Working on the door at queer female events across the capital, this week, The Glory’s Man Up, Europe’s biggest drag king battle

WORDS BY CLARE HAND, IMAGES BY LYLA JOHNSTON

“I reckon she only does it to pick up women,” said The Glory’s Jack Cullen mischievously, as he handed me a clipboard rammed with ripped-out magazine pages and sent me to the door with “the guestlist.”

As I loitered in the legendary Haggerston venue’s doorway – my arms crossed around my clipboard, legs in a wide, authoritative stance, trying to look bouncery – I pondered a few things.   

Does Jack know me better than I know myself? Am I really standing outside Man Up, the Glory’s annual drag king battle (which also happens to be the largest competition in Europe) sloppily performing my own private rendition of security guard drag? And crucially, is The Glory to East London queers, what the Queen Vic is to the residents of Walford?

For five years the boozer has stood on Kingsland Road; its regal navy blue facade, gold signage, ever-blooming hanging baskets making it look as majestic and distinguished as the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City.

Every time I’ve been – it has admittedly only been a handful of times – I have felt an intense sense of homecoming. And from my stint on the door, it is clear I’m not the only one. Swathes of cheerful, eccentric queers flooded in from all angles, like honeybees returning to the hive. A weight seemed to visibly lift from their shoulders: their posture changed, their stride softened, their faces illuminated as they approached. “Welcome home,” I felt like saying to some.

And what a place to call home. The Glory’s interiors are an implosion of camp chic. Its ceiling is draped in Hawaiian lei flowers and disco balls, which ricochet light on tinsel curtains and miscellaneous kitsch bits. Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive – you name the gay disco banger, they play it full blast on a nightly basis.

I peered inside and watched as friends reunited, strangers became mates, and drag kings sauntered around charming their way through the crowds. I’m pretty sure there were representatives of every acronym in our community there that night.

Every evening, this community boozer shows queer people that they have a space of belonging in this city. Its doorway, it turns out, is the perfect place to bear witness to the collective vitality of our heterogeneous scene.

Yes, if The Glory passes away, call me to write the eulogy, until then – and because it is obviously eternal – I’ll stop gushing and move on.

The drag battles’ scheduled start-time was 8pm, at which point I had to leave my post (and my precious clipboard) to start my actual job for the evening: guest judge. A few hours before my arrival, Jack had messaged to ask if I’d like to sit on a panel with Stav B (high priestess of East London’s lesbian scene) and Don One (exuberant icon of the drag king scene), who I’d been assured would do most of the talking. I suppose this therefore makes this the first Secret Diary Of A Guest Judge.

My newfound status meant I could access all areas. I was escorted downstairs to The Glory’s basement, which is used as a theatre, dancefloor or meeting space, depending on the day. On drag nights, it is a changing room.

The kings were in various degrees of ready; some contoured calmly, others manically, some tit-tapped, others rehearsed lines. They seemed to be a cohesive whole as they chatted in a cluster, sharing their nerves and excitement. They helped each other adjust costumes, stretch hamstrings and arrange bumfluff.

“With drag kings it tends to look more like a coffee morning meeting,” said Jack, “it is a small tight-knit community I guess. With drag queens, the changing room looks completely different. They all spread out, claiming a territory, with two gay guys on either side of each queen.”

After a quick round of headshots by The Glory’s talented in-house photographer Lyla Johnston, we were off, up the stairs, ready to entertain the eager congregation of drag king worshippers. I took my seat on the front row of the heaving venue. As I supped on a vintage champagne saucer filled with prosecco I wondered why I decided to write diaries from the door in the first place.

Heartthrob Adam All kicked things off with his rework of a Frozen anthem. ‘Do you want to be a drag king?’ he asked while beckoning audience members to the stage. Adam is London’s leading king; the ultimate showman, he’s been responsible for the scene’s evolution for many years, turning countless timid drag princes into mighty, mighty kings. Adam hosted alongside punk-horror-drag superstar Baby Lame, who always delivers inimitable lewks and razor-sharp, hawk-eyed humour.

After the duo’s introduction we were off on a heady whirlwind of spectacular drag. On the Overground en route to Haggerston, I’d had a conversation with myself about my judging style. Am I a Michelle Visage or Ross Mathews? Will I be constructively critical, honest, harsh or over-the-moon about everything? Within 30 seconds of the first act I had no choice but to be the latter for the entire evening. If I wasn’t clapping like a seal, I was clutching a microphone, professing my undying love and admiration to a stranger in drag.

One by one, contestants – who’d applied through open submission to The Glory’s owner Jonny Woo – got up and lip-synced, sang live, performed dance and stand-up routines. Every act offered hilarious and astute political commentary on (the more toxic realms of) masculinity. Each king, in their own unique way, got on stage and excavated the barriers around their own gender and sexuality. Through their performances, they invited us all to do the same.

Before the final curtain call, us judges sat backstage and debated which three would go through to the competition’s final next month. We chose Bo Jengles for his ridiculously sexy display of masculine crooner charm. Orlando, for his beautifully poetic engagement with his gender identity, which merged his mastery of ballet and drag. And Louis fuCK, who humanely and hilariously summarised the disgraced comedian’s feeble response to his #MeToo allegations. He did so in an outfit coated in penises – 15 of them – I know, I know, you go years without seeing one and then blam! 15 come on stage on one outfit.

Each piece was as important for the king to perform as for their audience to see. I kicked myself throughout: how has this been going on every spring since 2015 (for free), and this is the first battle I’ve ever seen?

When all was said and done, most of us stayed and danced to more queer disco bangers, collectively reeling from the magic we’d witnessed that night. I headed home when The Glory closed. I left with a belly full of prosecco, a newfound desire to become a drag king and, just for the record (Jack), I went home alone. I personally blame the clipboard.

Man Up has five heats, every Wednesday at The Glory culminating in a final mega-battle at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney) on 18th April. All heats are free, tickets for the final are £12/£15 – grab them here.

@ClareDHand

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