One of the World’s Oldest Drag Queens Shares Memories of Life in Toronto in the 1950s
"The name Michelle DuBarry came much later but I used to get dressed up and go out long before. Drag was very different back then. We weren’t trying to be larger than life, we looked like women."
On Tuesday nights, if you’re playing Ghetto Glam Bingo at Pegasus Bar on Toronto’s Church Street, you’re likely to catch the floral scent of Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds fragrance before you spot the Bette Davis-esque blonde wig that belongs to one of the bar’s most iconic visitors: Russell Alldread.
At 88, Alldread—better known by his drag persona Michelle DuBarry—is Canada’s oldest drag queen. He even held the title of World’s Oldest Performing Drag Queen for a brief period (awarded by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2015) but has since been dethroned by Walter “Darcelle XV” Cole in Oregon, who’s one year older. “He wasn’t that terrific looking actually,” Russell counters with a chuckle, when I sit down with him earlier this month.
Dressed in cargo shorts and a colourful printed shirt, Russell passes as a sweet old gentleman until you notice a few tell-tale signs courtesy of his other persona. One being the pearly white dental plates and the other, his long, perfectly manicured talons. “They’re for scratching backs —and balls.”
Born in 1931 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Russell moved to Toronto’s Gay Village at the age of twenty-one and never left (aside from a brief stint when he left and married a woman). “We had a church wedding in my home in Bowmanville, with my mother and her mother in the front row, but that was short lived.”
Read on for our Q&A (and bonus video interview!) with Russell.
What was it like growing up in Ontario in the ’40s? Did you know you were gay?
Oh no, gay wasn’t a word. No such thing. You were a faggot or a queer or a sissy. In high school another guy and I decided to dress up like two French dancers at the high school masquerade. We didn’t think it was drag, we were dressing up in a costume. And we went to the dance and this fifth form student asked me to dance. And his brother who was in my form went up to him and said, “That’s a guy, you know.” And he disappeared.
I used to get sunbathing magazines and look for nude people. But of course, everything was blocked out then. I would draw male and female figures, cut them out and make clothes for them. I didn’t really think about it then.
And you moved to Toronto in your twenties?
Yes. I came to the village and I found a place to live in a brick building next to what is now the Garage. And I got a job at Canadian Fairbanks-Morse in the mailroom. At twenty-one I was kind of a cute kid, anyways that’s what they told me. And there was an older man in the mailroom who was gay. I mean, gay wasn’t the word then, he was queer, and he had a little apartment full of music and books and everything and so I dropped by and he didn’t come on to me at all. But he had a young chap visiting him from Ottawa, a gorgeous young boy. And so I ended up in a hotel room in the pub and really all over town with the young boy. Well he was the same age as I was, I guess. And anyway, that was quite a day. We had a bath in the bathtub and then we sat naked in a big chair and it was a lovely night.
When did drag come on the scene in Toronto?
Well in the ’50s Sarah Dunlop, a lesbian, had a private little place for three men that were doing shows in suit and tie with a rose in the lapel. She had to have someone watching the door to make sure the people that came in were people that she knew because it was against the law in the ’50s. So, I used to watch these three guys doing their number. And Murray Burbage, a very talented young man who was sewing clothes for young girls’ skate skating groups, etcetera, decided to put them in women’s clothing. That was the beginning of men dressing up.
What about Michelle, when did she come on to the scene?
The name Michelle DuBarry came much later but I used to get dressed up and go out long before. Drag was very different back then. We weren’t trying to be larger than life, we looked like women.
There was one night I got dressed up with my blonde hair and a little black dress and I went over and walked down Yonge Street and nobody knew anything. They didn’t know I was a man. I went into the downtown theatre and watched a movie. On my way out I tripped on the steps and fell down the stairs, and this guy at the bottom of the steps said to me, ‘Here’s your shoe lady.’ And I grabbed it and limped home.
I’m sure it wasn’t all easy though.
No, but I don’t usually think on that. I mean there was a Halloween night in the ’50s. Thousands of people were cramming the streets and yelling, “Look at the queers.’ And I’m going through in a lovely red dress and I had ink thrown at me, and I went home and changed, and came back out again. Nothing’s going to stop me from doing it. It was quite a night. Quite a wonderful Halloween night.
Do you have any advice for drag queens today?
Oh no. They’re doing what they want to do and looking how they want to look and my god, there’s so many of them that are looking utterly fantastic. They’re not looking for my advice. I’m someone they admire. They respect me. And that’s good. I cut the ribbon on World Pride a couple years ago. It’s nice to be respected.
Any secrets to your longevity?
No. I live one day at a time. I can’t live for tomorrow and thank God I can still put myself together.
Video Courtesy Bolt Content