50 years. 50 queers.

Michelle DuBarry

Michelle DuBarry

Oct 29, 2013

Name: Michelle DuBarry
DOB: Nov. 23, 1931
Occupation: Icon/retired shoe salesman
Favourite Author: John Grisham
Favourite Movie: Gone With The Wind
Favourite Music: ‘We Can Be Kind’ by Nancy LaMott
Favourite Person At/Over 50: Bob Toane
One Word About 50: Young

You don’t fuck with a drag queen!” That is Michelle DuBarry’s proclamation when talking about the queens of yesteryear who fought on the front lines of the gay rights revolution in San Francisco, New York and Toronto. DuBarry, who has become a drag icon in Toronto for years is now in her early 80s and shows no signs of slowing down or dimming her glamourous glow as she moves through local bars or Imperial Courts around the world.

Born Russell Alldread in 1931, DuBarry has been witness to gay life pre- and post-Stonewall; pre- and post-drag. Always one with a sense flair and style, young Russell would always be decked out in his best bib and tucker. It was what you did at the time. “People ask about being gay in the 1940s or 1950s, well, that word wasn’t used actually,” says DuBarry of the culture of the time. “Another thing, I was a young man always dressed to the nines in those days. We all dressed to the nines in those days; suit and tie and vest and fedora and topcoat and all that, so I passed. Nobody could pick on me.”

There was not much bullying back then, either,” DuBarry continues. “But if anybody was obvious or very nellie or swish, then they would be called fag or queer or the police would harass them, saying, ‘I’m going to take you for a swim at Cherry Beach’. In the 1950s, everything was underground. We had a lot of places to go, more so than even today. I was always dressed up—as a guy—there was no obvious drag then except for Hallowe’en and private parties.”

There were great shows and pomp in the 1950s with the drag. It was a spectacle and a show.”

He was briefly married to a woman until 1962 but always part of Toronto’s surreptitious gay scene of the 1950s. “The places to go in the 1950s were underground,” recalls DuBarry of those somewhat halcyon days. “There was the King Edward Hotel, the front bar was piss-elegant. That was the term for being dressed up and acting straight. The Metro across the street was famous for their downstairs. The guy at the door would only let you in if he knew you.”

While it seems anathema to the times and culture back in those days, the underground gay scene was booming with activity. “Queen Street where the Sheraton is there was a bunch of beer places and a casino for burlesque,” says DuBarry. “There was a lot of activity. Of course there was the Saint Charles Tavern. That was well-known on Hallowe’en night when there were thousands of people waiting to see all the queens coming. There were great shows and pomp in the 1950s with the drag. It was a spectacle and a show. The same in the 1960s.”

Things began to change in the 1970s, not only culturally, but personally for Russell Alldread. Soon, he began to trade the suits, ties and fedoras for gowns, jewels and feathers as he became one of the founding members of Toronto’s pre-eminent drag ensemble, The Great Imposters. Life was going swimmingly for the newly hatched drag queen until she turned 50. “I had just come off ten years on the road with The Great Imposters and I was asked to resign because I was holding them back from bigger and better things,” DuBarry recalls.

I talk to young people about history and try to get them to think better of themselves.”

While being faced with a career crisis at 50 may have been somewhat daunting, it was also an opportunity to step into a whole new spotlight. Being asked to leave the group was the impetus for the birth of the now-famous Michelle DuBarry, not just a drag character, but an alter-ego. “Turning 50 wasn’t old to me,” she declares. “I’ve never felt old. I was going full blast into show business life at that point. I don’t feel old now. Although I can’t quite do the things I used to to, I’m still kind of spry you might say,” she says with a laugh. “I can still wear my heels but not the super-high ones.”

The creation of Michelle DuBarry also coincided with the advent of AIDS. It was this crisis that emboldened DuBarry to use her talents and experience as a drag queen to help raise money for a variety of organizations. In the process, DuBarry watched a lot of her contemporaries fall. “The cast of the Great Imposters show are all gone, except one who had a sex change and is living a straight married life,” she says of her former troupe. “But that’s one thing that gave me a purpose in life. Sasha McKenzie, who was a star in the 1960s and 1970s, started the DQ shows, which was a big show every year and raised a million dollars to help Casey House get started. After that I joined the Imperial Court system. That was 26 years ago. That’s kept me going.”

DuBarry has seen many changes both outside and inside the gay community through her involvement in a variety of charities and simply by being a high-profile personality. One thing she has noticed is a fracturing of the community that has left quite a lot of young people, in her opinion, somewhat adrift. “The young people today are having a lot more difficulty in living,” she says. “It’s really tough to be a young person today. So many of them don’t have jobs, are being kicked out of their homes by parents who don’t like them being gay. In my time we all had jobs, it was no problem getting a job, it was so much cheaper to live. Twenty five cents bought a double-decker ice cream cone. I have a great reason also to try to talk to young people about history and try to get them to think better of themselves. I know it’s hard to find jobs. There’s certain young ones who are working and are doing things. A lot of them are lost, though.”

I want to drop dead on stage with a makeup job on.”

Michelle_CrownOne of the things that DuBarry does is act as a mentor to young queer people. Aside from entertaining, she wants to inspire young people to realize their potential. She has been involved with a young friend for years who is also creating a stir and making a difference through drag. “Right now I have a young chap who I call my grandson who lives in Hamilton,” she says proudly. “I’ve been down there as Michelle to help him raise funds. His mother was there. It was at the Embassy in Hamilton and I went with his mother and we sold tickets. He was hoping to make $100 and we raised about $300. It was for Hamilton AIDS charity. I inspired him. Another friend of mine also took him on as a mentor, and now he’s back in school taking nursing. That’s part of being inspired by somebody.”

Another issue close to her heart is imparting our history. “A lot of the young people today don’t have the memory of Harvey Milk,” DuBarry asserts. “I try to tell people to at least see the movie, ‘Milk’. When he was murdered that was the whole beginning of the revolution and our whole idea of the Court system. José Sarria, who was involved with Harvey Milk and who recently died, got out of jail at that time and started the Court by dressing up and calling himself Empress One. He gradually got a whole bunch of guys together to make themselves stronger for police harassment and legal harassment. Over the years it grew from city to city and now it’s international.”

Ever the spitfire, DuBarry is always out and about in the community talking with people, helping with fundraisers or just being 80-plus and fabulous. One thing she wants to impart to people hitting mid-life in a youth-obsessed society is to constantly be thinking ahead and stay in motion. “Never start sitting around doing nothing,” she says emphatically. “There are so many older people today just sitting around and they are not contributing their time to helping. I couldn’t be like that. I’ve got a reason.”

Still living on her own, DuBarry considers herself lucky to enjoy independence in her senior years. She makes monthly visits to a few of Toronto’s gay-friendly seniors’ homes to entertain and brighten their day. While she appreciates the fact that these facilities exist, she has no desire to live in one. “I can’t picture myself in one just sitting around. I want to drop dead on stage with a makeup job on,” she says laughing, “so that I don’t have a person making me up in the box.”

5 comments

  1. Michelle is ‘the’ Queen …great article.

  2. Wonderful piece. We are so proud of Michelle and impressed with the continued vigor and sincerity in which she conducts herself. When anyone thinks about how to live a meaningful; amazing life, look no further than Madame Michell Dubarry of Toronto, Canada.

    David Todd Singleton
    Musician/Music Producer

  3. Dale Rollands /

    Anyone know what happened to Kim Duvall a.k.a. Crissy from “Dis Guys” and at the Club Manatee?

  4. judy shirley /

    AWESOME PERSON! XOXO

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