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Elle Mae

The passing of a Toronto drag legend

It is with a heavy heart that I inform you of the passing of drag legend Elle Mae, aka Fred Bowen, in his 65th year.

Fred succumbed to his debilitating lung affliction, which caused him to be on oxygen tanks for the last months of his life – a situation he abhorred but took in stride with his usual good humour.

Elle Mae was a ubiquitous performer for many more than the 20 years required to be properly titled a drag legend in Toronto. Elle held many titles over the years and was a tireless fundraiser for many charities. Fred debuted as Elle Mae in the late 1960s at club 511 on Yonge St.

Looking every inch like Dionne Warwick, Elle would whip the crowd up while belting and crooning out her songs and will always be remembered as the ultimate Warwick impersonator. And who will ever forget his rousing version of the “Name Game,” in which he demonstrated his flawless lip-synch technique?

Like many black Canadians, Fred hailed from Nova Scotia, the end of the old underground railway, where he was adopted by his parents, the Bowens. His mother, Velma, was a regular fixture on the gay scene in the Village, scooting about in her electric wheelchair. She  was practically a mascot to the gay crowd at Trax V and George’s Play, up until her demise a few yeas ago. She was “Mom” to many regulars on the scene. And like her son, she loved her bingo. Fred, incidentally, held the title for the most wins in one day at Trax V,with nine in one afternoon. It caused so much envy among fellow bingo players, I worried they would hang him from the rafters!

Fred made his stage debut at a downtown strip club as (arguably) Toronto’s first male stripper, under the name “Hot Chocolate.” It was an apropos name, given his preference for using Nestle’s Quick chocolate mix as face powder when making up as Elle Mae. He explained to me, being always somewhat frugal, that a big box of Nestle’s Quick cost $3, while we silly white queens spent $17 for Max Factor. 

“Not only does one box last for years,” he said, “but the colour is perfect with my skin tone, and the sugar in it gives a nice subtle sparkle to the makeup.”

I couldn’t argue with that! And the dressing room smelled heavenly when Elle powdered down.

Fred’s warm heart, gentle, compassionate soul and amazing drag talent will be greatly missed. He will rest In Mount Pleasant cemetery with his mother, Velma, but Elle Mae will live on in our memories…. ’cause “that’s what friends are for…”

Xtra interviewed Elle Mae last year.