The rise of Mado Lamotte, queen of Montreal's Gay Village
30 years after Mado 1st took the stage, Luc Provost reflects on her evolution and the Gay Village itself
This story has won the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity award for digital at the 2018 RTDNA Central region awards. The awards recognize journalistic excellence in individual reporting, as well as for programs and stations across radio, TV and digital. Read more about our other award winners here.
Luc Provost has slipped into an orange satin dress, pulled on a hot pink wig and carefully applied makeup.
Mado Lamotte opens the door.
It's a transformation that Provost, the tireless performer behind Montreal's most famous drag queen, has been undergoing for decades, often several nights a week.
"Once I'm dressed up and ready for the show, I feel perfect," Mado said in her dressing room — a kaleidoscope of bright colours, filled with hundreds of custom-made costumes, baskets of glittering necklaces and row upon row of high heels.
By day, Provost walks through Montreal's Gay Village, where he lives, in a nondescript T-shirt and shorts. In the dressing room, the voice, the smile, the laugh and the clothes are all uniquely Mado.
Mado has become a Montreal icon — a life-sized figure in her likeness can be found at Montreal's wax museum, and she will serve as one of the grand marshals at the Montreal Pride parade.
On Saturday, Mado will give a free outdoor performance to mark 30 years in the business.
One night earlier this week, while preparing to host a lip-synching show, Provost reflected on the evolution of his character and the Gay Village itself.
From bingo to Cabaret Mado
Provost has been performing in drag since the 1980s when, on a whim, he dressed up as a secretary and his friend as his female boss, for a party at the Poodle, a club above a grocery store on St-Laurent Boulevard.
"The owner of the bar found us funny, and he said, 'You two, you should do shows here,'" Provost recalled.
A star was born.
Provost, who dropped out of theatre school two credits shy of his degree, began playing Mado in 1987 — first as a dancer at the Poodle, then as a "cigarette girl" at Le Lézard.
It was as a bingo host, though, that Provost honed Mado's trademark lightning-quick sass.
The nights were more about the performance than the game. It could take hours to declare a winner.
Mado developed a following, even hosting a bingo night at the Spectrum, a concert hall normally reserved for popular bands.
As Mado, Provost draws inspiration from the strong-headed women in the works of playwright Michel Tremblay and those of his own childhood in the working-class neighbourhood of Rosemont.
Over time, her style and fashion sense have evolved.
"Before it was like, crazy, tacky and funny," he said. "I went from 'Value Village lady' to 'Holt Renfrew.'"
Mado's essence, though, has remained, say those who know her best.
"It's the colour, it's the feathers, it's the joke, it's the humour," explained Steve Poitras, his longtime manager and friend.
"Even after 20 years, when I listen to her, I'm like, 'Oh my God, she's always right to the point.'"
Gay Village gone mainstream
When Provost started performing as Mado, the Gay Village was barely on the map — consisting of, as he describes it, "one transvestite bar, one leather bar and one sex shop."
The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of police raids, and in response LGBT people "banded together and sought safe spaces," Donald Hinrichs writes in his book, Montreal's Gay Village, The Story of a Unique Neighbourhood through the Sociological Lens.
"The village, gradually, became that space, where people became very open, 'out of the closet,' for the first time in Montreal," Hinrichs writes.
Cabaret Mado, the club Provost opened on Ste-Catherine Street 15 years ago, with its life-sized, 3D version of Mado on the sign, has become a beacon for the area.
"Slowly but surely, it started to change: there were more places, like the Sky nightclub, I think, that attracted a young crowd," Provost said.
"I saw the evolution. I've been a witness to a very important part of our history."
Now, the Gay Village — a square of land roughly defined by St. Hubert Street to the west, De Lorimier Avenue to the east, Sherbrooke Street to the north and René Lévesque Boulevard to the south — is thought to be the largest neighbourhood of its kind in North America and, with Ste-Catherine Street East closed to cars, a prime tourist destination in the summer months.
Provost said the village still feels like a neighbourhood where everyone is welcome. He doesn't allow photos to be taken of himself when he's not in costume, though.
"It's good to have a little privacy once in a while," he said.
When a gay bar is no longer a gay bar
In some quarters, there's been grumbling that the village has lost its purpose as a safe space for the LGBT community as it has gone more mainstream.
Popular gay bars, too, have shut down, with experts pointing to smart dating applications as a key reason young LGBT people are ditching bars and nightclubs as places to find partners.
On this night, a mix of young men and women are packed into Cabaret Mado to see a '90s lip-sync show.
Mado, the host between songs, takes jabs at everyone — Quebecers, unsuspecting English-speaking tourists, even his own performers.
"I love your hair. Is it real?" he quipped at one point, after a drag queen in a blond mushroom-cut wig ended her dance with the splits.
Provost estimates that more than half of his patrons are now heterosexual. And, in his view, that's a good thing.
"It's very open-minded, like it should have been long ago," he said.
Mado Lamotte's 30th anniversary show took place in Parc des Faubourgs Sat. Aug. 12 as part of Montreal Pride. Visit Montreal Pride's website for details.
With files from Montreal's Daybreak and Cecilia MacArthur