Michelle DuBarry, Toronto’s oldest drag queen, celebrates 80

How often can you say that an 80-year-old man is prettier than you?

Michelle DuBarry holds up a pink dress covered in sequins and rhinestones and announces: “I wore this to the senior’s home.”

Standing in her bedroom, she gives it a shake and the tiny ribbons that trim the collar and hem wave like underwater tendrils. “Once a month, I do a little show for the old people,” she explains. “For the old people, you know, the 92-or 94-year-olds.”

DuBarry isn’t old. Vintage, maybe, like some of her spectacular clothing, but certainly not old. The legendary drag queen celebrated her 80th birthday — “Double 40,” she corrects — on Wednesday, and Toronto’s gay community marked the milestone with a gala and a tribute show. DuBarry still performs and entertains with her wit (“This was my old boyfriend,” she says when we walked by the statue of Alexander Wood). She still makes her rounds of the Village and shares stories from when she was with The Great Imposters, a travelling drag queen troupe.

In her anecdotes, she always describes what she was wearing. Like the time she fell down a flight of stairs at a downtown movie theatre — she was wearing a short mini-dress, a picture hat, pointy-toed high heels with bows on the back and a white fox stole — and a man helped her, adding: “Here’s your heel, lady.”

Or the time she attended the Halloween party at St. Charles Tavern– “I had this gorgeous hand-tied blond wig” — and a mob outside pelted her with eggs. “I went home and changed. Put on a red wig and came back out again.”

She walks around her room, in between rolling racks of dresses and shelves stacked with shoe boxes. Here and there are styrofoam heads donning different wigs, from Linda Evans-esque sleek platinum blond to curly brown bobs a la Joan Collins.

She frets about the mess, uncomfortable having visitors to her apartment on Alexander Street. In the living room, two photos of Russell Alldread, the man under the jewels, wig and makeup, hang on the wall.

One is of him at nine, wearing a black velvet strapless dress, a beret and heart-shaped locket, his little hand on his hip. “It was a perfectly natural way to stand,” she says.

The second portrait is of Alldread from the shoulders up, his head topped with a fedora, his gentle, polite face lost behind a big pair of spectacles. He does look a little like Truman Capote, as one of his friends described him.

“Michelle is an amazing character, but I was surprised to find out how lonely Russell can be,” says filmmaker Carolyn Kelly, who is shooting a documentary about the queen. “People pay so much attention to Michelle that they forget that Russell is behind the icon.”

Alldread was born to a blacksmith and a nurse on Nov. 23, 1931, in Bowmanville, Ont., the youngest of three children. He loved architecture and fashion, singing and performing.

In high school, he dressed as a French Apache dancer to attend a Halloween dance after finding “a pair of green suede ankle-strapped platforms” in the garbage. When he was 18, he moved to Toronto where he worked as a ladies shoe salesman, amassing a collection of shoes with matching handbags. During the day, Alldread wore a suit. Come evening, DuBarry wore the most stylish ladies’ shoes in the city.

“In the ’50s, no one really knew anything about gay,” she says. “The King Edward [hotel’s] front bar, the gay people went there in suit and ties and pretended to be straight and then the beer room was full of screaming queens.”

Alldread married a woman in 1957. They divorced in 1961. He then began a lifelong relationship with another woman — Anita Mode, who was renamed Michelle DuBarry. She started doing shows at the 511 and Manatee clubs before going on the road with The Great Imposters (she is the last surviving member). She tells a story about performing for sailors at the Misty Moon cabaret in Halifax; I’ll simply call the tale: An Officer and a Gentleman.

“I’m just a man in a dress,” she says. “I always loved the stage. My sisters and I sang for the ladies groups. We sang at hospitals.” This week, the community lauded her for her decades of entertaining, fundraising and pioneering what was considered a taboo art form — all things that she considers “just being me.”

She pulls out a champagne sparkly dress with an asymmetrical hem that once belonged to a Las Vegas showgirl and then a silver outfit with a cascade of tiny mirror balls hanging from its shoulders. Somewhere in this closet, there’s also a wedding dress.

“No one’s ever asked me to marry him,” she says.

“There’s still time,” I say, and she laughs wholeheartedly.

This article appeared in the National Post on Nov. 30.

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