Craig Russell has been dead 10 years, but the spirit of the most famous drag artist this country has produced lives on in a new musical, inspired by the movie that gave him world fame.
Outrageous, made early in 1977 for $165,000, was a first picture for gay director Richard Benner and one of the first Canadian features to get noticed internationally. Long before Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and other manifestations of drag entered the mainstream, this wacky mix of camp and melodrama showed audiences here and abroad how entertaining female impersonation could be.
And Russell’s performance, playing a Toronto hairdresser who hits the big time in New York, was at the centre of the movie. His dead-on takes of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Carol Channing and others earned him a Silver Bear from the Berlin Film Festival.
Elevated by luck and talent to the top ranks, Russell returned to play the Imperial Room, then a prime venue of international talent; it was a long way from Toronto’s gritty gay clubs off St Joseph and Nicholas streets.
His career would eventually fizzle out in drug abuse and bizarre, embarrassing appearances – few who saw it will forget a disturbed Russell, wigless in Kabuki make-up, upbraiding a Vancouver audience and refusing to impersonate anyone.
In some ways, Russell’s career began when he was still a teen; he had written a fan letter to Mae West and found himself invited to Hollywood to be her secretary, where he learned her show biz tricks and savvy. And it was West who gave Russell his stage name (he was born Russell Craig Eadie).
Lori Russell Eadie is Russell’s widow. She had been watching Russell on stage for a couple of years before daring to approach him backstage for his autograph. What had started as a young fan’s crush became a job as Russell’s dresser and, eventually, marriage.
“He was just a dream that I sort of latched onto because my home life was so shitty. I had never seen anybody have so much fun on stage by themselves, and I thought, ‘Wow. This is where I wanna be.'” She has worked steadily ever since as a dresser and is currently working on The Lion King.
Just as Russell became companion and assistant to an aging Mae West, Eadie became the same to Russell. “Mae was Craig’s mentor and Craig was my mentor – so it’s passing on the torch. Craig taught me how to wear high heels.”
Though she describes it as a marriage of soul mates, Lori and Craig only lived together briefly at the beginning of the marriage, and then for the last four months of his life. Russell died of AIDS in 1990.
“There was no more money, no more cocaine, no more hangers-on, nothing to hang onto except his mind – and nobody wanted that because he wasn’t a star.”
Eadie notes that performing never came easy for Russell. “For being such a brilliant man, he was terribly, terribly insecure. Even towards the end of his life he was called faggot by straight idiots; he fought that his whole life.”
Actor and TV host David Macilwraith, who played a gay New York cab driver in the movie Outrageous and revived the role in the 1987 sequel Too Outrageous, says it was painful to see the changes in Russell, after nine years.
“I really knew two Craig Russells: the one on the first film and the one in the second. In some ways Craig fell into that almost cliché position of not being able to handle the fame.
“Outrageous was my first film. He was fabulous – so kind and sweet and helpful; protective, even, of me. It was partly the whole gay scene – we played some pretty tough bars when we shot in New York. I remember being fascinated but intimidated. Craig saw that and clucked around me like a mother hen.
“That’s the person I wanted to see again years later when we did the sequel. And although I saw that often, it was really clouded by the person that had been created by the drugs and the booze.”
Eadie elaborates: “The general public [only] knows that he’s, quote-unquote, outrageous. He always loved to piss people off just to see how they would react.”
But Macilwraith speaks of Russell as a consummate performer. “There were times when I would think, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be over the top,’ and it never was, because [it] came from a real honesty. And the camera caught that.
“You never felt, when he was edgy and even nasty in certain instances, that this was Craig, this was something else talking, something that happens to people who can’t handle the fame and fortune.”
Craig died Oct 30, 1990; “the only Halloween he didn’t go out,” Eadie recalls.
But he had improvised a mock epitaph years before for a Toronto Star story: “Here lies Craig Russell, 1948 to the year 2000, always at his best on a full moon. He died broke, cheated and abused by crooked promoters and agents. Buried in drag, she will be missed.”