After 40 years of donning wigs and gowns, Winnipeg’s doyenne of drag is getting her due
HALLOWEEN, 1974. John Cumming is 17, a young gay kid from Fort Rouge. Some of his friends decided it might be fun to go to a LGBT social at the Plumbers & Steamfitters Hall on Higgins Avenue dolled up in drag. There was a competition that night — and John, underage and wearing a blond wig and borrowed dress, ended up winning. Jennifur Coates had arrived. That triumph would be the first in a fistful of titles — among them Miss Happenings (1983), Ms. Gio’s (1987) and Miss Club 200 (1990) — earned over Cumming’s 40-year career in drag, which will be celebrated at a Club 200 gala tonight. Cumming, 57, is dedicated to the craft. He has two closets filled with Jennifur’s extensive wardrobe (not to mention 75-strong wig collection) in his West End apartment. His home office resembles a diva’s dressing room. Jennifur Coates is an vivacious glamour-puss; her signature song is Eartha Kitt’s Champagne Taste. It’s a persona Cumming has cultivated over four decades, amassing beaded gowns, jewelry and shoes (“I’m lucky I don’t have a size-13 foot,” he jokes.) Jennifur is an alter-ego for John. “As a guy, I’m quite shy — although I have friends who might disagree. As Jennifur, I feel like I can get right up on my heels and walk right up to people. I’m proud of doing it. It’s fun. I’ve always had an artistic background. I think I have a good eye for flair. Jennifur’s enriched my life in the sense that I’ve been able to travel to places and perform in places I wouldn’t have. “It’s not shock value for me. I want people to look at me and say, ‘Wow, isn’t she stylish?’” Although Cumming clinched his first drag win at 17, he wore dresses much earlier. “When I was young I used to have girlfriends at school and we’d always play dress-up. We’d put on plays and I’d always be the old mother or something like that.” In high school, he “dated girls during the weekdays and boyfriends on the weekends.” He was 16 when he came out to his family. “My dad didn’t know too much about the gay community because my dad didn’t read; he was the good old boy, you know, guys are guys. My mom wasn’t overly shocked — she was upset. Every time I looked at my mom she would cry.” John decided it would be best if he left home. “I thought I was invincible at 16, as we all think that we are,” he says gently. “I thought I could move out and take care of myself. And I found out that it was very, very difficult. It wasn’t the smartest move I’ve ever made, but it was probably the best. It made me a better person. It made me stronger. I’ve lived a better life.” He worked several jobs while finishing high school — all thanks to his maternal grandmother, his Nana, who lived close to school. “When there were days I didn’t have anything to eat, I’d meet my grandmother at her block. They had a pool table on the main level, and she’d bring down two bagged lunches and we’d play a game of pool. She loved to play pool.
John Cumming became Jennifur Coates when the spotlight started
shining 40 years ago.