John Kim Points to Victory in DC Drag Race
Dressed in a black tank top, a striped yellow skirt, black fishnet tights, and chunky high-heeled combat boots, Kim sprinted three blocks from Cobalt (a gay bar that closed in 2019) to JR’s bar in Dupont Circle, where they crossed the finish line and broke the rainbow ribbon. After the race, they took an obligatory shot of schnapps at JR’s to celebrate. This was my first time attending the high heel race. The contestants’ creative and flashy outfits were as impressive as their ability to sprint three blocks in heels. After the race, my friend and I were able to catch a drag show and join in a dance party. A week later, I spoke with Kim about the race and their victory.
What is the High Heel Race? What is its history?
It started 35 years ago when a couple of drag queens would run from the Cobalt all the way down to JR’s right at closing time. They would do it to see how fast they could get there. They’d run and take a shot of schnapps. That tradition turned into multiple people joining in, which turned into this celebration on 17th street. The mayor’s office took over five years ago, so now it’s a big event that DC runs. There are a ton of people. It’s really cool to see people, not just in the LGBTQ community but the whole DC community. Young, old; people who lived in DC years ago, people who live in DC today. It’s just a really fun event. Probably one of my favorite events that DC runs, other than pride. This is an event that brings the community together.
How did you find out about the race and why did you decide to run?
I found out about it five years ago. I had just finished school. I was working in DC and living out in Fairfax, Virginia. I heard about the event the night before and wondered, “Why not?” I had never worn heels before. I went to Nordstrom Rack and asked: “What are your biggest heels? I need [them].” I did terribly. I somehow made the news, which was even worse.
You made the news?
After the race, my uncle texted me: “Were you in the high heel race? You’re on Fox 5.” I was like, “Oh great.” Back then, it was very different. I was very slow. I ran the year after, and then the pandemic happened. I ran last year and won, and then this year, the same thing.
What were your initial impressions of the race when you ran it for the first time?
It was very intimidating, even today—the crowds, all the spectators, all the news cameras and reporters there. DC isn’t the biggest city, and an event like that, especially for the LGBTQ community, doesn’t feel like it would be this publicized. So it can be a little intimidating, but it’s so much fun. From the first day I did it until now, I have felt so much joy.
How did you prepare for the race?
A lot of sprints. That’s what I did last year, and I did a little of that this year. But it wasn’t like I was training for six months or anything. [The key is] being able to run at max speed and being able to run a little bit more than three blocks. Three blocks is a lot longer than you think, especially with heels. You just gotta go. The right type of heels always helps.
Do you train wearing heels?
Literally [just] the day of, I was running around my neighborhood streets, sprinting in them.
What type of shoes are the best to sprint in?
Shoes with a bit of a thicker heel. I’m 210 pounds, so I can’t wear the little stilettos. And DC streets aren’t the best, so you never know what little hole you will step in.
Do people ever wipe out?
I don’t think anybody did this year. But I remember people took a hit in my first and second years. And it just takes one person to go down, and everybody behind them is going down, too.
What happened before, during, and after this year’s race?
The whole event started around 6:30 pm. There was a parade [and] marching bands. A lot of the queens who were running had time to walk down the “runway.” Some were walking back and forth, but you have to conserve your energy! Around 8:30, the mayor’s office made some comments and gave out awards. We were all pushed back to the starting line, and they got us all ready. Then they started the race. From there, it’s just a dash. You just go. Once the blowhorn sounds, you run as fast as you can. The person I was racing next to was actually beating me halfway through. Nobody realizes how far three blocks is, and they start dying off a little. I thought I was going to lose, but I had just enough in me to finish it strong. After that, they brought us onto the stage. At that point, I was so exhausted and out of breath. They tried to make me talk, and they’re giving out awards, but everyone’s just dying and sweating. After that, we went over to JR's, the tradition, and did a celebratory shot of schnapps. That's how it all started 35 years ago when it began. I love that the tradition continues, and I’m excited to see it continue.
What were you wearing for the race this year?
I was doing the Clueless look with the yellow plaid skirt and top. I've learned from past years not to wear anything too heavy if you're going to race hard. One year, I had a bodysuit with a tutu and these stilettos. That was a challenging year.
What have you gained from your experience running the race?
It’s so much fun. I love the community aspect of it. People will stop me, like, “Are you the one who won the high heel race?” I’m at the dog park, and they’re like, “I think I saw you on the news last night. You’re all Twitter famous!”
The 17th Street High Heel Race happens every year on the Tuesday before Halloween in Dupont Circle. This year, a drag show followed the race, along with a live DJ and dancing in an alley. The official after-party was held at JR’s. Kim isn’t sure if they’ll be running or just watching next year, but they know they’ll be a part of the race as long as he’s in DC.
Lizzie Short is a freshman in the College and is currently undeclared.