Toronto drag queen Michelle Ross exuded the glamorous life onstage and off
|Toronto Star 30 Mar 2021 at 20:11|
She was once known to arrive at venues by stretch limousine where she walked a red carpet put out just for her and was personally escorted onto the stage before a spotlight revealed an elaborate gown, heels and jewelry as the DJ spun her signature song, “I’m Coming Out.”
Ross’s drag family describe her as one in a million, the most regal and elegant persona in a community known for its colour, “the last of a generation of entertainers who took their image and took their presentation to heart and made it part of who they were.”
Ross died suddenly but peacefully at her North York home last week, capping the end of an over 45-year career on stages in the Gay Village and abroad.
Born in Jamaica, Ross made her first appearance in drag at Toronto’s Club Manatee in 1974. She came on the scene when gay-friendly venues were relegated to beers halls on Yonge Street in a city that was not welcoming to the gay community. Public harassment was plentiful, threats of police constant. Neither was ever enough to stop her. Neither were the 1977 murder of Emanuel Jaques, the 1981 bathhouse raids and the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic that rocked the community and led to the closure of venues along the strip.
As a person who did not wallow in life’s challenges and preferred to look forward, Ross sustained and made herself a home in the new venues that opened on Church Street, forming the Gay Village, where she became an ingrained part of the drag scene aligned with sought-after performers Michelle DuBarry, Rusty Ryan, Christopher Peterson, Chris Edwards and, more recently, Brooke Lynn Hytes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame.
Over the years she toured on the international stage everywhere from Japan to Texas to Barbados. She also had a two-year stay as an entertainer at a resort in Puerto Rico, but Toronto was always home. Ross was a regular at Trax, La Cage, Chaps, Zipperz and Woody’s, among other venues.
Her persona was crafted in tribute to Diana Ross, but she was also known to impersonate the likes of Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston. Her hallmark was her fashion and her ability to command the attention of the audience, even just by lip-synching songs from a stool on the stage.
She attended nearly every Pride festival and parade, picked up private functions and charity work, and appeared in at least two LGBTQ films including 1977’s “Outrageous!” She was also the headline entertainer for the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s annual volunteer party for five years in a row.
“You always felt like you were with someone regal with Michelle,” says queen Carlotta Carlisle. “I knew I had made it when I got booked to do shows with Michelle Ross … She was the standard entertainers held themselves to.”
Friends say Ross was an inspiration as a person of colour, unbowing to ignorance and overt racism, never questioning her value and place in the spotlight. She would go on to be featured in the 2002 documentary “Divas: Love Me Forever,” which chronicled the careers of six Black female impersonators. Her persona and style exuded confidence and empowerment to an enthusiastic, hungry audience that stayed with her for decades.
“She was such an important person for the community, especially as a queen of colour,” says queen Jezebel Bardot. “She was also an ambassador to the city.”
Ross most recently made regular appearances at The Drink and Woody’s. When COVID-19 restrictions lifted enough to allow guests inside venues and some live entertainment, she performed on the patio at Crews & Tangos where a memorial has now been established in her honour.
Outside of drag, a friend says Ross was a quiet, shy, reserved person who kept a tight circle of friends and preferred to keep her real name and age private. What was known was that her life off the stage was almost as exuberant as on. She worked as a tailor for a prominent company and would buy rich, quality fabrics not only to make her custom gowns but to make curtains and pillows for her poshly decorated North York home.
“She lived a very glamorous life, regardless if it was onstage or not,” Carlisle says. “She lived in a glamorous house with a huge pool that she liked to lounge by like a star.”