This piece is part of our Performing Arts Guide in the September 2022 print issue of District Fray.
Red and yellow lights flashing, Pretty Rik E swaggered off the stage. He lip-synced to T-Pain’s “Buy You a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” while snatching tips from the audience. As the song ended, he cast the dollar bills up in the air, basking in the limelight.
The night marked an encore for Pretty Rik E, who returned with Pretty Boi Drag to Union Stage on August 14 after a pandemic-induced hiatus. One of D.C.’s biggest drag king groups, Pretty Boi Drag shows off performers who ooze confident, charismatic masculinity. But despite their talent, drag kings still don’t receive the same kind of attention as their drag queen counterparts.
The first time Pretty Rik E — Erika Lewis out of drag — saw a drag king performance, he’d just been dumped. Drag king Chris Jay forced him to stop wallowing and go to a burlesque show that featured drag kings, too. It left an impact.
“Just seeing them up there, I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” Pretty Rik E says. “I was nervous as all get out, and I signed up to do my first act.”
His first song? “Buy You a Drank.” And his strongest memory from his performance?
“I met Lexie Starre at the bar [right before my performance],” he says. “I remember her coming through the audience with a drink in one hand and dollar bills in the other to tip me. Eventually, we got married.”
Together, Chris Jay, Pretty Rik E and Lexie Starre founded Pretty Boi Drag in 2015 to uplift queer people of color. They’re committed to accessibility: An ASL interpreter performs along with every king. And by now, they’ve recruited more than enough talent to bring their shows alive.
At Union Stage, Tré D. Thickum moved with fluid expertise to Jidenna’s “Long Live the Chief.” Chris Jay cast his black fur coat on the ground, teasing off his suspenders and gold tie. Larry Styles stripped out of his shoes, shirt, pants and about five layered pairs of tight red underwear. Meanwhile, as emcee and performer, Pretty Rik E strutted the style he’s spent years defining.
“Pretty Rik E’s definitely much more of a button-up shirt, nice shiny blazer kind of performer,” he says. “I typically wear tuxedo jackets, and definitely nice dress shoes. I love men’s dress shoes. Oh my god, I love them so much.”
Some performers wear binders to flatten their chests; others don’t. Many dab on a fake beard — including Pretty Rik E, who has a permanent five o’clock shadow.
With some practice, he’s figured out a routine for applying facial hair. Since Pretty Rik E typically wears locs, he doesn’t have strands to spare for a beard. But the hair he uses is still very much real, courtesy of his wife.
“When she’s in the shower washing her hair and combing it out, she will give me whatever hair comes out,” Pretty Rik E laughs. “Hopefully that’s not weird. It is very clean because she did it while she was washing. I just use scissors and cut it in my hand over and over again ’til it’s almost dust.”
Once the hair is fine enough, he applies adhesive in sections and dusts on his stubble with a makeup brush. It’s not always an intuitive art. Back at his first performance, Pretty Rik E lacked the know-how to apply a beard, so Chris Jay did it for him.
That’s the kind of knowledge Pretty Boi Drag now passes down through its Open King Nights, meant to encourage up-and-coming artists. At this point, several kings from the open nights have come back to perform with the group.
“A lot of people ask in the beginning, ‘Oh, how did you do this? How did you get started?’” Pretty Rik E says. “You call a place and say, ‘Hey, can I do a show there?’ That’s really all you have to do to get your start. It’s up to you how good or bad that show is. It’s all about the effort you put into it.”