Opinion
3 min

The evolution of Oliv

From biker chick to empress to Fossil, but (almost) never drab

'My own earliest memory of Oliv involved a lot of balloons that were rhythmically popped throughout her show, to finally reveal . . . well, Oliv!' writes Kevin Dale McKeown. Credit: Tallulah

“Batshit crazy.”

That’s how many would reply if Oliv’s name came up in a word association game. But as Krishnamurti put it, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” And Oliv Howe is one who truly understands just how sick our society has become.

A little eccentricity might be forgiven in light of Oliv’s personal history. “Just a New Brunswick farm girl,” Oliv was born into a fanatical Jehovah’s Witness family and recalls sitting at the kitchen table, aged five, while her father aimed a loaded rifle at his “sissy boy,” screaming threats and calling him “Lucifer’s child.”

“I remember sitting there dead quiet, not giving the bastard the satisfaction of seeing me cry, thinking to myself, ‘Go ahead, shoot me. You can’t make things any worse than you have already.’”

Small wonder that Oliv ran away from the farmstead numerous times before finally, at 14, winding up in Montreal’s thriving 1960s nightlife scene. Through wit, talent and the guidance of a loving mentor, little Oliv found her way into a madcap career, developing stage and cosmetic skills that have served her well through the decades.

Hopping a freight car across Canada, working in theatre and film, den-mothering a hippie commune, hanging out with San Francisco’s notorious Cockettes at the height of the Haight-Ashbury era, or zipping around Vancouver on the back of a Harley, a bona fide “biker chick,” Oliv always looked fabulous.

When Oliv arrived in Vancouver in 1969, she was sufficiently entranced by our town to return a year later, landing her first local gig as a DJ at Champagne Charlie’s.

From the tiny DJ booth at Charlie’s, Oliv’s Vancouver career continued the in-your-face adventurism that she’d refined in Montreal and San Francisco. Though often considered a “famous drag queen” back in the day, Oliv’s public appearances and evolving personae (and I do mean the plural) were always more about performance art than traditional drag. My own earliest memory of Oliv involved a lot of balloons that were rhythmically popped throughout her show, to finally reveal . . . well, Oliv!

As for those evolving personae, the name we know her by today had its origins in her war-surplus camo phase, where she showed us just how colourful “olive drab” could really be. Olive Drab became Olive Pink, became just Oliv.

Today a new generation has embraced yet another identity for this one-woman show. “I started telling the kids that I used to be a dinosaur, but now I’m a fossil,” she explains. “So now a lot of folks just call me Fossil, and I’m good with it!”

I’ve been trying to come up with an apt descriptive for Oliv’s most recent evolution and have settled on “albino Goth meets Byzantine empress.” It’s as close as I can get.

You don’t get to be a standout like Oliv without having explored and been exploited by the seamier side of life. Drugs have played their part and taken their toll, and Oliv is candid in discussing that part of her past.

“I grew up near an army base where heroin was easier for a kid to get hold of than cigarettes. The soldiers were coming and going all the time, and drugs were the currency. I’d had my first ‘taste’ before I was 10 and marked my 41st heroin-free anniversary last November.”

Decades of living with HIV, finding a personal epiphany through LSD (“it saved my life”), opening up a new decade as Vancouver’s Empress X, a close call with some razor blades and a bathtub that led to a full acceptance of herself as a transgender woman, and a serious stroke 20 years ago that caused her to push the pause button on some of life’s excesses and find treatment for AIDS, are all parts of the Oliv story that could each be their own full-length column.

Never mind trying to squeeze in the tremendous amount of volunteer work that Oliv has done, and continues to do, including a weekly stint “waitressing” at the Positive Living Centre. All that and a thrice-weekly bike ride around Stanley Park — just to keep busy!

Among those who knew the person behind the performance was the late Empress of Canada ted northe. According to another family friend, Reg Manning, Oliv would visit with ted’s family in Chilliwack and go fishing with ted’s dad, who once said, “That boy is strange, but he is very smart and he has a good heart.”

I think ted’s dad nailed it.