The world’s old­est drag queen def­i­nitely isn’t slow­ing down

IN Magazine - - COMMUNITY - By Max Mac­Don­ald

Many things have been said to or about Michelle DuBarry. Some choose to see a with­ered queen who has spent one too many years in women’s clothes. oth­ers be­lieve he’s a liv­ing time cap­sule of gay his­tory, a glit­ter­ing re­minder that re­sus­ci­tates an era when fe­male im­per­son­ation was full of cos­tumes and pageantry. nowa­days a grow­ing tribe, both gay and straight, with al­most a cult-like de­vo­tion re­spects 84-yearold russell Peter all­dread (aka Michelle DuBarry) as an icon, a trail­blazer and an in­ter­na­tional am­bas­sador for Toronto’s drag com­mu­nity.

all­dread was born at a time when, as he quips, “there was no such word as gay.” Born in 1931 in small-town ontario, he came from a sup­port­ive fam­ily with a mother and fa­ther who loved him dearly. How­ever, a fam­ily visit to his cousins would re­write his des­tiny. With the as­sis­tance of his fe­male cousins in Bow­manville, ontario, he wore his first gown at the age of eight. “My cousins loved to play dress-up and they thought it would be nice to do the same for me.” Lit­tle did Toronto and the world know that, just as in Cin­derella, a gown would change ev­ery­thing.

Sev­eral dresses, high-school per­for­mances, ap­pear­ances in drag (in­clud­ing at a high­school dance), a few re­la­tion­ships and one mar­riage to a woman (which ended in di­vorce) later, the stage beck­oned him. in Toronto’s drag early years, all­dread au­di­tioned for club own­ers un­der the name anita Mode. Wear­ing se­quins and heels, he found many own­ers wel­com­ing to fe­male im­per­son­ation. in the process of step­ping on stage at by­gone clubs such as 511 and The Music room, he was un­know­ingly de­vel­op­ing a com­mu­nity from the ground up.

He would never tell you this, but on top of be­ing an out-of-the-closet drag queen in the 1950s and ’60s, he put to­gether one of Canada’s first drag troupes, Façade. once all­dread got a taste for the ap­plause, he put to­gether troupes like Phase one (where one of the founders re­named him Michelle DuBarry) and The great im­posters. With ev­ery dance step, shake and shimmy, all­dread was en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple—but he was also writ­ing not only lo­cal gay his­tory but how many saw gen­der iden­tity.

Some peo­ple, as you can imag­ine, did not care for drag and acted out their dis­plea­sure. as all­dread re­calls, some of those re­minders were un­pleas­ant. “We were pelted with eggs and had things thrown at us as we en­tered gay bars,” he says. “i wouldn’t let them get to me. i would just go home, put on a dif­fer­ent wig and dress, and go right back out.” The small-town boy was no longer a drag queen; he was an ac­tivist for Toronto’s drag and gay move­ment.

His ac­tivism and gump­tion would gar­ner some very of­fi­cial ac­co­lades later on. a let­ter of praise in July 2005 came from then-City Coun­selor Kyle rae; all­dread was Pride Toronto’s of­fi­cial grand Marshall in 2007; in 2012, he re­ceived the first Life­time achieve­ment award from the Toronto’s in­spire awards. But that’s not all. all­dread em­bod­ies his mantra—“al­ways be kind.” Whether vol­un­teer­ing with char­i­ties such as the Princess Mar­garet Foun­da­tion and TiCoT (the im­pe­rial Court of Toronto), he’s not afraid to help out. His re­fusal to “dis­ap­pear” is also in­ad­ver­tently giv­ing life to Toronto’s gay se­niors’ com­mu­nity by rewrit­ing the adage “gay men are sup­posed to van­ish out of the scene over 80.” Leave it to all­dread to un­know­ingly break another un­writ­ten ta­boo.

in Fe­bru­ary 2016, all­dread chal­lenged the sta­tus quo one more time, by catch­ing the eye of guin­ness World records (with a nudge from yours truly and his friends). af­ter 84 years of rais­ing the bar, never set­tling for no, fight­ing back, los­ing many friends to age and aiDS, all­dread got the last laugh. He was awarded the guin­ness World record achieve­ment of the World’s old­est Drag Queen. Dur­ing an in­for­mal cer­e­mony at his home club, Statlers Bar, he re­flected on his new­est ti­tle. “There are so many peo­ple now gone. i’m re­ally the only one of my kind left.” He ac­cepted the cer­tifi­cate and af­ter­wards did what he does best: per­formed in a glit­ter­ing gown and heels, and ush­ered in a new chap­ter in Toronto’s drag his­tory.

The next day, af­ter the me­dia cam­eras had packed up and the last ap­plause had dis­si­pated, all­dread’s big­gest worry was how he was go­ing to an­swer the 600 or so emails of con­grat­u­la­tions and Face­book wishes. i called him and teas­ingly asked if he con­sid­ered him­self a golden girl. He chuck­led. “i wish! But i just don’t have the time.”

Photo by David Hawe

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