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Man beneath the lip gloss

By Gabrielle Nomura on December 12, 2011 – No Comment

Kevin Kent in his Queen of Hearts getup.

By Gabrielle Nomura | Photos courtesy of Kevin Kent

When I arrive early for an interview with performer Kevin Kent – he’s not there yet; apparently, he had “some beauty thing,” possibly an eyebrow wax or facial.

Kent is renowned at Teatro ZinZanni for his memorable drag queen act, combining on-the-spot humor and unforgettable audience participation that involves flirting with male members of the audience. While wearing a dress.

Kent is just one standout in the ZinZanni show – a spectacular display of acrobatics, cabaret, comedy, dance and music over a gourmet, five-course menu designed by chef Tom Douglas.  If that sounds like a lot of fabulousness crammed into one evening, you’d be right. The experience has an over-the-top factor of Cirque du Soliel, Zagat-worthy entrees and unique performers, such as 80-year-old Liliane Montevecchi, former prima ballerina and star of, “Bonsoir Liliane!” currently playing at ZinZanni, or people such as Kent, who’s been gaining fans from the dinner-theater since 1998.

As I wait for Kent to arrive in ZinZanni’s Seattle Center offices, I wonder if he’ll have a diva attitude to match the sassy persona I’ve seen him bring to the stage.

In framed photos that line the office walls, Kent poses like an amazon pinup girl with kissy lips; in another, he’s pictured in his signature Queen of Hearts getup – the ultimate centerpiece for a gay pride parade.

Aside from the thick eyeliner and luscious lips he applies himself, the transformation to drag queen is completed by the way he carries himself, like he’s a pompous, British monarch. He forces his voice into a high, almost prissy register, ending  many of his sentences with the spirited phrase, “Very good,” as he instructs audience members to show off their seduction skills.

Kevin Kent in drag

The Act

Much of Kent’s act stays the same each night.

But there’s about 30 percent that changes each show as he rolls with the punches; or more accurately, with the ridiculous situations, comments or reactions he gets from the audience members – whether it’s someone being shy, or someone really getting into the act by giving Kent a coquettish wink.

“Big, muscly straight guys” who come with a wife or girlfriend are fair game for being plucked from the audience. People who look miserable, or who are dateless, Kent doesn’t mess with. He also doesn’t tend to pick on women, as he says it can create an unnecessary tension, and, of course, he tries to avoid picking gay men.

“Because then it’s just a gay man putting a dress on a gay man,” Kent would later tell me during our interview. He literally transfers part of his costume, a ball gown, to an audience member and gussies him up with rouge in “Bonsoire Liliane!” – he loves role reversal, gender dynamics and of course, dress-up.

Getting to interact with the audience, both during his act, and when he gets to walk around and mingle throughout the show, is what Kent loves about performing with ZinZanni.

Once, Kent was schmoozing with a table that included a married couple and their two adult daughters. During the conversation, the mother started joking around with the drag queen, as she laughingly commiserated with Kent on the burden of having to wear a padded bra.

When Kent looked over at the daughters, they were crying.

As it turns out, that was the first time their mom had been able to openly acknowledge that she was a survivor of breast cancer – and with humor, no less. It’s only one ZinZanni story Kent will never forget.

Teatro ZinZanni audiences.

The real Kent

When he shows up for the interview, it pulls me back to reality – this isn’t what I thought the queen would look like underneath the “falsies.” We sit in the vintage circus tent, the chairs upturned over the tabletops. This place where magic happens at night looks so different in broad, unromantic daylight. But, it’s in this light that I can finally see the person beneath the drag makeup.

He’s soft-spoken (in front of me, at least), with piercing blue eyes, cropped whitish hair and almost iridescent skin, scrubbed clean from the last show.  I can only see a glimmer of the drag queen in this serious man, and I don’t dare ask him about his beauty appointment. Still, he’s polite; nothing like the wild and unruly queen.

When you see things more clearly, you often learn that your original perceptions were off-base.

I would sooner have thought that Kent was an aspiring Broadway performer from New York City than an architecture major from New Mexico. He didn’t make the switch from designing buildings into improvisational acting, and then later, drag, until he’d had his first taste of college.

New Mexico, believe-it-or-not, is where Kent returns when he isn’t with Teatro ZinZanni. His off-season gig? Cattle rancher.

Driving a pickup truck, relying on solar energy, and even hunting from time-to-time, the seemingly-glamorous performer lives off-the-grid in stark contrast to his other life.

“It’s definitely a different speed; a different setting,” Kent says. “Life slows down.”

I can’t believe I ever thought he’d be a diva. You can’t judge a book by its cover –  or a man, by his eyeliner.

Kevin Kent (right) with Teatro ZinZanni aerialist Andrew Adams (left) and Adam’s baby, Seamus.