Paul Bellini has tea with birthday girl/drag legend Michelle DuBarry w/ video
Russell Alldread was born on Nov 23, 1931, in Bowmanville, Ontario, but most of us know him as legendary drag queen Michelle DuBarry. Michelle is excited because her friends are planning an invitation-only dinner on Nov 22 at The 519 to celebrate her 80th birthday. We meet at the Royal York Hotel, in an elegantly appointed stateroom. Michelle wears a stunning blue taffeta gown with big puffy sleeves and gathers, a dress fit for a queen. She also wears a big blonde wig, matching blue jewellery and her trademark Marilyn Monroe cheek mole.
PAUL BELLINI: Just how many dresses do you own?
MICHELLE DUBARRY: About a hundred. My bedroom is now a big closet, and I have two gigantic racks for clothes and a pile of shoes in the middle. It’s not organized; everything is just shoved in there. I have a fabulous wedding dress that I’ve never worn because I’ve never been the bride. It has a hundred buttons at the back, so the groom would have to rip it off me, unless he was a gay groom who didn’t want to tear it.
Who makes your outfits?
I do. I have a basic pattern made for me by a young chap who made my empress dresses in 1992, and I can make anything from that pattern. I make outfits for other people, too. I was always this “dressed” person, whether at the brokerage company or in the shoe business. My mother used to tell me, “Don’t go downtown dressed like a bum.”
When did you first do drag?
At nine: my three girl cousins dressed me up in a black velvet strapless dress with a locket and a beret. I always loved dressing up. Murray Burbidge started us doing numbers at the Music Room in the mid-’50s. We did get hassled in the bars sometimes. They would have police raids and check if we had men’s underwear on. But then I got married to a woman in 1959, so I gave her all the matching shoes and handbags that I had collected over the years working in the shoe store. The marriage didn’t last. We divorced in 1961. I was sad because I never had children, and I married a woman who really didn’t love me. After that, I went back to drag. I would get eggs thrown at me at the St Charles Tavern, and I’d just go home and change the wig and outfit and go back out again. I never felt nervous about dressing up — it always felt natural.
Weren’t you in The Great Imposters?
I did The Great Imposters with Tammy Autumn and Rusty Ryan. I was in lots of shows: Façade and then Phase One with Lonny Roberts and Jamie Durette. They gave me my name. My drag name at the time was Anita Mode, but they didn’t want that on the marquee. So in 1969 they came up with the name Michelle DuBarry, which was classier. I have lots of stories about being on the road and all those straight men who wanted to come up to my room, and . . . well, let’s just say I was usually the top.
Are you still active in the drag scene?
Not as much as before. I’m on old-age pension, but I’m out quite a bit for the Imperial Court of Toronto fundraising. That’s kept me going, dressing up and getting on stage. Now Carolyn Kelly is doing a documentary about me. Carolyn got me a free refitting for my lower plate, and it fits better than it used to.
There is a legend that when you’re on stage and forget the lyrics, you mouth the words “peas and carrots.”
No, that’s not true. That was started by an empress — she’s dead — who was a total evil person to me. I came in after her and she still wanted to run everything, so she spread these rumours all around town. I usually do old songs, by Eydie Gormé and Vicki Carr, songs I’ve done four million times over the years. Just because my mouth does not move with every syllable . . . only a jealous person would go around spreading evil comments like that.
It was just announced that you are one of this year’s recipients of the Inspire Award. Any advice for youngsters?
There’s this big problem of kids committing suicide. If they’re being bullied, don’t they realize that they can get help? It really upsets me. Parents nowadays try to be “friends” to their teenagers; they’re the parents and they are in charge of looking after them. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.
Happy 80th birthday, Michelle.
Can we just say that I’m turning double 40? It sounds a lot better.
Paul Bellini is a fab columnist, writer, actor and comedian who has a lot of road stories of his own.