The World’s Oldest Performing Drag Queen Showed Us His Wardrobe

Russell Alldread takes us through several decades of life in Toronto's gay village, from police harassment to underground drag shows to his Guinness World Record.

av Jess Desaulniers-Lea
2016 05 16, 8:20am

"I love it," Alldread says of the Guinness record. Photo by Jess Desaulniers-Lea

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Michelle DuBarry (also known as Russell Alldread) is an icon and activist in Toronto's gay village and needs no title, though he has many, including the Empress of TICOT (Imperial Court of Toronto.) Still, he was surprised when his friends notified him that they'd secretly sent his info to the Guinness Book of World Records who presented him with their reply—the title of "World's Oldest Performing Drag Queen."

We landed an interview with the now almost 85-year-old Alldread in his home and got a rare glimpse into his treasured closet which houses everything from shelves of men's shoes (from his shoe salesman days) to dresses he handmade and wore in the 50s and 60s when drag was still illegal. We returned on Mother's Day with a bouquets of flowers to join Michelle for her performance at the annual Queen Mother King Father event at Erotico Lounge, where new activist inductees are celebrated by the Imperial Court of Toronto.

Coming off the elevator we spotted Allread at the end of a long corridor, almost unrecognizable in his summer shorts and printed collared shirt, save for his familiar pose—the hand-on-hip stance he strikes in the now famous photograph of him at nine years old after his sisters first put him in drag, adorning him with a turban and a long black dress completed with a heart-shaped locket. As I walked closer I could see he was grinning—what I didn't notice right away was that he was sporting a short brunette wig. Cheekily, he said to me, "I thought it'd be a funny thing to do."

Russell at age nine

Russell and his sisters

VICE: Other than your sisters and female cousins being such a support and influence on you, as far as expressing your female persona and identity, what other people have impacted you?
Russell Alldread: Mother was in the church choir; she woke me up in the mornings playing the piano. My two sisters and I (pictured) would go "dragged out" in front of the ladies groups to sing in hospitals at Christmas time when I was young. I've always been on stage! Dad was a welder. But I didn't have a father like the general concept of a father that takes the son out to hockey and football games. I had a hard working man that came back from the first world war that probably had something wrong up here [he points to his head]. My mother knew how to handle him. I remember him having an awful temper coming toward me once... and my mother intervened. He was a man that worked in the back of the shop a lot—he could make anything with his torch and his hammer. All the farmers loved him and mother looked after the books for him... he'd come home covered in grease and have a bath with laundry soap in the bathtub. He liked going fishing, that was one little release. I could understand why he was the way he was.

Did your father ever see you perform?
Like I say, I got started at nine years old. He didn't see me perform... but my mother knew what I was up to. My mother was also a much-loved woman in our small town... she's always with me.

Michelle (right) on tour with The Great Imposters in the 1970s

You began in community theatre as Russell. So how were you introduced to drag? Did you have a mentor or did you come into it in your own way?
Another guy and I decided to go to a high school dance dressed as French Pacha dancers [known for great music, fashion and hedonism]. It wasn't called "drag" back then—it was just a costume idea. In the 50s I got involved in ballet and amateur theatre. I was on stage with a group of top Toronto actors in the 50s in a play called The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

I played the young Octavius—I was perfectly typecast for that! In the 60s I was at the 511club, which used to be down the street. It was run by Ray Merkin, a theatre person from England and run very strictly. It had a dressing room in the back... there was a tunnel down to the stage so you didn't mix with the audience before a show. There were rehearsals Tuesday and Thursday nights, we did amateur Broadway plays. I was once Buffalo Bill with the white beard. So I learned a lot in those years about performing.

Do you ever want to return to community theatre to perform as either Michelle or Russell?
The last several years I've just been happy to use my life [as a drag artist] to raise money for charities. It's been fulfilling that way.

