“When I first performed in drag, it was for a fundraiser at a bar,” says Russ King, the man behind the irrepressible drag persona, Miss Richfield 1981.
“I had this black wig — it was just a flat pageboy with bangs. Somebody said, ‘Well, you need to take that to a hairstylist.’ So I took it to this gay hairstylist. And I went to pick it up and he had jacked the flat short bob into this huge bubble.”
King wasn’t thrilled with the re-do at first, but gradually grew accustomed to it. Next came the outsized glasses.
“I’m a little bit colorblind,” he admits. “So I couldn’t do makeup that well. That’s why I put the glasses on — it’s a cover-up for my lack of makeup ability.”
King notes that his makeup is, in fact, based on three colors: “Black and white and a little bit of rouge. Unless you don’t count black and white as a color, then it’s really one color, because the only color I really will use is on my lips.”
But what lips — huge, red, indelible.
“That was totally by accident and not by design,” he laughs. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, and I could never quite do it right. And so I would overdraw because the more you try to get it even, and it’s not quite even, the more you draw. And so the lips got bigger and bigger, just because I didn’t know what I was doing.
“The whole look is kind of an accident, if you want to know the truth. Nothing was really planned.”
King, who, at 60 is as chatty as a jovial cat, has been performing his drag character since the mid-eighties, and full-time since 2003, with bedrock appearances for Atlantis Events cruises, and annually during the summer in Provincetown.
“This summer will be my twentieth in P-Town,” beams king, who will host the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Spring Affair, on Saturday, May 14. It’s the first in-person gala for the chorus since the pandemic reared its head in 2020.
“We’ve been virtual for the last two years with our fundraising events,” says executive director Justin Fyala. “And they have been successful — our audiences and community have absolutely kept supporting us through all of that.
“But to have everybody in the same room, to feel everybody coming back together to support this wonderful organization is just really, really exciting. It’s going to be a fabulous evening of fairy tales, happy endings, and once upon a time. We’re just thrilled to be back.”
The evening’s fairy-tale theme, “Once Upon a Time…,” will be expressed, says Fyala, by “set pieces in the ballroom. The stage will be decorated with a painted backdrop done by one of our very talented artists within our community. We’ll also have fairy tale vignettes in the lobby.”
Various members of the chorus will be in costume, “setting the mood for a really wonderful evening.” Fyala encourages attendees to eschew black tie for fairy tale costumes, as well. “I hope that we see a lot of costumes from our patrons,” he says, “because that’s always the most fun part.”
During the evening, which will include both a live and silent auction, GMCW will present its annual Harmony Awards to D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson, Metro Weekly magazine, and, posthumously, to Robert T. Boaz, a beloved member of the chorus and the D.C. LGBTQ community, who passed away at the age of 49 in September 2019.
As for Miss Richfield, she’ll be entertaining the troops throughout the evening.
“I have three little sets that I do,” says King. “I have a song that I like to sing — it’s about where people are from. And Washington is perfect because nobody is from Washington. Then I’ll do a song about our First Ladies that also has a video component. And then I’m going to play the musical saw.”
“The saw is with me at all times,” says King, who picked up the offbeat instrument by happenstance. “I really wanted to play an instrument — this would have been in 1999. I was fairly new at performing and I just wanted to add a musical element.” He decided against a guitar or ukelele and opted for something far less ordinary.
“I looked up musical saw on the Internet at the time,” he says. “Mind you, this is when the Internet was very different than the Internet is today. When you put a search in, it didn’t prioritize anything. It would give you every single time that the word ‘musical saw’ was listed in anything — newspaper articles, history, whatever. And so, 432 things came up — literally 432 — and I thought, what the hell am I going to do?
“One of them was for a novelty company that sold musical saws. I ordered it and, I’ll never forget, it was $77 delivered. It was a saw and a bow and a little mallet. I could play it instantly — you just had to follow the directions. And and I’ve had that same saw ever since.”
As for the 1981 affixed to Miss Richfield’s name, King says, “the reason people connect with the character so much as we all have moments in our life that were real high points. And while most of us can move on from those, we all know people who’ve never been able to let go of a moment. And that’s Miss Richfield. She’s still that beauty queen in 1981 and still feels like that happened just last week — even though it’s 40 years ago.”
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Spring Affair: Once Upon a Time… is Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the Ritz-Carlton, 1150 22nd St. NW in Washington, D.C. Tickets start at $225 per person and include a complimentary cocktail reception for all guests starting at 6:30 p.m. followed by dinner, awards presentation, entertainment and a live auction.
Tickets are still available and are on sale through Tuesday, May 10, at 11:59 p.m. To purchase, call 202-293-1548 or visit www.gmcw.org.
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