Drag Kings: an interview with Samuel L. Jack You Son
“I don’t discriminate, I pollinate.” That’s the motto of Samuel L. JackYouSon, the moniker of Shelli Kountz, who performs as a drag king in Seattle.
“Samuel is this dude walking downtown, on a mission—he’s got on some dated clothes, fine threads, but dated. He will hit on anybody and everybody, he does not care if you’re male, female, straight, gay,” Shelli says.
At a moment when drag is known primarily as a performance of the female identity, drag kings hope to expand the definition.
Q: Most people are familiar with drag queens, but kingery, as you call it, is still relatively unknown. What does it mean to perform as a drag king?
I think the mission of drag has become more broad over generations. Historically, drag has meant something very straightforward: to be a drag queen meant performing as some kind of female incarnation. Especially in the Pacific Northwest, drag has broadened —it overlaps with cosplay, or any kind of costuming or an interpretation for the sake of a performance.
The kings keep it a bit broader than the queens do—we invite almost any performer, sometimes even male performers. It’s under debate, but I think at its essence, a king act is a manifestation of the male persona rather than the female.
Q: How do you think about the generational shift in drag?
Generationally, we’ve gained the luxury of debate. There was a time when drag was, very simply, being defined. Now that it’s been clearly defined, we’re able to redefine. In our show, we try to make sure that we create a space where artists can perform any interpretation of gender. The audience is not as particular about this definition as artists are.
Q: What about masculine presentation is exciting or interesting to you?
Mockery, or imitation, is a form of flattery. I love men, and I love the expression of both dynamics and everything in between. It’s putting up a mirror—and this is the comedic point—drag allows you to undermine the stereotypes and play into them at the same time.
A good male friend of mine once said: the first thing you gotta remember is men always have their legs open. They sit with them open, they stand with them open. And I understood that rationally—how male and female bodies take up space. And I could use that to ground myself in this character.
I’m transparent in my drag. I’m older, so I talk about menopause. I talk about, and touch, my breasts often, but I’m always still Sammy. The female body doesn’t bother Samuel at all—it’s sexy as far as he’s concerned. It’s a way of setting up the joke, but also a fun part of the exploration. And still, I want it to be obvious that I’m a woman, and convincing as a man at the same time. It gives me more space than if I were in it. I don’t even really know how to explain why it works or how it works, but I know that it does.
Q: What’s the philosophy behind Samuel L. Jack You Son?
His tagline is, “I’m like a fine malt liquor—don’t let the smooth face fool you.” It’s about sneaking up on you. It’s a little maltier of an experience than maybe you thought you were going to have. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll be overwhelmed by it. It takes the audience out of what they think they know—and I think keeping people a little on guard like that is kind of the secret to engaging them. And what I really want people to do is to start at a certain point, and arrive at a place that’s free from judgment.
That’s based on who I am as a person. I’m not very smooth. I’m very loving, and I’m a mother figure, but there’s an iron-fist anger there. And I think drag is based on that kind of dichotomy: how can you ask both of those elements from your personality, and make the masculine and the feminine exist at once? I think drag, in its essence, is based in the trickster concept.
Q: What’s the relationship between self and performer? Between Shelli and Samuel?
In drag, you can’t be self-conscious. You’ve got to have a certain amount of willingness to go to let go of yourself so you can be this other energy—whether that’s Queen or King or anything in between. Samuel is rooted in me, but he’s also me taking off the Shelli ID—losing Shelli to this other energy. It’s like having a little holiday every month. At least one night a month I get to go out into the world as someone else, and it puts who I am into perspective all the time.
Q: What have you learned through performing drag?
It’s not going to sound particularly positive when I say this, but it’s been so much easier for me to get bookings and perform as this characterization of black than to actually be a black woman and get those same bookings. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it has kind of underscored how invisible certain voices are. Samuel has given me the chance to have a stronger voice than I think I would have had without this character.
Q: Some have criticized drag culture for its exclusion of women performers. You talked about feeling safer performing as a man—
In nightlife, I don’t know too many women who are at all familiar with the scene who haven’t walked into a gay male club and felt unwelcome once or twice. And while I think the community has enough dialogue to keep the conversation going, it’s those real experiences that I think really make a difference to people. There’s a dozen drag queen shows every week, and only one king show a month in Seattle—and that’s ours. We need that visibility and that opportunity to keep definitions fresh, especially now that the main conversation is that people are in a spectrum, and want to be comfortable with the spectrum.
And quite a few of our kings have transitioned, or are in the process of transitioning. It’s been a really powerful process to watch—particularly because quite a few of them have gone through various levels of surgery and treatment. So as a stepping stone on their journey, the show has been able to really serve these brave, young people in their transition. And I just think that’s magic.
Q: What still needs to happen to create safer conditions for drag performers?
I guess generationally, I’m still one of those people who had to fight. I remember the time we had to protect people. It was a lot of scary bus rides home. The whole concept of queer included a broader spectrum of people—anybody who was labeled outsider: people with tattoos and piercings, people who broke racial and class barriers. I feel like so much of that fight has been successful in that visibility has created a lot of access and made queerdom a norm—or at least familiar.
I’m hopeful that more changes in policy can make things different, but I think change is in the hearts of people. Drag is kind of a gift—giving people belief that they can do anything.
Q: What does Samuel L. Jack You Son want everyone in the world to know?
I think my first—my honest answer is that black men are not monsters. And I say that as a loving black woman. I am a mother, sister, aunt, and daughter to this incredible community. And in broader terms, I think Samuel would want for the world to know—it’s like that old song:
Aint gonna hurt nobody
To get on down
Aint gonna hurt nobody
To get on down
It’s kind of a call—like what disco was doing, to lose your inhibitions and just connect with people. To have a good time—don’t be so afraid. If you can lose your ego in any of these equations, you can reach something that’s more like we or us.
I’m so proud of our show because you see it happen on both ends. A lot of times I’ll stand at the door and just give out hugs on the way out. And I love seeing the expressions on people’s faces—ecstatic. You can see in their body language—the way they’ve let something go, their shoulders are relaxed, their faces are open and accessible, they’re making eye contact because something in them has changed—they have a little more room for themselves.
Interviewer: Cassandra Croft (Copier.Studio)
Photographer: Lauren Segal (@le.segal)
Special Thanks: Shelli Kountz AKA Samuel L. Jack You Son