Man Up, Ponyboy!
words and photography Zarah Cheng
This is my first time at Bump N Grind. It’s a cute little café on Commercial Drive. Paige Frewer (often known by their -- the gender-neutral pronoun is preferred by Paige -- stage name, Ponyboy) suggested the spot, since they live just a couple blocks down. I arrive early and pick a table in the back. I honestly don’t know what to expect since I’m only familiar with Ponyboy, the charismatic gender-bend who is occasionally covered in glitter and impersonating Dr. Frank-N-Furter on stage. But when they arrive a couple minutes later, Paige is warm and very gracious. Explaining that they haven’t had breakfast yet, they apologize and quickly buy a croissant and coffee. As Paige takes the first couple of bites, we chat about New York and hangovers before we dive into the interview.
Describe Man Up in three words.
Gender. Performance. Party.
How did you get started with drag?
I was a babyqueer in my first year of bartending at Lick. My 22nd birthday was coming up, and I wanted to have a party there… it was my work, but also my favourite hangout. The bar manager at the time was known for being supportive of regular folks, who weren’t necessarily promoters, to come in and organize community events or fundraisers or whatever. You know, how queers have lots of causes and like to party about them? [laughs]
Anyway, I have a big interest in environmental issues so I said, “I want to have a party about me, but also about Greenpeace [laughs].” I figured that a show would help get people out, so I proposed burlesque, maybe with some drag kings. I didn’t know anything about either, really, but the first lesbian event I’d ever been to was a drag king show at Sonar (now Rain Ultraclub) the previous year, so it was somewhat on my radar as a thing that queers were into. The bar manager put me in touch with Sammy Tomato, a well connected queer who also had a background in drag kinging. They pretty much booked the show for me, since I didn’t know anyone. They even made me a poster. Then, out of the blue, they dared me to perform! I was taken aback and nervous, but I love a challenge, so I said yes. Sammy’s involvement in the event deepened, as they then became my drag mentor (or “drag daddy” we like to say), for this one-off performance that I decided I would keep a secret from all my party invitees.
I was working at a dozen or so restaurant industry jobs at the time and I told all my coworkers about my birthday party and for some reason, they all came! Lick was full. The liquor inspector randomly showed up, so we had to hold the line outside, which sucked but it made the event seem even more bumpin’ from the street.
My surprise drag performance went really well, everyone was shocked and into it. It was exhilarating performing to a full room, especially since so many of them were my friends and work pals, and would cheer me on no matter how bad I was [laughs]. A month later, Sammy approached me with this idea to start a monthly drag king night. Drag kings had been really big in Vancouver in years past, and with the success of my event, Sammy saw potential for a comeback. They envisioned me playing a role of promoter, since I had managed to fill the bar for my birthday, but also perhaps as a performer, since I had enjoyed being on stage so much. One month later, we had our first Man Up.
So it all started with a dare?
That's right [laughs].
Who is Ponyboy and who is Paige? Would you separate them?
Hmm… yes and no? Lately I’ve been focusing more on event production and less on performing, so the Ponyboy name has come to be sort of my brand of parties, if you will… more so than just my stage character. So in that sense, I would say Ponyboy is definitely Paige, because the style and spirit of the events I do are a reflection of who I am as a person. I also feel like the line between Ponyboy and Paige is getting increasingly blurred given that Man Up has grown so much in notoriety in recent months/years. Quite frequently I’ll get customers at my restaurant and bar jobs calling me Ponyboy because they know of Man Up. So Ponyboy seems hardly an alter ego anymore, more so just another name that I go by.
Why did you pick the name Ponyboy?
Sammy picked it for me! They’d actually already had Ponyboy in their mind as a possible name for a future new king, and said I could have it if I wanted it. I had really wanted to make a drag name out of the Holden Caulfield character from Catcher in the Rye (Holdin’ Cockfeel or something), but I liked the Outsiders’ Ponyboy too, and they both had qualities that I admired and aspired to. Somehow it didn’t feel right to sexualize Holden though. And he was a bit cynical and depressing, which I didn’t think super characterized me [laughs]. Ponyboy seemed to have more possible layers of meaning too. I’m kind of a fruitcake. So I went with Ponyboy.
Ok big question: Drag queens are a lot more prominent in pop culture than drag kings are, especially with programs like RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming major pop culture phenomena. What do you think about this gap between kings and queens?
I don’t know, I think that there are a lot of drag kings (a lot of us just call ourselves gender performers now, to try and get away from the binary language) who are into it precisely because it’s DIY, and political, and anti-establishment. So the fact that we’re not on mainstream TV isn’t really surprising, I guess? [laughs] This particular ethic doesn’t characterize all drag of course, or all drag kings, but it’s definitely a big part of Man Up and what we’re trying to do.
With shows like RPDR bringing queens much more into mainstream media, I’ve heard that there’s been a corresponding influence on the kind of drag that new queens are doing. But I actually haven’t watched much RPDR (I know right?), and I’m less connected with queen culture, so I can’t really speak to that too much. I know it's been profoundly inspiring for many, including performers in our show. The visibility and affirmation that RPDR has brought for femme men and gender-benders is great. Would I like to see radical, political, anti-oppressive drag art being showcased in mainstream media? Hell yeah. And RPDR is probably doing some of that, and maybe moving us in that direction. But how much does mainstream media like to talk about real issues? Feminism, capitalism, etc.? Not very much. So having DIY outlets that are smaller scale is really important.
