Time for yours truly to once again clear out a bookmark that has been saved to my web browser for the longest time. Well, a few bookmarks actually, and they’re all about the grand dame you see on your right. She’s Michelle DuBarry, otherwise known as 84-year-old Russell Alldread. The story starts in Alldread’s hometown of Bowmanville, Ontario, where at his mother’s urging he joined his sisters in performing for women’s groups and hospital patients. At the age of 9 and visiting an uncle’s farm, three female cousins dressed him in a gown and pendant and a towel to cover his boyish locks. The young Russell responded by striking a naturally fierce pose, with a hand to the hip and one thigh forward; you can see that pose in this 2011 photo spread from the National Post (cleared bookmark #1) on the occasion of Michelle’s 80th birthday.
Needless to say, Russell’s performing — or dressing up, for that matter — wouldn’t stop there. He continued to perform into his high school years, though the performing took a back seat during his early years in Toronto, where he worked a couple of jobs, had relationships with a couple of men, and a 4-year marriage to a woman. After he and his wife divorced, Russell got bit by the dress-up bug again and, under the mentoring and dressmaking skills of full-drag performer Toni Seven, hit the underground drag stages of Toronto’s coffee houses and began her long drag career… under the original stage name Anita Mode. Yeah, just like yours truly had other names before settling on Allison, Russell wouldn’t perform under Michelle DuBarry until she was bestowed that name by her colleagues in the late 1960s. About that name, this 2001 interview Michelle did with Toronto’s Daily Xtra (cleared bookmark #2) has some pretty good info on how she gained her famous name.
Over the years, Michelle DuBarry would perform with a couple of drag troupes; hit the stage solo; worked a side job or two (including one as a shoes salesman); earned great acclaim for her drag work; saw good friends come and go (and outliving some in the process); worked with several organizations; and served as an inspiration for many others in and out of drag, including most certainly during a successful battle prostate cancer. She’s certainly had her fair share of stories, including those in this 2001 National Post interview and this 2007 Toronto Star feature (cleared bookmarks #3 and #4). A couple of things I discovered while writing this post: In the above linked Daily Xtra interview, Michelle notes a few lifelong values that were instilled in her as a youth, including the influence of glamour and the value of honesty and caring she learned from her parents. Speaking of caring, one of Michelle’s signature performances is one to the song “We Can Be Kind,” “a message song” as she noted to the Toronto Star last year (cleared bookmark #5) that certainly inspires the listener when you listen to Nancy LaMott’s original.
So, yeah, it’s easy to see how Michelle DuBarry has gained so much recognition and admiration for not only her performance skills but her polite grace, intelligence, and kindness. And late last year, she earned another honor, one that recognizes her longevity: As reported back in January by CBC News, (cleared bookmark #6), Michelle was bestowed the honor of [drumroll] “World’s Oldest Drag Queen” by the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records. A close friend of Michelle’s nominated her for the Guinness honor, and she received the certificate of veracity in January (that’s her holding it up in the photo at the top of this post). It’s a wonderful honor to receive for sure… until some fans of another drag performer in Oregon got a hold of Guinness and said, “Hey, wait just a minute.” Sure enough, Guinness did some digging and verifying and checked out the story of one Darcelle XV (born Walter W. Cole), who will turn 86 in November and is one year and one week older than Michelle DuBarry. So, back on August 15, Guinness updated their records to confirm that Darcelle XV is the present “World’s Oldest Drag Queen.”
But when you think of it, drag performers like Darcelle XV and Michelle DuBarry are likely of the belief that age is just a number. In Michelle’s case, she’ll probably take being dropped a notch in stride. And if both of them are still performing into their 80s, that’s gotta be an inspiration for us younger (or younger-at-heart) folk. Here’s hoping we all get the chance to do what we love, whatever it may be, when we’re well into our 80s. Three cheers for the world’s two oldest drag queens!