WHO YOU CALLIN’ A GOLDEN GIRL?
The world’s oldest drag queen definitely isn’t slowing down
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