Saturday, January 24, 2009

Vesta Tilley

Lest anyone think that Drag Kings are a contemporary phenomenon, consider the case of Vesta Tilley, real name Matilda Powles.

Born in 1864 into a showbiz family, she began appearing onstage at the age of three. At the age of six, she played her first male character, "Pocket Sims Reeves", which was a parody of operatic vocalist Sims Reeves. By the age of eleven she was performing under the pseudonym Vesta Tilley.

The humor of her name is lost in modern times, as Vesta was the brand name of a very popular kind of matches, to the extent that many people in the 19th century referred to matches simply as "Vestas".

As Vesta grew up, she began to prefer playing male parts, saying that "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy", and eventually came to portray them exclusively. Although ostensibly her crossdressing was a theatrical device, she also made publicity appearances in public in full male drag and never breaking character. She was especially popular with women who saw her as a symbol of emancipation, and enjoyed her musical repertoire which almost always deconstructed gender roles in a playful way.

During World War I, Vesta and her husband contributed aggressively to the war effort, performing constantly for soldiers in hospitals and selling war bonds. Unfortunately, this led in turn to Vesta's showbiz demise: after the war, they were both commended for their charitable and humanitarian efforts, and her husband was knighted in 1919. Shortly thereafter he became a successful politician, and Matilda retired from Vaudeville at the age of 56.

Listen: Vesta Tilley - Following in Father's Footsteps

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