Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Bearded Ladies: How Rosamond Norbury frolics with drag

‘I’ve never seen someone who can make people relax like that,’ says film director

For photographer Rosamond Norbury, there’s nothing quite like the combination of a good Broadway tune and big-wigged women.

The vision strikes a primal chord in her, mustering memories of her five- or six-year-old self sitting on the knees of her mother’s “lovely, powdered” friends in the 1950s — a “convivial time” to which she traces her now longtime love affair with drag.

“I love the transformation,” says Norbury, recalling the photo shoots she did for the 1994 Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens authored by broadcaster Bill Richardson. “At some point, they shave, make up, and then, click! It’s just this indefinable thing, that all of a sudden, right in front of you, it’s a whole different person that you’ve been with for an hour and a half, and then — bing! They transform.”

Norbury has immersed herself in the experience first-hand, having channeled a big-haired Barbra Streisand at Celebrities through one of her alter egos, Rose Bush. A more taciturn Rod Bush, Norbury’s self-described inner homo greaser, who hangs out at the back of gay bars and checks people out, emerged 10 years ago when she was shooting male pornography. Although, you might find him hanging out at the Dude Chilling Park with best buds Phil McCracken and Bobby Beersby (aka Norbury’s longtime friends, Dianne Holme and Barbara Beeby).

“I do him a couple times a year,” she reveals. “I like that feeling of it’s a rainy day, let’s go see what’s in the tickle trunk, go dress up and have some fun.”

In Bearded Ladies: The Photography of Rosamond Norbury, an engaging, personal and historical frolic through her career behind — and sometimes in front of — the lens, Norbury remembers it took some time and effort to gain the trust of the drag queens whose performances she was photographing in various Vancouver bars, and whose behind-the-scenes moments she was hoping to capture for Guy to Goddess. “Very few would phone me back; in fact, nobody phoned me back that first month.”

Winning that trust and establishing that comfort level have been hallmarks of Norbury’s approach to the people and communities who have been the focus of her keen, quick eye — from drag artists to rodeo cowboys, to any number of sets, including that of the series Kink, which explores the edgier side of sexual play and fantasy.

“I’ve never seen someone who can make people relax like that — almost instantaneously,” Bearded Ladies director Sharon McGowan says of Norbury, who has been a friend for more than 25 years, and was the official photographer on her 1999 film Better Than Chocolate.

“I think probably I am not judgmental, and they pick up on that,” Norbury surmises. “I accept someone for whatever bent they have. I ask questions. There’s give and take. I get involved and interested, instead of being, ‘Ooooh!’ It takes a lot to shock me.”

She attributes that instinct to her childhood upbringing when she was encouraged to embrace difference — to laugh at the Joneses, not struggle to keep up with them.

McGowan jumped at the opportunity to film her friend when she began working on a photo shoot for an exhibit entitled Bearded Ladies for the 2013 Queer Arts Festival. McGowan was soon buried in footage, the originally envisaged “small project” ballooning into a bigger feature.

McGowan found Norbury eight women, including a mother and daughter, who had never tried assuming the postures or donning the facial hair associated with a male persona. Over the course of a day, they become — with laughing disbelief — a surfer dude; a cowboy; Marcel Proust and Johnny Depp look-a-likes; the cool, aloof Dickie; an independently wealthy doctor of literature and his goatee-sporting son; and an older incarnation of the son one woman lost.

“There’s lots of laughter because it’s what we’re not,” Norbury suggests. “We’re so used to carrying ourselves the way we carry ourselves day to day, and then all of sudden, you’re put in this position, you’re not used to — not an uncomfortable position, not a threatening thing. It’s a reveal, and a whole different experience.”

McGowan says Norbury’s excitement at witnessing the gender artifice drop away is akin to the laser-focus of cats watching birds. “She zones in. She can do that with the rodeo, with the drag queens, with the bearded ladies and other subjects. You can see her waiting for people to do that unguarded thing.”

Norbury allows that it’s liberating in the sense that it grants a license to be. “I find it more of a frolic than liberating, more of a giggle,” she says.