With Toronto Pride turning 40 this year, it’s fitting to devote this week’s 40 at 40 anniversary feature to one of Toronto’s – and the country’s – queer pioneers: Craig Russell.
In January 1982, the internationally acclaimed female impersonator (as he liked to be known) and star of the groundbreaking Canadian film Outrageous was at a turning point. After two disastrous performances – one in New York’s Carnegie Hall and the other in Vancouver, which resulted in the cancellation of a Western Canada tour – he got married. To a woman. Her name was Lori Jenkins, a fan and his former dresser.
The event made national news and landed him and Jenkins on the cover of NOW, in a story written by Gene Mascardelli, then Russell’s manager.
The marriage was part of Russell’s attempt to reshape his life and career, says Brian Bradley, author of the new book Outrageous Misfits: Female Impersonator Craig Russell And His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie (Dundurn, $24.99)
“Towards the end of the 1970s and the early 80s, he was struggling with his mental health and drug dependency, and he had made some big mistakes and fall-down failure shows,” says Bradley. (In New York he crawled under a grand piano and wanted to do the whole show from there, and in Vancouver he appeared half-dressed and threw props, costumes and sheet music into the audience.)
“So he was looking at how he could get a better footing in his career. But he was also exploring who he was outside of the dress. When he found his art, which was drag, he threw himself into that because it was his passion. But it was also a place to hide from his problems. And by 1980, he really needed to foster who Craig Eadie was and figure out his masculine self.”
Bradley says in photos at the time, Russell had started wearing a suit and wanted to grow a beard.
“That seems like the simplest thing, but it wasn’t something he had really done before,” says Bradley. “He was exploring himself as a man. So that certainly was some motivation into his relationship with Lori and proposing to her.”
Knowing that the NOW story was written by Russell’s manager makes sense in retrospect. It reads a bit like a glorified press release, including info on Russell’s theatre career – something he wanted to pursue more seriously – and informing us about roles he wants. But there are glimpses into Russell’s state of mind, including his sharp observation that show business and life are just “one contract after another.”
“Craig fell in love with stardom as a teenager,” explains Bradley. “He was rejected by his father and bullied at school, and so he found solace in the entertainment world. He came to feel like stardom was the be-all and end-all. If he could find stardom, everything would be wonderful, and none of his problems would exist. But he came to see that the entertainment world was a business. He used to say, ‘I went to Hollywood for the sunshine, but all I found were a bunch of piranhas.’ He saw people fighting for roles and parts, fighting to be taken seriously, fighting to be booked somewhere. And that was a big downer for him, because he’d had a really sunny idea of what he thought stardom would be.”
Today, with drag achieving mainstream success, it’s intriguing to think what would have happened had Russell lived. He died in 1990 at 42 of AIDS-related illness.
“A big element of RuPaul’s Drag Race is about mentoring, and Craig was very good at mentoring – that was the initial start of his relationship with Lori,” says Bradley. “He also had many other interests. He wanted to act outside of drag. He wanted to do stand-up comedy. He wanted to write, draw and paint. He was a multifaceted artist. But he wasn’t taken seriously. In that era, he fit into a tiny little box. Whereas today I would like to hope we’re better able to embrace our artists as being multifaceted.”
Bradley also says if Russell had been around a generation or so later, he would have been able to balance work and his personal life and get some mental health support.
He was ahead of his time in so many ways – even in his sexual fluidity, a term that wasn’t around back then.
“Neither Craig nor Lori ever corrected anyone about their labels,” says Bradley. “Craig got called gay all the time, and Lori was referred to as a gay woman. But for both of them, their most intimate close relationships were with the opposite sex. During a CBC interview an interviewer said, ‘Oh, you’re bisexual,’ and they both went silent. Craig sometimes joked that he was trisexual – that he’d try anything once.
“They were people who wouldn’t be boxed in, even when it came to their sexual identities. I think fluid would be the best term to describe them.”
– Glenn Sumi
Below is Gene Mascardelli’s cover story, Craig Russell: Canada’s sweetheart, republished from NOW’s January 21, 1982 issue.
Craig Russell reflects
By Gene Mascardelli
Craig Russell is outrageous.
Since bounding to international attention four years ago with his brilliant portrayal of a female impersonator in the hugely successful Canadian film, Outrageous, Russell has dazzled, dazed and delighted fans and critics alike.
Undeniably one of the greatest female impersonators going, Russell has also managed to bewilder with his talents and confuse with his antics during the course of his very public life. The Russell myth reached a certain peak recently with an abortive Vancouver appearance that resulted in the cancellation of the performer’s tour of Western Canada.
And Russell continues to confound his followers with his somewhat secret, somewhat very public marriage last week to Lori Jenkins.
In an exclusive interview with NOW this week, Russell made it clear that he sees himself at a crossroads, beginning a new epoch in the Russell myth. He’s closing the book on the chapter of his career that culminated with the west coast fiasco. And, in many ways, his new era is signified with his recent marriage, an era that will see Russell appear more often as himself and see “his ladies” put in the closet to a certain extent.
“I have to get back to where I’m not on all the time,” says Russell.
