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It takes just under 15 minutes for “Dred” to transform. She shapes her plunging sideburns and her gangsta goatee from pieces of real hair and then melds them to her face with spirit gum. Then she slips into a string bikini covered by hot pants covered by a black velvet suit, a black top hat, and pitch-black sunglasses. Only the bulge in her crotch looks too good to be true.

Primed and surly for her D.C. debut, the mighty King Dred opens her mouth. And out comes a voice that’s sweeter than Marilyn’s, softer than Janet’s, improbably femme. “I’m a Gemini….I like too many things,” she says with a twinkling giggle, explaining why she likes to gender-bend for throngs of New York clubgoers. “I think it’s sexy.”

Mildred Gerestant works in the World Trade Center as a data processor and bookkeeper. As Dred, Gerestant also works crowds all over New York and the globe as a drag impersonator of black male icons: Shaft, Sly Stone, Michael Jackson, Isaac Hayes, and Busta Rhymes, to name a few. With her all-star repertoire, Dred has become the heartthrob of Manhattan’s rippling drag-king circuit.

The scene has swelled over the past couple of years: Dykes are ditching the odd, vicarious pleasures of watching grown men channel every vamp from Bernadette Peters to Fiona Apple and are determined to create a cross-dressing rage all their own.

Saturday night in a trailer behind the Capitol Ballroom, Dred is mustering all of her powers, exhausted after a morning flight from Switzerland, where she performed the day before. Tonight, she’ll morph into Puff Daddy, swell into Biggie Smalls, summon the soul of DJ Kool, and mutate into the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill for the 1,500 mostly black, mostly lesbian audience at a party given by a group called Women in the Life for D.C.’s big annual Black Gay Pride weekend bash.

Dred’s drag-queen cohort “Luscious” will play Lil’ Kim to Dred’s Biggie Smalls and honey to her Shaft. Luscious, a biological man who is heart-stopping in black lingerie, is primping backstage. His sister, Rochelle, is gently smoothing foundation all over his butt. “You should see how it blends,” she coos. She’s right. You should see.

Dred met Luscious about eight years ago, when she tried to pick him up outside of a club in New York, mistaking him for one of her own. “‘She’ was looking good,” Dred says, with a shy smile. “When you see Luscious from the back, you just have to look.”

Says Luscious, before rushing off to a TV interview: “You have to look good to do [drag]. Know what I’m saying? Not everybody can do it.”

The New York kings debate whether to pack a penis, what pronoun to use in press releases (“hir” is one alarming option), and whether it’s better to bind their breasts with a running bra or an ace bandage. In the trailer next to Dred’s on Saturday night, the D.C. kings are talking animatedly about gender roles.

“I’ve come from a very awkward place with my own sexual identity,” says a very serious “Ken”—Kendra Kuliga—the champion of D.C.’s first-ever drag-king contest, sponsored by the Lesbian Avengers last year. In an unblinking monologue, Ken reveals that she’s been doing drag since she was 6 years old, when she made her mom sew her a blue suit to wear around Silver Spring with blue suede shoes and a black tie. “Drag-kinging gives me the permission to be very upfront with my desires,” she says.

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Several members of the Mission, the 1998 drag-king champion act, sit stoically at Ken’s side. They are dressed as soldiers, wearing camouflage and face paint for their act—because they really are enlisted women, and they’d like to keep their jobs. Disclosing their identity is an occupational hazard: One member of the Puss ‘N’ Boots production crew is a blond elementary school teacher who got kicked out of the Navy when she came out of the closet after her tour in the Persian Gulf War.

The drag kings are an earnest little group with great big plans. “We want a troupe,” says “Miss D’Lish,” one of the organizers and drag-queen MCs. (Miss D’Lish is a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman. Don’t worry about it.) Adds the ever-chatty “missbaby,” the event’s other hostess: “Once we fill in the missing bits of talent, watch out. Girl, I ain’t even talking about how big it’s gonna be.”

Crowds of all colors and sexual callings flock at the feet of drag kings for the same reason they worship drag queens—they’re a mind-altering display, doused with camp, dripping with erotica, and loaded with laughs. Except the kings offer novelty the queens haven’t for years. Something borrowed, something new. But the performers construct alter egos of the other sex for reasons all their own. Some kings drag for the power surge they get from swaggering onstage in a suit and tie, pelvis first. Others do it for the old-fashioned shock value. And the best of them, perhaps, indulge simply for the fantasy trip.

The New York kings reign with convincing sophistication. In D.C., however, “the subculture is still defining itself,” concedes one of the performers. That much is obvious: When the three local acts take the stage, they stumble under the weight of the baggage they bring. Their acts are not as seamless as the rest, perhaps because they’re Washington types—ever cautious, afraid to cut loose—or maybe because they are inexperienced. This is, after all, only the third drag-king show in town.

The women of the Mission hold promise—marching through a crowd-warming medley of pushups and pelvis thrusts. But in the end, they dance little better than the good soldiers they are. “Hades,” a George Mason student who wears nothing special and does a mediocre lip-sync of a Dru Hill song, looks like she’s letting go in front of her bedroom mirror. Finally, Ken struts through the most polished of the local sets with her rendition of Prince’s “Blue Light.” But you get the creeping sense that apart from the fine footwork, Ken’s working through years of hurt up on that stage.

But when Dred and Luscious take the stage, the crowd finally drops its jaws. Gold teeth flashing and hands splayed out in challenge, Dred has mastered every nuanced move of her rap-artist characters. And all eyes lock on Luscious, in his garter belt and long, blond wig, when he shakes his blended ass.

Smooth and quick, Dred downshifts from Puff Daddy to Shaft, donning a long leather jacket and a great big Afro. Disco-Luscious looks lovely as always, grinding up against Dred’s giant dildo in blaxploitation hot pants.

When Dred rips her wig off to do a bald and horny Prince, the crowd is ready to burst. Then she strokes her crotch just so before zipping down her fly, reaching inside, and yanking out a big red apple for a little onstage snack.

After it’s all over, the women up front—who claimed their prime positions three hours before the show—are still catching their collective breath and chattering about whether Luscious is in fact a man. “She’s got a fine ass, either way,” concludes one. And a few neophytes in the audience question the point of swapping gender at all. “I like to see women,” says Dematra Wallace, echoing the sentiments of many. “If I want to see a man, I’ll go to a bar.”

In the back, guarding a VIP area in her black leather vest and white tank top, “Sky” has trouble understanding the hype: She contends she’d rather see more of the butch-femme look on the streets—not on the stage, where it’s just a caricature of who she is every day. “In D.C., there’s very little butch-femme. And when there is, it’s a show,” she says.

Sky has a quiet point. The dildo and the shaving cream make for merry party favors. And for the devoted, there’s nothing quite as liberating as a night of hot-wheeling genderfucking. But the event seems overproduced and somewhat strained. Wouldn’t it be something, after all, to shut off the neon lights and smoke machines for just a minute and watch Marlene Dietrich slide across the catwalk, in white tie and tails? It would be almost as interesting to sit Luscious down and simply invite Sky to the stage to play herself—to look lovely and buff, nursing an Evian bottle and deftly turning away large men looking to get past her. But this here is a party, not a work of art.CP