Columbus drag performer talks about the differences between the queens and kings

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From the May 1, 2014 edition

By day, Liz Balk is a studious Ohio Stater, gunning for a coveted Ph.D. in kinesiology.

But on many nights, Balk transforms ... emphasis on the “trans.”

What results is a smooth, hyper-masculine Timberlake-meets-Michael-Jackson-meets-Elvis persona named Cool Ethan, a staple in the Columbus drag community and the resident king of the West (as in Nina) Family.

It wasn’t a quick trip to fame. Balk has spent 10 years in the drag scene, stumbling upon it as a comedy troupe member when she was asked to do a duet with a queen. From there, it’s been shows with The Royal Renegades and by herself, and even a stint — and a victory — on Nina West’s inaugural So You Think You Can Drag? contest. All this while developing a solid, believable masculine appearance, which, Balk said, took her eight of those 10 years. And still, when in drag, some are confused about “what she is.”

“It’s just so weird to me that people don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t know why. I feel like it is the exact opposite of what is so common but we don’t talk about it as much.”

But perhaps it’s that time-consuming development phase, that, when it comes to governing the drag night life, kings aren’t in the lime-light.

“It’s not an easy process for a queen, but it’s tough trying to figure out how to take things away. Add a believable face and believable masculine movements,” she said. “When you take away having an amazing gown or elaborate makeup, and when (women) have a tinier presence all around, you have to really figure out how you’re going to captivate the audience.”

It may also be limited opportunities in the city — Balk said many women express interest in the king life but don’t have as much opportunity to express it as queens — but it may also be the popularity of the show’s message.

“I don’t mean that kings or queens have a certain agenda, but I do think there’s more variance in what the king community is trying to get across,” Balk said. “Sometimes the theme is centered on gender expression, and that audience is often smaller. When you try to shoot for mass entertainment versus trying to get a message across, the amount of people interested in one versus the other are varied.”

The odds may not be in their favor — in fact, Balk said, the ratio of kings to queens in the city is about 1 to 5 — but it’s unlikely kings won’t come out on top. In fact, the reign is becoming more equal fairly quickly.

“(Shows like ‘Nina West’s Excellent Adventure’) are a nice mix of what’s in the community and representative of what’s going on right now,” she said. “And very recently more kings are starting to be more involved. The Royal Renegades are still active. And there are new troupes, so I definitely think it’s changing.”