Prizes from Russell's shoe salesman days. Photo by Jess Desaulniers-Lea

In the 50s and 60s, drag artists had to live one identity by day, and another by night, especially because of the threat of police and/or harassment. Here in Toronto I've heard that cops used to occasionally arrest people in the queer community, including drag queens, bring them down to Cherry Beach and beat them up. Did you find it difficult to live a double life? Were you often fearful even when you were out at night within your community?
In the 50s we were doing underground shows. The police used to come in and hassle us to make sure we had men's underwear on. [Russell pulled out a photo of himself in drag.] This was on Halloween. I was in silver sequins and blonde wig. I went out and I got ink thrown at me. But I came home, put on a red wig and went back out! Nothing was going to stop me from what I wanted to do.

When did you notice a shift—when you could begin to go out as Michelle without the threat of police harassment or the police turning a blind eye when people in public would throw things (eggs, ink, etc) in your direction?
My mother would say, "Don't go downtown looking like a bum!" So, in the 50s my daytime garb was a suit and tie. The general public didn't know anything about the gay life. I had a little room on Church Street in the 50s before I got married and I had a collection of shoes because I worked in a shoe store. I remember Murray [Burbidge] made me a black sheath dress. I had a white fox stole and dressed up during the day and walked down Yonge street. I went to see a movie downtown and sat in the balcony. After the movie I tripped down the stairs and broke a heel. At the bottom of the stairs a guy picks up my broken heel and says, "Here's your heel, lady" and hands it to me. I limped home. I did what I wanted to do.

Photo by Jess Desaulniers-Lea

What do you find has been the biggest change in the drag community—aesthetically, politically?
The performers today are totally different from what we were in the 60s and 70s. We tried to look "real"—a lot of the kids today are going very bizarre [with their look] and they don't experiment with different looks. They do their one look and that's what they stick with. But today is an open book. It's wonderful. In 2016 to be who you are and what you are and wear what you want to wear—especially in Canada—not necessarily in other places in the world. We are very lucky to be in Canada.

You've lived in The Village in Toronto most of your life. You've mentioned that contrary to popular belief, there were certain things that were better back in the 50s/60s/70s living as a queer person. What's better now and what was better then?
The young kids now, it's tough for them. I think they're out there trying to make some money. They're not necessarily considering joining a group to help raise money for charity. It's tough to live today. Gay life is now diversifying. You can be in the west end and the east end (Toronto)—we don't have to gather together in the village to protect ourselves. But, we've also lost and are losing different venues (Colby's, St. Charles Tavern, etc.)

The times back then produced people like me and people like the great drag queens in Vancouver. It's more freedom in one way for gay people to live where they want to live, to dress how they want to dress, but it's not really a tight community anymore. You're more accepted by gay people, straight people... they come out to the shows not because you're gay but because of your talent.

Queens honour Michelle at her Imperial Court Gala performance. Photos by Jess Desaulniers-Lea

How do you feel about ageism in the drag world or even the focus of the Guinness Record title being the "Oldest Performing Drag Queen in the World?"
I love it! They put me in the Guinness title, so I'm gonna use it! Now I'm being introduced with that title. People saying, "Did you know Michelle is the oldest performing drag queen?" and I'm getting tipped! Sometimes I go out with $25 and come back with $35. I'm tipping people too; I like to give five dollars to certain performers—Miss Carlotta Carlisle, Georgie Girl—to show appreciation. They appreciate me for tipping them because of what I mean in the community. You know, City Park also gave me an award. The president of City Park said he didn't like my Guinness award because it wasn't fancy enough so he wanted me to have one with rhinestones. I've never thought about my age. I've always said to people, you don't live yesterday. You don't live tomorrow. You can only live one day at a time. That means something, doesn't it? There used to be a great three-person act called Freaks. One of them recently came out [of retirement] again and performed at Statler's and everyone raved about her coming. I'm really blessed. Being liked in my community—that's my big lesson I think.

Follow Jess on Instagram.