On the Toronto drag scene there are many, many Wicked Witches, but there is only one reigning Glinda The Good Witch, and she is Michelle DuBarry. In any bar, DuBarry is easily recognizable for her elegant gowns, sparkling bijou and ladylike deportment.
This lady isn’t lying about her age right now, not as she basks in the celebratory glow of her 70th birthday.
“Dear, I’ve heard them all. Michelle is so old she washed Christ’s feet at the Last Supper,” DuBarry says waving her exquisitely polished press-ons, belying the fact that, this morning, she is dressed as a man.
DuBarry is wearing a Truman Capote hat, leather jacket and jeans. He peers out through great big Swifty Lazar glasses that magnify the vestiges of last night’s eyeliner. His hands are dripping huge rings, large enough to turn violet eyes green.
DuBarry is also kind and benevolent with an easy, gentle manner.
“I have been very lucky in life to have the respect and love of the community,” she begins. Flatly stated, and with no reservations, this observation could signal either delusion or undiluted honesty; her story proves the latter.
“Father was a blacksmith. Mother was a nurse.” DuBarry was born Russel Alldread on Nov 23, 1931, in Bomanville Ontario, the youngest of three children. “I guess you could say they had three girls. I got picked on a bit. You could say that I was effeminate.”
In the 1930s, Bomanville was the small-town centre of a large agricultural community. Money was scarce for everyone. “Father had to work very hard to make a living. I never got to know him well until his later years. Mother would always be at someone’s side if they needed help.”
He attributes to his parents the following strong values that have guided him through the years: “To be honest. To take care of your things. And don’t go downtown looking like a bum.”
During these lean years, DuBarry was instilled with another lifelong value – glamour. “Everyone was poor. But you’d go to the movies – that was where you’d see beautiful people and rich people. I always loved the dresses.” DuBarry took easily to costume and found an outlet in parades and Halloween.
On his mother’s urging, DuBarry and his sisters would sing for hospital patients. His boy soprano eventually won him first prize at the 1939 Port Hope Music Festival. He sang, “Cobbler, Cobbler Mend My Shoe.”
Around this time DuBarry had his first photo shoot in drag. On his uncle’s farm, his cousins dressed him up. As the world was marching off to World War II, this nine-year-old blacksmith’s son was slipping into a black, velvet strapless. For DuBarry, a life well dressed had begun. Striking a pose, hand on hip, one thigh forward, the boy was a natural lady.
His high school years were filled with operettas and stage shows. Later, DuBarry and a friend attended a high school dance in drag. He was even asked to dance, until his boy-suitor caught on.
After high school, DuBarry found work at GM. Later he worked in Toronto, staying at the home of a couple in the city, while returning to Bomanville on weekends. He had his first sex with an older boy from Ottawa named Marcel Paris.
“We ended up in a room at the Royal York. There we were bathing together. I was lounging naked in an armchair. We loved and hugged and kissed. Some people have bad experiences the first time – mine was wonderful.” DuBarry had found his own glamour.
“I always liked older people in those days. I had these big blue eyes and I knew they were my secret weapons. I have this thing: I am a romantic. The problem was that I always fell in love. In the 1950s I was naïve. It took me a long time to realize that I was just being used as a one night stand.”
One of DuBarry’s first relationships was with Stanley St John, whom he met through a friend from GM. St John was 25 years older than DuBarry and an established orchestra leader. DuBarry became known as John’s “young friend,” although, says DuBarry, “I was never a kept boy. I always looked after myself.”
The affair lasted about three years but soured when DuBarry met a girl. Yes, a real girl.
DuBarry’s second career was as a ladies shoe salesman. His future bride’s shoe size was 4B. “That was the sample size in those days. She could fit into every style in the store.
“You see I’m queer for shoes.”
His marriage remains a bittersweet memory, however.
The couple tied the knot in 1957. DuBarry gave away his entire collection of shoes and matching handbags before the wedding. Murray Burbidge, DuBarry’s drag mentor, made the bridal gown. “A lot of the gay people were up in the balcony just watching the whole thing go on,” says DuBarry.
“You don’t have yourself figured out at that age. She couldn’t say I love you, because I suppose she didn’t love me.” The marriage ended when DuBarry’s wife left him for another man. He admits for a long time to being hurt and upset.
At the turn of the 1960s, rudimentary drag shows were staged at some of Toronto’s coffee houses. But the performers only suggested drag with a scarf or by carrying a flower. Burbidge, under the name Toni Seven, was one of the first to perform in complete drag. It was into this scene that the recently divorced DuBarry re-emerged. Burbidge made DuBarry his first dress.
Full-dress drag shows began appearing at coffee houses like The 511 and The Music Room. Ray Merkin, the proprietor of The 511, became an impresario to the fledgling drag community. Every weekend he mounted mini-Broadway musicals, fully rehearsed and costumed. He bought the girls their first human hair wigs. DuBarry, then named Anita Modé, got started at The 511.
“I modeled myself after Juliette in those days,” says DuBarry. Juliette was a Canadian celebrity sensation, bigger than Lorne Greene and prettier than Robert Goulet.
“In those days there weren’t too many around doing it, so you really had to be strong, be your own person, a character.”
DuBarry has many stories of police harassment from those years. A favourite police tactic was checking if the girls were wearing men’s underwear. At the time, any male caught wearing female underwear, could be charged.
Drag entertainment crawled out of the underground during the ’60s and into venues such as the Global Village Theatre on St Joseph’s Lane, where DuBarry appeared with a troupe called Façade, and later with She-Raid at the Theatre In The Dell, just off University Ave.
By 1969 DuBarry was ready to take it on the road with a group called Phase One. Co-founders Lonny Roberts and Jamie Durette renamed her Michelle DuBarry: Michelle, because professionals called themselves gender non-specific names; DuBarry, because she was the lady of the show (“Du Barry Was A Lady” is a 1943 comedy with Red Skelton and Lucille Ball).
DuBarry says that when Roberts and Durette were planning to move to Vancouver, they formed a new troupe called The Great Imposters, with DuBarry, Tammy Autumn and Big Bob, now known as Rusty Ryan. The troupe’s first gig was in Fort Erie.
Throughout the ’70s The Great Imposters were much ado about much ado. Touring across Canada they enjoyed wide appeal – plus major catfights. For DuBarry it was a busy and fulfilling time.
Unfortunately the parting was not sweet. “It took me a long time to get back to being Russell after Michelle DuBarry,” he explains about his return to Toronto and the shoe business.
But then Michelle DuBarry never really went away, performing regularly, becoming involved in the Trillium Monarchist Society and winning the title of Empress VI of Toronto. DuBarry is also a honourary lifetime member of the Expressions Club, a social group for cross-dressers.
DuBarry’s recent bout with prostate cancer has been won and has encouraged him to raise funds for Princess Margaret Prostate Research.
Up to her 70th birthday Michelle DuBarry is still flirting her way into the hearts of a third generation of fresh faces. The leering white smile, the huge blue eyes, top-heavy with lashes and the pose – hand on hip, one thigh forward – a natural lady.
* Look for Michelle DuBarry at various TMS events in December, at Trax V (529 Yonge St) on Fri, Dec 14 and 15, and many other events attended by elegant ladies.