Paul Callens is stationed above and behind the 9:30 Club main stage, in a green room–cum–massage parlor complete with candles in glass globes, built-in bunks for napping, and plenty of Gatorade. Using his hands and elbows, Callens kneads a woman’s bare back; following the massage, the woman will step into a dressing room to prep, which in her case means donning facial hair and masculine pronouns.
Callens is serving as staff masseur for the Great Big International Drag King Show 6, and his chill-out room would be a lot more chill if the down-tempo world electronica weren’t drowned out by a Tool song blasting from the main stage, where the dress rehearsal is shaping up. It never promised to be a relaxing day for Callens in any case. Several dozen performers are participating in the two-day international festival, some flying in from Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and they’re all varying degrees of tense.
“You say to yourself, ‘I can do a dozen massages, easy,’” Callens says. “But if you’re doing a good job, it gets very exhausting.”
As it happens, Callens is not only on hand to manage the performers’ moods but to further his massage education. He’s a student at the National Massage Therapy Institute in Falls Church, and this pro bono work counts toward his certification.
Plus he’s helping out an old friend. Callens has DJed events for the DC Kings, a longstanding local boi crew, since he moved to Washington in 2001. Kendra Kuliga (aka Ken Vegas), the founder of that posse and producer of Great Big, hoped to supplement the dress rehearsal’s vegan buffet with some quality vegging out.
“I worked with lesbians in upstate New York, so when Ken asked me I was like, Ugh,” Callens says. “They’re brutal up there. But this crowd is different—totally relaxed.”
For one thing, they’re not all lesbians, strictly speaking. After six years of expansion, from tiny clubs and matinee showtimes to its now-premier status on the lesbian social calendar, Great Big now includes not only drag kings but also gender performers who open the traditional drag repertoire to people who are neither kings nor queens—and also aren’t simply straight or gay (or male or female). It’s a love of lip-synching that brings everyone to Callens’ massage den.
Including one femme Swede named Indra Windh, who has just finished her massage. After lying prone and breathing deeply for several minutes, she steps outside and walks into an alcove, where her performance partner, Shanti Freed, is ironing their costumes.
“The longest-running king scenes are in D.C. and Australia, and D.C.’s is becoming more like Australia’s,” Windh explains. “Australia has a more genderfuck approach to drag as far as involving both genders.”
“Many genders,” corrects Freed.
From a massage perspective, Callens reports that he is happy to take on just about any person’s particular combination of sex organs and gender identity.
“The more bodies we can work with, the easier it is to get through school,” he says. “Nothing shocks you. This one very tiny girl wanted me to press down unbelievably hard—that’s been the only surprise.”
While he’s well-prepared to soothe stoked emotions before the performance, he’s less sanguine about revving them up after the show ends. That’s when Callens adopts his own other-identity, manning the booth as DJ Damien to spin for the late-night dance party.
“House is not popular with the lesbians,” Callens says dejectedly. “Shakira…goes over well. It’s a difficult crowd to play for.”
Having manned the decks for four years at Ziegfield’s, a Southeast gay club recently closed in favor of the Washington Nationals’ eminent domain, Callens has played for both either/or scenes. “Queens are more competitive, but there are similarities,” he says. “Neither [kings nor queens] like good house, and everyone’s just waiting for the Kelly Clarkson song.”—Kriston Capps