Yury Ruzhyev is not a drag queen.
While the Toronto-based Russian ex-pat performs primarily in dresses and heels, he’s always considered himself to be just another actor.
“A drag queen is a character with a name and a personality,” he says over rye and ginger at a Queen West bar. “It’s a persona the performer creates that has never existed before. I don’t see myself as a drag queen because I just impersonate people who already exist.”
Since landing in Toronto two and a half years ago, the Moscow native has appeared at Gowntown and The Keith Cole Experience and done gigs in New York, Vancouver, Las Vegas and Bermuda. His new one-man impersonation extravaganza, Viva Cabaret, begins a month-long engagement at the Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar this April. Audiences can expect old-school divas such as Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, and contemporary stars like Liza Minnelli, Madonna and Tina Turner.
“All the characters I perform inspire me because there’s something unique about them no one else has,” he says. “I don’t do Jennifer Lopez or Beyoncé because there’s nothing about them that stands out. I can’t even tell them apart. But there will only ever be one Barbra and one Cher.”
“I’m really attracted to strong women,” he adds. “I would impersonate Margaret Thatcher if she sang.”
Ruzhyev came to the stage in a roundabout way. Though he completed an MBA in 2001, he quickly decided it wasn’t right for him. Unsure of what he wanted to do but wanting to live and work abroad, he began researching other options. In a typically homo twist of fate, the answer came one night when he stumbled on a battered copy of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret on VHS.
“That movie came at the perfect time in my life,” he says. “The decadence of the era, the dream of Sally Bowles, the smell and the lights of the theatre — it was all so inspiring for me. I knew immediately I wanted to become a performer.”
He enrolled at Moscow’s Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute and went on to do some conventional acting for film and stage. But it was in the field of impersonation that he really hit his stride. He quickly connected with the drag community of Moscow and within a short time was a regular performer on stages around the city.
“I never thought of the performances as something to do with sexuality or gender,” he says. “I just thought of it as acting, like playing any other part.”
Many Westerners may be surprised to learn that Moscow, not typically thought to be a gay-friendly city, has a flourishing drag scene.
“Most of the shows there are for straight audiences,” he says. “They aren’t looking for drag queens specifically. The fact that we might be gay doesn’t enter into it. They just want to be entertained.”
Though things have improved considerably in recent years, gay liberation still has a long way to go in Russia.
“The imprisonment of gay people stopped in the mid-’90s, but we still can’t have Pride without everyone getting arrested,” he says. “We have a gay scene with bars and saunas and two magazines. You can go to clubs and fuck whoever you want. As long as you don’t wave it in people’s faces they leave you alone.”
“If anything, I had the most problems from my mom when I came out,” he adds. “She was very upset at the beginning, and we didn’t talk for almost two years. But she’s happy that I’m here in Canada now and I’m safe.”