Has your perspective of drag, in general, changed since you’ve been more heavily involved with Man Up?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I started Man Up when I was barely 22, and there were a lot of things I didn't think about when I was 22 [laughs]. Seven years ago is a long time for your 20’s! How I see gender and how it works in society, the many dimensions and challenges to creating safe community space… I didn’t have any language for this stuff when Man Up started, and most of the time I just fumbled along. It was a big learning curve, and continues to be.
And as I mentioned before, our show has evolved into kind of a gender clusterfuck, rather than straight up male impersonation. This may not just be a reflection of my own and our performers’ evolving understanding of gender as a spectrum, but also of the community’s. I feel like a lot more people, and a lot more queers, now understand gender as non-binary.
As far as drag king shows in Vancouver go, Man Up is the only one that is hosted regularly. Do you ever feel pressured in, basically, being the face of drag king culture in the city?
Um… yes. Man Up started with four collaborators — myself, Sammy, Majik, and Edward Malaprop — and later was run by myself and Kelli Gold. Over the years, every one of them had to leave the team for one reason or another and so today, Man Up is pretty much run by me. It’s been really fun and challenging to be the leader but as I get older, I’m becoming less comfortable with being the face of Man Up. The more I collaborate and involve others, the better Man Up gets. And the more I step out of the spotlight, the more space is opened up for others. So it’s been cool to focus on that a bit more, and to see how collaboration is leading to more diversity and progress.
What is the craziest thing you’ve ever witnessed at a Man Up?
[Laughs] Oh my god. Well, I miss a lot because I spend a lot of time in the green room, but I hear stuff. In 7 years of Man Ups, we’ve only had a couple accidents, and they’ve been pretty innocent, not like a brawl broke out or something. It's just a rowdy, fun party. I crowd surfed at our 5th anniversary party. That was pretty fun. Actually, the one Man Up we ever did at the Astoria, in I guess February of 2011, when Kelli and I were right in the middle of transition from Lick to The Cobalt, both Leisha Hailey (Alice from The L Word) and Tegan Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) came and watched the show... And I'm pretty sure they were there separately! That Man Up is one for the memory books.
[Lady] Jem likes to jump from table to table whenever she performs, and regardless of the room, insists on her ability to do so. It’s like a scene right out of a movie when Jem performs! She's probably brought us a lot of our top moments [laughs].
What does it feel like to have a moustache?
Kind of crazy, actually. There's a sense of power, which is interesting. Drag kings may know as well as women do that people really do treat you differently when you’re a man, even a “fake” one. But at the same time, moustaches are kind of silly, and you're in this goofy character that’s sort of poking fun at masculinity, which is itself quite silly too, right! So the power and the silliness is sort of convoluted. At the very least though, moustaches draw attention, and make people laugh. I like both those things [laughs].
What can we expect from Man Up’s upcoming birthday party?
Continuing on our 2015 trend of doing random one-off Man Ups at venues other than the Cobalt (this has been mostly coincidental and we will resume our residency at the Cobalt next month!), we’re doing our 7th anniversary show in this really spectacular ballroom at the former Biltmore Hotel, called the Roxanne Room, at 12th & Kingsway in Mount Pleasant. It’s a bit bigger than the Cobalt, but still really intimate feeling. I’ve described it as Romy & Michele’s meets the Wedding Singer… super gawdy and retro, with these big weird Aquarius statues that we’re of course going to gender-bend the shit out of. We’ve decorated in cheesy, springy anniversary kitsch: palm trees, rose bushes, pink and purple wall lighting, rainbow globe lanterns hanging from the chandeliers, streamers, balloons. We got most of it from Greenscape Design and Decor, which anyone who came to El Hangover 2014 will remember for the amazing tropical beach scene they created in the Cobalt’s parking lot.
As for the show, we are very excited to have the ENTIRE Vancouver contingent of drag performers that are booked for the Austin International Drag Festival: Owen, Boi Job, and our special guest Jane Smoker, the title-holder of Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar 2015. And booked to DJ are a couple of our original crew from way back in the Lick days! Delux and She. So it'll be the usual fabulous mix of dance hits, R&B, throwbacks, and disco house.
Is there anything you want to add in terms of what drag king culture is in Vancouver?
I mean, it's not the same for everyone. For some performers, drag is a hobby, or a creative outlet. For others, it’s a platform to express political views. And this variation is paralleled by the audience too, I think. Some people just want a busy queer dance party, and others really look for the underlying message behind a drag performance. I think all these are valid reasons to support drag, and the fact that there’s any support at all here in Vancouver is just an amazing gift. Being able to bring people together, and get silly and political at the same time, is what sustains my love affair with Man Up.
What creeps you out the most?
A drain that won't drain, with the water just sitting.
Man Up will be celebrating its 7th Birthday at the Biltmore Hotel's ballroom, the Roxanne Room, this Saturday March 28.
Posted on March 25, 2015.