You may not know the name Reuben Kaye, but one look at his vividly painted and dramatically lashed image will imprint him on your mind forever. “I wanted the correct blend of menace and glamour,” Kaye explains, referring to his trademark style of eye makeup. “Lashes are typically feminine, but because of the spikiness and the size of mine, they transcend that, and become something else.”
That something else, which Kaye characterizes as “me three drinks in,” lies somewhere between the masculine and feminine. Kaye is a part of the drag art form, but does not consider himself to be a drag queen.
“I'm in heels, with makeup that borrows from drag kings who want that hyper masculine look. I wear male tailoring. The audience can't help but look at me and go, ‘that is a man,’” Kaye laughs. “My drag is less about gender, and more about the masculine and the feminine battling it out in a male body. My existence is politicized, what I do is transgression and protest, but it's a very, very beautiful protest.”
As a performer, Kaye’s bawdy and occasionally brutal humor has enchanted audiences across the globe, making him a beloved mainstay of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest international arts festival in the world. While Kaye would love to one day bring a solo show to Broadway or the West End, he has found a dedicated audience in Scotland, where his various shows consistently become some of the hottest tickets at the festival. This August at Edinburgh, he will perform his semi autobiographical cabaret show The Butch is Back, as well as host his variety show The Kaye Hole every weekend, which is billed as “queer, messy, and f*cking hilarious.”
Kaye adopted his stage name from the rapid-fire comedian Danny Kaye, and draws significant inspiration from artists that were active during the Hays Code, a censorial set of guidelines that ruled over the American film industry from 1934 and 1968. Marlene Dietrich, a bisexual screen star who got her start at the gay bars and drag balls of 1920’s Berlin, is one of his style icons. When it comes to comedy, he has high praise for the loveably lascivious Marx Brothers.
“The first movie I ever saw was A Night At The Opera,” Kaye recalls, referring to the first Marx Brothers’ film produced after the implementation of the Hays Code. “There's something beautiful about the vaudevillian speed, the quickfire, kind of machine gun level of humor. The world weary, traveled, sexual nature, but all combined with this amazing, oversexed innocence. What a fantastic thing!”
Now, Kaye is fighting his own battle against censorship. Earlier this year, Kaye appeared on the Australian establishment news program The Project, where he told a joke referring to his reason for loving Jesus. The joke, which Kaye has told on and off for years, was rewarded with laughter throughout the studio during the taping, before drawing the ire of conservative Christians throughout Australia. Shows have been postponed due to protests, but Kaye refuses to be intimidated.
“There is a very persistent, conservative voice coming through that is trying to force the culture war through here,” Kaye explains, referring to the international uptick in hatred occurring toward queer individuals. “Neo Nazis are marching, doing the Nazi salute. I'm a Jewish, gay man. My family are children of the Holocaust. Australia was sort of our safe haven, removed from everything that happened…and now I’m getting pretty severe death threats. It’s chilling.”
Thankfully, Kaye has managed to handle the backlash with his sanity intact. The shows that have been able to continue have been a balm. “The work is definitely comforting and cathartic,” Kaye assures. When he chooses to look at the threats, he sees a similarity between the language used, and the words that were hurled at him in high school. “It has an air of familiarity; it's very nuanced in how it affects. By turns, it can be humorous or curious. Or, at times, very, very effective.”
When Kaye goes out on stage, he turns that trauma into strength: “I'm very lucky that I get to perform for not just my community, but my family. We have a shared language. Sometimes that shared language is shared trauma, and out of that often is shared joy. When people come to the show, they get a glimpse into my world. And they also perhaps get to leave with a slightly different opinion.”
The power within his art is not one that Kaye takes lightly. “You know how we survived the AIDS epidemic? Drag queens got up on bars and gave information, and did community work that the government wasn't doing at the time. There is a parallel now to queer entertainers being the agents of change, being the engine of morale and support and visibility within the queer community.” His voice thickens before continuing on. “Certainly, I know from my audiences, they're coming in and they need something to grab onto because these are dark, dark times. We have our lives on the line. We need to laugh.”
It may be dark now, but Kaye sees hope on the horizon. “This will pass. This is not the confident scream of a mainstage voice. This is the dying gasp of a fish flopping on the deck as it runs out of air. These are not the words or the actions of a confident part of society. These are desperate actions. Queer people predate any existing idea of hate, and we will outlast it.”
See a sampling of Kaye's comedy below, and if you're in Edinburgh this summer, be sure to make a pit stop at The Kaye Hole.