Craig Russell revolutionized Canadian drag, and he finally has the outrageous biography he deserves
Brian Bradley's new book is an extensive look at the life of Russell and his unlikely marriage to Lori Jenkins
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
30 years ago, we lost one of the most fabulous entertainers Canada has ever birthed: Craig Russell. An actor and female impersonator (he disliked the label "drag queen," although his influence on the drag that would come after him is considerable), we here at CBC Arts have honoured the legacy of Russell multiple times. I wrote a piece looking back at the impact of his 1977 film Outrageous! back in a 2017 edition of this column, and our 2019 interactive project Superqueeroes featured a tribute to Russell by Toronto drag icon Allysin Chaynes. But none of that remotely compares to the glory that is now available via Brian Bradley's new biography Outrageous Misifts: Female Impersonator Craig Russell and His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie.
The book — released last month through Dundurn Press — details not only Russell's life but the life of Lori Jenkins, the woman he surprised a few folks by marrying in 1982 (he publicly identified as gay, after all). The two remained married until Russell's death, and Outragous Misifits extensively documents their strange and beautiful union, which started with Jenkins being a obsessed fan of Russell's. It's more than worth a second-wave quarantine read, particularly if you have interest in the history of Toronto's gay community, as Bradley's book essentially doubles as a primer for decades of the city's gay scene.
I chatted with Bradley about the undertaking, and how he hopes it contributes to legacy of both Craig and Lori.
Congratulations on writing such a remarkably thorough and well-researched book. What was the most challenging part of such an undertaking?
The most challenging part was not so much in finding sources or archival material — in fact, I thought places like the ArQuives, Toronto Archives and Toronto Reference Library made it easy. I was also blessed to receive personal items including journals, day planners, scrapbooks, things like that. The hard part was taking the time to really evaluate what Craig really meant by his actions or things he said.
Craig stayed in persona most of the time, and it was through impersonation that he expressed himself. He sometimes said things he did not mean as a cover for emotion, or [to] shape his narrative in the way he wanted to. I feel like I spent more time thinking and analyzing what was really behind words and actions more than anything.
Tell me a bit about your own history with Craig Russell. When did you first hear of him and how did that evolve into the becoming an expert biographer?
I first heard about Craig when I was not quite 14 and pretty naive to the world, to people and to myself as an emerging queer person. It was a commercial for a CBC Life and Times documentary about him, and it left me gobsmacked. I remember thinking how feminine he was, how curious his work was — I knew nothing of Craig — and all that he did. I didn't aspire to be like that — I aspired to understand it and learn about his place.
When I started my work around 2008, when I knew a lot more about gay culture and the arts, it was obvious there was a lot to learn about this person, so many intrigues to be understood. I thought I would churn out a fun, outrageous feature story, but I came to see it was his humanity, and the humanity of the woman who identified as his wife, that had the most appeal despite all the fun, sensational, outrageous things that happened around them. Their humanity needed to be explored and situations explained. Both Craig and Lori experienced an incredible amount of trauma in a time when trauma was not talked about. I needed to learn and write about it not to exploit them, but to show how human they were despite seeming so different.
What are some of the main things you want readers to take away from the story of both Russell and Lori Russell Eadie?
In terms of Craig and Lori, I want people to take away how human they were, how trauma shapes us and how despite our trauma, we can overcome. It is important we all take the time to consider people more — to bring understanding, support and love when sometimes our inclination may be to take space or give judgment. I have demonstrated how special and talented Craig and Lori were — they were masters at their crafts — and all they contributed to our cultural history. One was front and centre, the other backstage and away, and both have equal value to our history. People like Craig — entertainers — get recognized, and they deserve to be. People like Lori don't get recognized as much, but they have an equally interesting and valuable story to tell.
Beyond a biography, the book also serves as an essential resource on the history of Toronto's gay community, something still way too undocumented. What's one thing that stands out to you that you learned about that history from writing the book?
There were many key events in history that were absolutely pivotal in shaping queer history and the road to rights and inclusion. Some events are relatively known, like the bathhouse raids in 1981; other events not so much, like our own Battle of Church Street that was akin to the Stonewall Riots, [or] John Damien's decade-long fight after he was fired by a provincial government entity for being gay, or the unrelenting struggle with oppression as the hands of law enforcement acting out of ignorance. My only regret in writing Misfits is that I could not go deeper with these points in history and share other voices and experiences. It was loud and clear though that after decades of work for rights, inclusion, safety, community, voice and place, we haven't reached a place of complete inclusion, and at times there is as much volatility in the queer community as there was 50 years ago.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a softie. So with that in mind, the one thing though that stands out the most — that I really learned about our queer history — was the strength and empowerment of people when they found community and identity in an unfair era when it was easier to blend in. It was so clear to me how much people need community, then and now, and that finding community and embracing identity was so empowering [that] it helped people face the lack of acceptance that was around them, be that on a street, in a bar, anywhere else.
I think of the story of the Toronto drag queen, going out and feeling fabulous at the St. Charles, who was pelted with eggs by one of the ignorant gawkers outside. She didn't cower, run home afraid or stop going. She went home, changed [clothes] and went right back out to do what she wanted to do. Craig was an example of this. He was an obvious target in a pretty hateful era, and his safety was at risk going out as much as everyone else's. A friend of his asked him to tone it down to be safe, [but] Craig wouldn't. He told them he could get away with a lot more dressed up as Tallulah Bankhead than he could being little Craig Eadie from Toronto.
What do you hope this book lends to the legacy of Craig and Lori?
I hope it shows them as much part of our queer and cultural history as it shows them as two people who were just like everyone else, who need the same things, who aren't unlike you. We need to let people explore who they are and let them have that journey. While we may appear so different and that is okay, [we should] also understand emotionally we all have the same needs. We need to be kinder to each other. We all need to be seen, understood and loved.
You can order your copy of Outrageous Misfits here.