If you have been to a drag show event around Champaign-Urbana, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen the performer Spank Knightly, known off-stage as Jess Schlipf. Way before they ever got into drag, Schlipf was doing theater and that foundation is apparent in all of their performances. On stage, as Spank Knightly, their performances are energetic, exaggerated, and a true comedic act. As an audience member, we get to see Knightly’s incredible costumes, makeup, and performances. What we don’t see is all of the work it takes to make it look so effortless. Schlipf was kind enough to take some time out of their busy performance schedule to answer some questions for me.
Smile Politely: Will you introduce yourself?
Jess Schlipf: My name is Jess Schlipf. I am also known by my drag name, Spank Knightly.
SP: What pronouns should I use when I write about you?
Jess Schlipf: I (Jess) am they/them. Spank Knightly as the character is he/him.
SP: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in the performance space?
Schlipf: I started performing in theater when I was four and kept doing it for the next 25 years of my life. With all of that, I learned how to do my own stage make up. Then I started trying out different [makeup] effects and eventually I began to experiment with drag.
SP: What drew you to drag?
Schlipf: Really the freedom of it. In theater, for a long time, you had to audition for your ‘type’ to get the role you wanted to play. And many times, it was very binary in gender. I wanted to play dramatic men’s roles but it was often extremely hard to even be considered for those roles. In drag, you select your own persona. You are your own director, choreographer, producer, and actor. You can do whatever you want and play whatever role you want. And what I wanted to play was a dramatic queer-coded cartoon villain.
SP: Your makeup looks are always incredible. Did you learn from someone or are you self taught?
Schlipf: I’ve never had a direct teacher for makeup. Years of doing my own makeup for theater has taught me a lot. I also learned how to do king makeup by observing other kings. That’s really how any of us learn.
SP: How would you describe Spank Knightly’s style? And how do you choose your look for each performance?
Schlipf: For the most part, Spank Knightly encapsulates my appreciation but also a critique of nostalgia. So, I will often pick music or looks that invoke a nostalgic reaction, and then I like to add either a dark or weird twist to it. A lot of my makeup looks are inspired by old animation done by figures like Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and even Walt Disney. I also draw from a mix of Art Deco of the 1920s, Art Nouveau of the early 1900s, the art of JC Leyendecker, and various video games like Bioshock and Fallout.
SP: What are some of the positive and negative aspects of being a drag king performer?
Schlipf: The pros are that I get to be a persona of my own creation. The drag king community in particular is supportive of each other and very close knit. I get to travel a lot, too. The cons are that it is often difficult for AFAB (assigned female at birth) performers like myself to get started and to get enough gigs or recognition for the art we do. Many of us have to work twice as hard to get the appreciation we deserve.
SP: What are you most proud of in your career?
Schlipf: I think being recognized in random places in town out of drag honestly makes me the most proud. I was at Maize one afternoon and someone asked if I was Spank Knightly. I was impressed, that’s a lot of makeup to look past. People around town recognize me from performances and that is a good feeling.
SP: What is the enemy of drag?
Schlipf: Binaries and constraints.
SP: What do you enjoy most about performing?
Schlipf: The liberating feeling. I have something that I made and pieced together on and then I get to use every part of me to show it off in whatever way I see fit. There’s no better feeling.
SP: What are some misconceptions people have about drag?
Schlipf: That it is specifically for bars or that it is exclusively nightlife or adult entertainment. Granted, my name is Spank Knightly and I tend to do more adult-oriented shows. I know plenty of others who are suited for all-ages entertainment and Drag Queen Story Hour. And I will even change my name and act for the all ages shows when needed. At its bare bones, drag is just costumes. And those costumes aren’t inherently sexual or dirty. For example, party clowns wear costumes, actors wear costumes, and Disney park characters wear costumes.
SP: What is your favorite performance venue in Champaign-Urbana?
Schlipf: I don’t really have a particular favorite venue as there are many I’ve performed in.
SP: Anything else you want people to know?
Schlipf: If you want to try drag, do it. Don’t worry about already having an established persona or unique look to yourself. That will come with time and practice. Drag is supposed to evolve.
Spank Knightly at the CU Pride Party
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Sa June 24th, 3 p.m.