The talented singer, recording artist, DJ, and stage performer Alphonso King Jr. — whose offstage personality is far from the signature flamboyance that RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers associate with the genre — recently spoke with Plus about how the inspiring performance and song came about.
The queer and African-American King is a fiercely outspoken activist and admits that it hasn’t always made Jade Elektra the most popular queen in Toronto clubs.
“This is the weird thing about that video going viral. I’m not very well liked here [in Toronto],” King says with an unaffected frankness. “It’s because I’m very outspoken. [Many] really believe that there’s no racism here. They spend a lot of time mocking the U.S…[but] they fuck up too.”
A lot of the stuff “that Trump is doing is seeping into their government here,” continues King, who was born in the U.S. but now lives in Toronto with his Canadian husband (and behind-the-scenes business partner), John Richard Allan.
King argues that the premier of Canada’s province Ontario, Doug Ford, “is basically trying to do exactly what Trump is doing. He is taking away funding from programs. He tried to scrap sex education and all kinds of stuff.”
Unfortunately, even within the area’s LGBTQ community, King says discrimination exists. In his experience at least, he says drag performers who play ethnic “caricatures” of people of color are often more popular, but, “I’m just not willing to play the game.”
The 52-year-old entertainer says he learned to balance his drag career with his work as a DJ, singer, and recording artist, all while holding true to his personal and political convictions. He admits that although he has been doing drag for over 30 years, he’d become resigned to the fact that he might never become a household name.
Perhaps that’s why King says he was as surprised as anyone when the video of him performing “Undetectable” went viral. A simple word substitution transforms the Nat King Cole torch classic, “Unforgettable,” into a fun, flirty, and positive message about U=U and living with HIV.
Though King himself is living with HIV, he says he was intially a bit reluctant to perform the song in front of a large crowd.
“I was nervous because in this climate that we’re living in, someone is always offended. I told the organizers of the event, ‘OK, if someone says something to me, I’m sending them to you because you asked me to do this song,’” he recalls with a laugh. “I do a cover of Carl Bean’s ‘I Was Born This Way,’ and I wanted to do that. I thought it was upbeat, it had a good message to it. And they insisted on ‘Undetectable’ and I was just like, ‘OK.’”
King jokes that the “craziest thing about that performance, also which no one caught” was a wardrobe malfunction.
“There was a wig hair stuck in my eye during it that I could not fix. And my padding on my right side started sliding down my leg! All this is going on while I’m onstage and I’m trying not to freak out and keep in character.”
Since going viral, King has been asked to perform the song at various events and venues, including the 2019 United States Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C.
But King says one of the best and most rewarding parts of this entire journey is how the song has inspired others living with HIV. Beyond sharing the stigma-smashing message of U=U, the song also brings a humanity back to people living with HIV that has been noticeably lacking for some time.
“I’m thinking of all the things that were going wrong during the number, and I get off stage and I’m walking through the crowd and this guy stopped me and he said, ‘Thank you for making me feel sexy again.’ I was like, Wow. It hadn’t registered to me that that was the message someone would get from it. I thought, Oh, they’ll get a chuckle off of me changing the name or changing the words. But yeah, it was really an eye-opening moment that was like, oh yeah, that’s right — we are sexual beings, and we deserve to feel sexy and have relationships.”
King says, looking back, he’s always been an activist at heart, though it took him time to fully embrace the role. Today the performer is confident and comfortable in his own skin, but he recalls dealing with internalized stigma and shame after his HIV diagnosis.
“When you start thinking that way, you start putting yourself in that box. So breaking that stigma — the self-stigma is what I call it — breaking that is one of the hardest things. You think, Well, I’m not worthy, and no one’s ever going to want me. And I went through that the first year or so, but then I met someone else who was HIV-positive and we had a really great relationship.”
That may be key, says King. “My husband’s also positive. One of the things that we encourage in our group — we’re not telling people what to do — but we encourage them to find someone else who is HIV-positive because then you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to feel like, Oh, they don’t understand what’s going on.”
He’s had a few serious relationships before he met his husband, King says, including one “where my partner kind of emotionally abused me because I was HIV-positive. We got into an argument, and he would tell me that I ruined my life with becoming positive, and we could never be a regular couple, and we can’t have sex the way he wanted, and all this other stuff.”
In 2005, in New York City, King met his “very out” future husband, which inspired him to open up about his own status and get more involved. The two have been married since 2010 and together have built an online HIV support group that offers social and romantic possibilities, not just 101 info.
“He started a thing online called Poz Planet, which is on Facebook, and we’ve worked on it really hard,” King explains. “It’s got over 10,000 members from all around the world…. There are plenty of HIV-positive groups online, but they don’t really encourage you to hook up or any of that kind of stuff. They’re just there for information…. We tried to create a support system and allow people just to be people. There are some people who post selfies all day. And I’m like, ‘We don’t care. It’s fine.’ People comment or whatever and I know that it’s an ego boost if they’re in some small town or whatever, to have someone from someplace else go, ‘Oh, you’re cute.’”
Still, King says that even HIV activists don’t always agree, and his views are not always popular.
“I’m not a big fan of PrEP,” King says bluntly. “And the reason that I’m not a big fan of PrEP is because how it’s being used and where it’s being used.” It's a concern more and more activists are vocalizing.
King feels like it’s largely accessed by white gay men, at least in North America, who take PrEP just to have condomless sex without worry. But access is limited for out gay and bi men of color who desperately need prevention techniques. And, he worries that Truvada as PrEP could have the same impact on the kidneys that some antiretrovirals have had after long-term use.
“[Activists] are not really talking about that aspect of it,” he says. “I’m reminding people condoms haven’t gone anywhere and there’s no side effects with those…unless you have a latex allergy or something. So don’t forget about protecting yourself that way. You don’t have to take a pill to protect yourself.” (Though it should be noted that PrEP is considered to be 99 percent effective in preventing HIV, while condoms are about 90 to 95 percent effective.)
King is also quick to clarify he doesn’t necessarily think PrEP is a bad thing, just something people need to be properly educated about before taking it long-term. Still, though he may not be completely onboard the PrEP train, he respects the science behind it and why fellow HIV activists, like Plus contributing editor Mark S. King, advocate for it.
“Of course, Mark’s stance is that ‘This is a wonderful drug. This is helping people feel comfortable to have sex again,’ and all of this stuff,” King says. “I get that and I understand that.”
Another reason King doesn’t see PrEP as the panacea for HIV stigma is because he believes HIV organizations and campaigns often exclude queer poz folks of color from the conversation. That’s a mistake, he explains, if we truly want to end stigma and create a healthy environment for all. More events “for HIV-positive people, where they can go and not have to worry about the stigma, and just go and have a good time” would help too.
Ultimately, King says he couldn’t be more pleased that his “Undetectable” is bringing awareness to U=U. “I’ve been a musician since the mid-’90s, working on music and everything, and nothing’s ever happened. Often, I feel down on myself because I was around when RuPaul was coming out, and nothing’s happened with my music.… You know, at some point, [you] start thinking, Oh, well, maybe it’s because I’m HIV-positive and that people just don’t want to deal with that — because I always bring that to the forefront in whatever I’m doing.”
The irony that now he’s being lauded for singing a song celebrating his positive diagnosis is not missed.
“It’s funny,” King reflects. “The thing I was afraid to tell everyone is the thing that’s helping me get my name out there.”