Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Celebrating the legacy of Lulu LaRude

Halifax drag queen remains an institution

Eureka Love performs "Little Bitty Pissant Country Place" in honour of Lulu LaRude. Credit: Gwyneth Dunsford
Runny makeup is the bane of drag queens, and it’s a risk Eureka Love takes once a year at the Lulu LaRude memorial show in Halifax.
 
“[In past years] I would cry to get it out of my system before I had to get my makeup and go down [to the show],” Love told Xtra before the Nov 13 show.
 
LaRude, or Charles “Chuck” McDuff Gillis, died in February 2007 from sinus cancer, but his five minutes of fame are far from over. The week of what would have been McDuff Gillis’s 48th birthday, the drag show raised $3,000 for a performing arts and nursing scholarship in his name.
 
The show, at Reflections Cabaret in Halifax, opened to frenzied applause with Dolly Parton’s “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,” a well-known Lulu LaRude act. The same routines are performed every year, says Reflections manager Stephen Filek.
 
“We want to make sure that he is never forgotten and that the legacy continues,” he says. “People who never knew him comment that he was such an inspiration, just because they hear all the stories from us.”
 
Though McDuff Gillis spent the last years of his life in Halifax, his career spanned Canada. He earned his cred as a drag performer in Edmonton in the early ’80s, becoming Empress IX and performer of the year in 1985. Those years are documented in Darrin Hagen’s book The Edmonton Queen. Hagen and McDuff Gillis found a home at Flashbacks, a now-defunct Edmonton gay bar that Hagen calls the “Studio 54 of the prairies.”
 
“Lulu taught me the power of drag,” Hagen says from his home in Edmonton. “He was the one that taught me that drag ups your ante in terms of your currency [in the gay community].”
 
Being a drag queen in the ’80s wasn’t all glamour, says Hagen, who performs as Gloria Hole.
 
“We were poor,” he says. “We were drug addicted. We did all of this when we had zero money and zero power. Chuck always lived on the fringes of the mainstream.”
 
In the early 2000s, McDuff Gillis moved back to Halifax to be closer to family in Cape Breton. After a brief retirement, he returned to drag as the host of Five Minutes of Fame, an anything-goes talent show. The show, which is hosted by Eureka Love, is now in its eighth season.
 
McDuff Gillis is credited as the mother of countless Halifax drag queens, who call themselves the Glamazon Army.
 
“Pretty much every new queen in the city – whether they knew it or not – learned from Lulu,” Love says.
 
McDuff Gillis’s personal makeup style developed into a distinctive look for drag queens in Halifax, Love says. As a professional makeup artist, McDuff Gillis co-founded a makeup business, Making Faces, in 2004. His costuming skills were also renowned; he fashioned intricate costumes from household items and cheap Christmas baubles.
 
“He was known for taking a piece of crap and turning it into something amazing,” says Priscilla Love, his former business partner.
 
Yet it was McDuff Gillis’s gift for performing that brought in crowds, year after year. Hagen remembers the first time he saw McDuff Gillis perform “The Old Cotton Fields of Home.”
 
“I got there and they put that number on, and people were jigging and square dancing and screaming their heads off. I have never seen anything like it.”
 
Watch Lulu LaRude perform “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place.”