Russell’s infamous Vancouver performance, which made national headlines, was described by promoter Hugh Pickett (Russell calls him “Pickett, lickett, stick it”) as “the most disgusting, disgraceful, horrifying night I’ve spent in theatre in 35 years.”
In his first public comment on this incident, Russell told NOW: “The night before I did the Vancouver show I read a script Crystal Blaze by Richard Benner (screenwriter/director of Outrageous). It’s the story of Crystal, an actor who becomes a drag-queen in a downtown New York bar. His friends are trying to convince him to stop because something strange happens to him when he has to take on the character of these women. He doesn’t want to, but they want him to quit and open a restaurant because he’s in his thirties, he’s not in good shape, and he’s kind of a mess. It really sums me up!
“I read it the night before I did Vancouver and I was extremely excited about this play. Then I found out that my then manager/agent had turned it down cold, saying that I was too big a star to do a showcase play in New York in a workshop condition; which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Also, I’ve been waiting four years to see what Richard Benner would come up with next. I was absolutely furious, my management and the promoters were telling me I needed a new show, I needed new costumes. I said this is the act – you know this is the act, the more you do it the better it gets but it was becoming stale to me, I was looking for the next film.
“A lot of people were ready to kill Craig Russell after Vancouver when in fact I had killed the monster myself. They were being redundant. I lived up to the letter of the contract and that’s what show business is, one contract after another. That’s what life is, just one contract after another, and it wasn’t fun anymore.
“To do drag it has to be fun. In the beginning it was a joke, it was a tremendous release of my character because I was shy, I was quiet; a lot of people liked me better that way! I was using the characters of my ladies to work out all kinds of emotions in myself. You don’t just put on a black wig and eyelashes and sing Over The Rainbow. I’ve lived out Judy Garland’s tragedy to the point of booze and pills, of even feeling like her reacting in situations.
“The ladies are my insurance policy and I almost allowed becoming them to ruin me, but now they’re safely packed away so that whenever the occasion is right and when public interest warrants it I’ll take them out.” (Russell will be performing Judy Garland on a telethon fund-raising for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation this month.) It’s nice now to walk along and to hear, Hi Craig; there’s Craig Russell, blah, blah; not Hi Judy, Hi Mae, Hi Carol. I spent a lot of years going out in public as these people for everyone’s amusement.”
The new lady in Russell’s life is not so new, having originally met him at the premiere of Outrageous here in Toronto four years ago. Since that time, Lori (Jenkins) Russell corresponded regularly with him, but it wasn’t until they met again during the much publicized production of Tom Hendry’s play Hogtown that they became inseparable. She was hired to be Craig’s dresser (personal attendant responsible for the wardrobe and dressing of the star) replacing one hired by the producer. The situation threw Russell and Lori together, and it was the beginning of their love affair.
Russell describes his experience in Hogtown – the Toronto Truck Theatre’s extravagant production intended to be the crowning glory of the highly successful Toronto Theatre Festival as: “a departure from sanity. Barbara Hamilton should have done it.”
Russell’s character, Belle, is the madame of a brothel in this elaborate musical loosely based on Toronto’s 1885 election victory by the Reform movement, which changed Toronto overnight from Hogtown to Toronto the Good.
He says “The director, who is a brilliant choreographer, did not have enough time, and I mean that honestly; he had 20 people to engineer to make sure everybody knew when to put their left foot forward and their right. I was never told what Belle Howard was all about and I was given a leading man (Scott Walker) who was supposed to be Belle’s stud. There was a frantic call from his agent saying ‘He doesn’t have to kiss Mr. Russell on stage does he?!’ Well you know Mr. Russell was never on that stage, Belle Howard was on that stage. If we had been able to treat the girls in my bordello like a madame treats her girls, with a lot of love like they’re her babies; but everything was a veneer; they looked like a bunch of school girls.”
So what about this new future? Russell says of his ladies: “The novelty is over, the real work begins now, the real creativity; not sending up the women I like to do but putting some of them together into new characters. I’ve thought that for years. I’ve admired Lily Tomlin for the ability to create characters out of different people that she knew. In that sense I would be touring a new show.”
Russell’s only film work since Outrageous was a cameo spot in the uncelebrated film, Something Personal, starring Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers. Russell popped in as Mae West and received good press for his part. He’s hoping to develop Richard Benner’s Crystal Blaze as a New York stage production, to work out the kinks, before launching the work as a motion picture. Russell’s just finished reading the latest draft of the piece and says he’s looking forward to another collaboration with the man who brought him to international attention in Outrageous.
“Richard writes for me like I am the drag queen female counterpart of his image. You have to tailor a script that is so special – I’ve been waiting for him to write this thing for a long time.”
Russell is also up for the lead in another film written by John Francois Brinckman, a script entitled Arnold, Dog Of The North. Russell would play a mad professor who has a laboratory in the Rocky Mountains. Russell is also investigating the possibility of developing a television show, a sort of variety/talk show on which he both performs and talks.
And what of his new state of wedded bliss? Russell says, “it’s a virgin marriage in the true sense of the word. It’s our first and last time.”
Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.