King QUEENS

After 40 years of don­ning wigs and gowns, Win­nipeg’s doyenne of drag is get­ting her due

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - JEN ZORATTI

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.

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