How Performing as a Drag King Made CCAD’s Melanie Corn a Better College President

What started out as subversive fun helped make the Columbus College of Art & Design president a stronger leader.

Melanie Corn
Columbus College of Art & Design president Melanie Corn in the college’s auditorium

The opportunity to lead Columbus College of Art & Design brought me to Central Ohio six years ago from an adulthood spent in California. But, little-known fact, my first visit to Columbus was actually in 1999, for what started as a typical academic conference but became a life-changing weekend—one that prepared me for my career as a college president better than much of what I learned in a formal classroom.

I had just completed my master’s thesis on gender identity and the creation of community in the photography of Catherine Opie when I happened to see the most intriguing “call for proposals” pinned to the bulletin board in my art history department’s grad student lounge. The invitation was to participate in a new event that was part academic conference, part community workshop and part performance. It was audaciously called the International Drag King Extravaganza.

I arrived at the first IDKE, which took place in the Ohio State University student union, Axis Nightclub and other Downtown venues now gone, as a scholar of gender performativity. By the plane ride back to the West Coast, I was choreographing dance moves in my mind and scribbling drag troupe logos on my cocktail napkin. A year later, I returned to Columbus for the second IDKE as a practitioner, not a scholar. I wasn’t Melanie Corn, doctoral student. I was Jake Danger, co-founder of The Disposable Boy Toys.

Thanks to RuPaul and other stars like Columbus’ own Nina West, most Americans—whether or not they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community—know enough about drag queens to at least fake their way through a hipster happy hour in Brooklyn. And with that baseline knowledge, it only takes a couple of logical steps to piece together the definition of a drag king.

Drag kings are basically women who perform as men, and yet that simplistic definition does not do justice to the art of kinging, especially with our 21st century understanding of the complexity of gender. Rather, drag is an intentional performance of any gender by a person of any gender, and it is a mainstay of queer community entertainment.

At its best, drag presents an opportunity to undermine gender stereotypes through their exaggeration. For me, every time Jake Danger took the stage—doing a “straight” rendition of a well-synchronized boy band dance, for instance, or an overt Guns N’ Roses parody welcoming the audience to the jungle … of capitalism—it was a political act and a feminist rebellion against the “girl box” society worked so hard to keep me in.

A drag selfie of Melanie Corn from Halloween 2021

Though my days of late-night lip-synching are behind me, what I learned from performing as a drag king continues to play a significant role in my life. Believe it or not, it was fantastic preparation for my day job, so much so that it makes me wonder if “Drag King, 1999–2013” should be on my resume, tucked right between “Associate Dean” and “Provost.”

Most obviously, perhaps, performing as a drag king helped me develop a stage presence and comfort in front of a crowd of people that has readily translated into an ease with public speaking critical to my job. As Jake Danger, I performed hundreds of times in front of audiences from 10 to a thousand. Yes, I also did some public speaking and drama as a teenager, but there is no better preparation for navigating a town hall Q&A with faculty or a donor cocktail party than holding the attention of a drunk crowd at a gay bar at midnight with what truly did feel like “lip synching for your life.”

The other crucial leadership quality I learned from kinging was how to take up space. In fact, it was this idea of “taking up space” that led me to reflect on how formative my performance days were.

As I mentioned, drag often relies on exaggerated stereotypes. For women, performing masculinity is often about the physical act of taking up more space than we’ve been given permission to in our daily lives—literally “manspreading” and standing, walking, gesturing, everything-ing in a bigger way. At their core, these actions are physical manifestations of the confidence and entitlement of manhood. For performers, they are an easy shorthand that says “guy,” and for many women learning to perform “guy,” they can be empowering, emboldening.

Doing drag didn’t create confidence in me, but it gave it a shape and a physical manifestation. It is hard to explain, but for women who are literally taught from the time they are children to be still and quiet, praised for being small and thin, appreciated for being polite and demure, suddenly being cheered on and whistled at for being unapologetically bold and brash is thrilling. It’s freeing.

Coming into a leadership role as a relatively young woman meant gaining respect from my peers, individuals who worked for me, and people in the community who were accustomed to a very different type of person in this position and similar roles. According to the American College President Study from the American Council on Education, 58 percent of university and college presidents were over the age of 60 and 70 percent were men in 2016, the year I started as president of CCAD at the age of 40.

Even with the privilege of whiteness, an impressive educational pedigree and, by now, a successful tenure in my role (longer than the average tenure of a university president), my authority is not always assumed. “Taking up space” may not be something that I still perform physically—though, at 5 feet, 4 inches, I am sure to put on heels any day that I have board meetings or public events. Instead, it’s about fighting back against impostor syndrome and “taking up space” in a metaphoric sense—believing that I’m entitled to be “in the room where it happens,” that I’m the best person to lead this 143-year-old institution and demonstrating it to others who may still need convincing.

On the other hand, just because I learned to “do leadership like a dude” (to misquote British pop singer Jessie J) doesn’t mean I want to emulate stereotypically male styles of leadership in all ways. Another aspect of my leadership style that I developed during my years as Jake Danger is collaboration. This is not necessarily inherent to kinging, but it was a critical part of my experience.

For much of my drag career, I was part of a performance troupe that operated as a feminist collective. None of us was officially in charge, and we worked together with a goal of collective decision-making. Today, I still have a very collaborative leadership style. For me, learning to be comfortable in the spotlight and take up space has been balanced with an eagerness to share the stage with my team.

I have never seen collaborative leadership as an excuse to not have one’s own vision or to make up for one’s deficiencies. I view intentional collaboration as a process for getting the most from a group, putting the goals and good of the organization above individual ego. It is a feminist mode of leading. It’s one that I strongly believe in and, ironically, it’s one I learned from performing masculinity.

The last thing I learned about leadership from my life in drag is, again, maybe not inherent to kinging but critical to my start as a king: It is that Columbus is a great place in which to do drag and to lead. Ours is a community that embraces collaboration, diversity and risk-taking. And Columbus is a thriving and creative city on the rise because of these qualities. This is a place where a college president can share their secret life as a recovering drag king and know they will still be embraced.

This story is from the August 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.