Photos by Lauren Casselberry

Dressing up in drag is not a new form of entertainment. Men have graced the silver screen wearing frilly feather boas, heavy makeup that would make a clown look modest, stiletto heels that would leave a high fashion model stumbling down the red carpet and flaunting bigger breasts than even Dr. 90210 could implant. They have received not only attention, but acceptance in mainstream society with their antics of extreme femininity to procure a laugh, a smile or applause.

Case in point: Harris Bernard Milstead, aka Divine — a curvy drag queen featured in most of John Waters’ films. One of Milstead’s most memorable appearances was as the obnoxious mother of the chubby teenager Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. RuPaul is another celebrated entertainer who was able to woo audiences in the early ’90s, teaching them how to sashay and shanté for the runway.

Drag queens may have stolen the spotlight, but a new group of headstrong women from Ventura County have come to take it back. Although they have been around for the last couple of years performing under the radar, Hir Bois (pronounced Her Boys) — the seven-member drag king dance group — have been garnering a lot of attention lately. Although mostly resigned to performing at gay clubs and gay-themed events, the dance group is ready to make a lasting impression on the rest of the world.

Katrina Maksimuk, 32, a Ventura resident, is an artist and owns an online marketing and photography business. She is a petite blonde with an innocent smile and a charming spirit, but her stage persona, Papi Cherry, can be rather deceiving. Unlike typical cross-dressing men, Papi’s and the rest of the crew’s garb is not flashy but, instead, could be likened to the fashion of cosmopolitan men. The goal isn’t to over-accentuate masculine qualities, but rather to embrace the masculine identity.

“Some days I pass as a guy, and a lot of gay guys hit on me,” Maksimuk said. “Girls, when they see us, find us attractive.”

And that is what she wants. She is a lesbian and wants to be desired by the same sex and finds that she is very comfortable dressing as a man, even offstage. Maksimuk also said that all the members have diverse backgrounds and professions — from dog groomer to bartender. One of the members is a single mom who brings her son to rehearsals.

But Maksimuk wants to set the record straight (no pun intended) — dressing up in drag isn’t about sexuality, it is about gender identity.

“The sexuality doesn’t have as much to do with it as the gender expression,” she said. “We are wearing things deemed inappropriate by society, but it is so important to do this. It is wonderful, it is absolutely wonderful, to bring it to a head. Hate crimes are not against sexual orientation, but against those who rebel against the gender norm.”

The soon-to-be vice president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, Erin Dobson of Cal Lutheran University, couldn’t agree more.
Dobson, 19, grew up in Orange County. She knew she was lesbian but her circumstance at home prevented her from embracing her identity. Although dressing up in drag is only an interesting prospect to her, seeing Hir Bois performing at various events gave her some perspective.

“I heard about drag shows, and what I experienced the night of the seminar [at the Western Regional LGBT Conference in Santa Barbara] — I loved it!” she said. “It amazes me to push the boundaries like that. That is what we need.”

Because of Hir Bois, Dobson said, she isn’t as conscientious about dressing how she prefers: loose fitting, male apparel. She has learned to embrace her identity and is grateful for being able to attend a school that is so accepting of diversity. Although many Christian schools would not dare to have such a permissive attitude toward homosexuality, Cal Lutheran is somewhat of an anomaly, seeking out Hir Boys to perform and engage in discussions about gender identity. The combination of the outspoken dance group and such an accepting school has helped Dobson be OK with who she is.

“It is more so being who you are and being comfortable with that. A lot of people aren’t generally comfortable with it, but if you are, that says a lot,” Dobson said.

The troupe also has a devoted fan base, including Lori Meloserdoff, 29, of Ventura. She goes to every show, as long as her schedule allows. She said that not only are they great performers, but she has been good friends with several of the members for years and was proud that they had taken such a bold stand about who they are, regardless of living in a conservative community such as Ventura County.

“I am so proud of who they are; the binding and stuff they put on their face, it hurts them to do that sort of thing, but they stick with who they are,” she said.

Maksimuk sees a bright future for the group and is looking to hire a manager, as requests for them to perform continue to grow. They are ready to take center stage, not only to steal the spotlight, but to help those grappling with gender identity to know they aren’t alone.    

Maksimuk is joined by fellow crew members Allison Wood, aka Anyo Back; Magan Morse, aka Maximum Satisfaction; Mary Dabel, aka Ian Out; Jillian Nye, aka Bobby Deep; Darshonna Lieberman, aka Myles Long and Danny D’Auria aka Dixon Han. They perform dance routines to familiar pop songs such as “Mr. Roboto,” “Whip It” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Their next performance is at Wild Cats in Santa Barbara on Sunday, Aug. 9. They perform regularly at Paddy’s in Ventura .

michael@vcreporter.com