It’s not often that really iconic dames reach the grand age of 80. Hell, even dear old Liz Taylor checked out earlier this year just 10 months shy of a fourscore milestone. Thankfully, octogenarian glamour lives on in the incandescent beauty and grace that is Michelle DuBarry.
DuBarry (born Russell Aldread) has been a fixture on Toronto’s drag scene for decades, initially as one of the founding members of the Great Imposters female impersonator troupe back in 1972. DuBarry has fond memories of touring North America alongside drag greats Rusty Ryan and Tammy Autumn.
“We spent 10 years on the road in a van,” says DuBarry. “I was the truck driver if you can believe it! It was so much fun, and there were so many wonderful kids just out to have fun. But I was the old one even back then!”
While donning drag for fun and profit can be a great way to keep a gal in mascara and falsies, DuBarry has also devoted a quarter century’s service to the Imperial Court, an annual drag pageant that donates its proceeds to various charitable organizations.
Through it all DuBarry has remained a textbook example of how to be a lady; polite, intelligent and kind, she eschews the catty nastiness so often associated with downtown drag queens. Small wonder that DuBarry’s signature lip-sync number is Nancy LaMott’s hit song We Can Be Kind. It may not have the disco drive of Lady Gaga, but DuBarry doesn’t mind.
“I have to say I don’t really care for the new music today,” she says. “The kids are dressed like hookers and the music’s so loud you can’t hear the words.” She pauses, then chuckles warmly. “Well, that’s just an old queen’s gripe, dear. Pay no attention.”
Things were different when DuBarry put on her first frock and stepped out in her hometown of Bowmanville. It was the 1940s, a far more innocent, and, in some ways, safer time, for crossdressing.
“I was in high school, and another guy and I dressed up in drag for a school dance,” says DuBarry. “There was no bullying back then for that sort of thing in my school. People just thought it was funny. One fourth-year student kept asking me to dance until his brother told him I was a guy. I was very feminine looking back then.”
It’s easy to see even now. DuBarry’s makeup and hair are worlds away from the heavily stylized drag favoured these days, accentuating her own natural features (Cher would sell Chaz’s favourite strap-on for those cheekbones) while maintaining a look that is both elegant and dignified. And while many queens half her age are hanging up their heels in favour of comfy slippers, DuBarry still relishes getting dressed up for a night on the town.
“I often go out Tuesdays to Crews for one of our Imperial Court events, and I love to go to Statlers piano bar on the weekends. My energy really comes up when I dress up.”
But even the most vibrant diva needs some downtime, and DuBarry loves nothing better than a night at home watching crime shows on TV.
“I do like my own company,” she says. “And nobody could stand to live with me. Sure I’ve had some loves in the past, but as Russell I’m developing a very alone feeling in life. But then I walk out to the Village and it takes me an hour to walk up the street, because people always seem to stop to talk with me. I love performing, really, onstage or off. It’s kept me going and alive.”
She stops for a moment, and then softly sings a few lines from her trademark number. “We can be kind . . . we can take care of each other. We can be kind.
“I love that song.”
Michelle DuBarry’s 80th birthday party