Ask this year’s Toronto Pride Parade grand marshal about the connection between herself and this year’s theme, Unstoppable, and drag legend Michelle DuBarry responds with humility: “Well, I suppose I’ve never stopped.”
Yes, modesty in a drag queen. The thing to remember, though, is that DuBarry, 75, was unstoppable back in the day when homos were stopped. Gay men in normal street gear wouldn’t even acknowledge their sexuality. Ground-breaking DuBarry, however, strutted the streets from Toronto to Fort Erie in full makeup, big wigs and cocktail dresses.
Not to mention shoes. DuBarry is queer for shoes. “I bought a new pair of little strappy things yesterday,” she asides. “Oh! They were so comfortable. Glued to my feet.”
It is in such fancy footwear that DuBarry has lived life gloriously, be it performing for decades with drag troupes like The Great Imposters with legend Rusty Ryan (“Gay men who came to our shows liked the performance, but didn’t want to associate with us for fear of a connection being made”), or just taking herself out for a night on the town.
“I remember dressing up once in a picture hat and a bun and a brand new pair of pinpoint toe shoes [with] satin trim, little bow in the back and a matching purse — always a matching purse in those days — and I walked down Yonge St. I also had on a fox stole and a skintight short little black dress which would look fashionable again today. I got whistled at,” DuBarry assures. “I went to see a movie, sitting up in the balcony. After the film ended I was leaving, but I broke a heel at the top of the steps and fell all the way down a circular staircase, dressed the way I was — hat, fox stole, purse, shoes. And do you know what happened? This guy at the bottom of the stairs helped me up, and said, ‘Here’s your heel, lady.’ From there I sort of hobbled home.”
Even in these progressive times, such unfazed reaction from John Q Public might easily be the exception. So forget unstoppable, then, how about plain old brave?
“I was always just me,” DuBarry insists. “I never really figured out I was gay or what I was. I was just me.”
At one point DuBarry was even married to a woman. They didn’t speak for 15 years after they split. (“Actually, my ex-wife wants to meet me this afternoon,” says DuBarry. “I told her, ‘Only after The Bold And The Beautiful, dear.'”)
“But back then I had a suit-and-tie day job in the 1950s.” He was selling — surprise! — women’s shoes. “We didn’t go around talking about being gay. Certainly nobody knew what I did on the weekend, privately.”
This Sun, Jun 24, however, hundreds of thousands will know what DuBarry does, as the holiest of gay days climaxes with the Pride Parade taking over Yonge St for hours with DuBarry centre stage. It’s her hope that the younger generation who see her will recognize how fortunate they are to be queer today.
“I only wish I could reach a lot of people who don’t even understand what it was like in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, to be gay,” says DuBarry. “The general public back then didn’t know anything about gay life unless they saw someone very effeminate they could call a queer. We had this double-life, these jobs during the day where you could be fired if you were found to be gay. I do occasionally meet a person from a new generation who totally understands, but very few. Most don’t know; most don’t want to know.”
As the hour of honour approaches, DuBarry finds her thoughts also lingering on a generation past.
“I feel the ghosts of people right now, this Pride. They are still with me, all these memories. Going to sleep at night, so many things come back to me that I don’t recall during the day. In the ’70s on the road with the girls, The Great Imposters, driving our truck. I feel like I’m representing everybody in my past who have now died.
“I keep saying I’ll be representing,” she adds, “but someone just said to me, ‘No, Michelle, it’s all about you. Get over it.'”
Yes, and quickly, please. Toronto’s Pride Parade is nearly here; to be grand marshal would be any drag queen’s dream come true. DuBarry will be impossible to miss; she’s planning to wear a yellow ball gown she made herself, perched regally atop a silver GM convertible.
“And if I had a message I could give everyone along the parade route it would be smarten up,” she says. “Don’t be stupid about the choices you make in life. Take care of yourselves. And moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.”