Walking home with Chris Edwards after a night out on Church Street often took hours.
It’s not that he lived far away — he didn’t. But there were so many people to talk and to help along the way. Often he wouldn’t reach home until early morning. Even then, when stopped by a homeless person at the front of his building, though exhausted, he’d reach into his pockets and dole out a few dollars.
“Alright, dear,” he would say, recounts close friend Walter Cheisson. “It’s not a problem.”
Edwards, an iconic drag performer many consider to be the heart and soul of Toronto’s gay scene, died Tuesday, Sept 6, 2016. The news has left a deep hole in the community, according to friends and colleagues. Social media has been flooded with testimonies of Edwards’ impact. A GoFundMe campaign to cover his funeral expenses, launched on Thursday, has nearly doubled its initial goal of $5,000.
“He was the community,” says Cheisson, who met his husband through Edwards 15 years ago. “There is no one on Church Street that will not be affected by this. It doesn’t matter your age, gender — whatever.”
Edwards began performing in Toronto at La Cage Aux Folles — where the Hard Rock Cafe now sits — in the late 1980s. His warm and humorous performance style made him instantly popular, longtime friends say. In the early ’90s, he brought the Continental drag style to Toronto and established two pageants — Miss Gay Toronto and Miss Gay Universe. Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, he went on to win multiple titles, including Miss Gay Canada, Miss International and Miss Continental New York.
“He was the most beautiful drag queen you could ever possibly see in your life,” Cheisson says. “He set the bar for drag.”
But on Aug 26, he collapsed after a performance as Tina Turner at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It would be his last show. He died 11 days later at the age of 54.
“There aren’t that many drag queens who have that genuine freaking warmth [with] a crowd of people,” Cheisson adds. “You felt an immediate connection with him no matter who you were. He treated everyone with dignity and respect and like you were his best friend and you know what? You probably were.”
Edwards’ life wasn’t without tragedy. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a low-income family as one of seven siblings. His father died of a gunshot wound when he was a child. His lifelong partner, John Hiner, died two years ago. Edwards’ close friend and confidante, Roger McIntosh, says Edwards never recovered from Hiner’s death. But these personal tragedies are what made Edwards so humble, he says. It’s what made him want to make others laugh so much.
“We always have times where we just get upset about whatever situation and Chris was always like, ‘Roger, no, take it positively. Just love that person,’” he says.
McIntosh was with Edwards in the hospital in the days leading up to his death. According to him, doctors say Edwards’ death was caused by a combination of a heart and a stroke — possibly a brain aneurysm as well.
Along with his generosity and kind spirit, Edwards will be remembered for much more than his performances.
Jeanette Jabier, Edwards’ drag-daughter — a term used to refer to a mentee in drag — credits her career in part to Edwards’ generosity. She started performing in the early ’90s.
“There were countless times when I started shows where I didn’t have a lot of money,” she says.
“There were times where we’d be out shopping and she’d go into a store. ‘Here Miss thing! You have a show tonight. You need this.’ So generous, beyond anything. Whether it was monetary or costumes or just her time.”
He often lent wigs and dresses to up and coming drag performers in the city, mentoring them in the process. He even went out of his way to give them stage time. Michelle Ross, a fellow drag performer and friend of Edwards’ says he was well-loved by younger performers. “And she liked to help the young queens coming along and they used to call and borrow things and make-up tops and what to do.”
He helped raise large amounts of money for local charities, his favorites being the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation. And even as a part-time retail worker at Winners at College Park, he still contributed from his own pocket, covering the cost of trophies and flowers for both the Miss Gay Toronto and Miss Gay Universe pageants that he started.
Even in death, Edwards is still bringing the community together.
“It makes me feel good that she was so much loved, because people from 25 years ago are now messaging me on Facebook. I take comfort in that I’m not the only one mourning. It also reminds us of how much of a community we are and how much she was the crazy glue that drew us all together.”