyes of a modern, younger drag artist, ostracised by their family. The all-women team behind the film is working with women-run Unleyek production company to make it happen.
Pepi was one of the pioneers, who pushed boundaries and forged a space for drag kings over 100 years ago. She was born in 1874 in what is now Ukraine, and roamed around with a popular traveling theatre troupe around Europe, performing satire and singing dressed in a traditional male hasidic dress.
“I discovered Pepi when researching performers in the late 19th and early 20th century for another writing project and I willingly dove down that rabbit hole,” says Natalie Arle-Toyne, writer of Make Me a King. “She was a lauded songstress who recorded on many albums. I found that while she isn’t well-known within the Yiddish and Klezmer music scene here, Jewish Drag Kings know all about her and have adopted her as their own.”
Drag representing a Jewish identity is definitely still a rarity today. In the UK, the most known such Drag King is Rabbi Schmeckie Platzowitz, who has taken her inspiration from Pepi, among others: ”I’ve found that my presence in the drag king community has been quite notable – as far as I know I’m the only British drag king who actively uses Jewishness as part of my act and I've seen younger queer Jewish people in particular be quite influenced by this, and I think that kind of representation is really important to minorities but also intersections of minorities.”
“Kings are underrepresented, Drag King culture is underrepresented,” says drag king LoUis CYfer, another consultant on the film (who you might have seen doing a brilliant job in the London play Death Drop). CYfer speaks passionately about another king role model too – Hetty King, an English performer throughout the 1900s, who just like Pepi is much less known to the general public: “I love Hetty because she began performing age six, was a king by 14 (back then it was called male-impersonating), and her career lasted 71 years! She was fearless and took great pride in her work,” they say.
“She referred to herself as the only true character male impersonator, she studied her subject, and saw the world. Even though in the 1930s impersonating was less common, Hetty still worked the top of the bills and refused to be anything else. She said work was her only friend and always arrived four hours before her shows to mentally prepare. She had champagne Saturdays and used the cork to burn the ends and stipple on her moustache. She performed as an impersonator for the last time only a few months before she died aged 89! A true King! I can only dream of a career like that.”
Rabbi Schmeckie hopes the film will show a side of the diverse queer community with a more expansive and nuanced perspective. Adding the textured layer of Yiddish culture, the film hopes to highlight what have long been underground traditions in an underrepresented culture with the fearless questioning and playing with gender. “I think in terms of the representation that Make Me A King gives to queer British Jewish people as well as Drag Kings (who are better known in the US although we are a growing UK community), this film is very important. I think there’s something very interesting about drag kinging as a woman – there is a degree of reclaiming patriarchal power and holding a mirror up to the male gender, and sort of poking fun at it.”
Make Me a King is the winner of the Pears Short Film Fund 2021. Check out the recently successful Kickstarter