Arts·From the Vaults

Go back in time to meet Craig Russell, Canada's first drag superstar, in From the Vaults

The second episode of From the Vaults focuses on musical artists who have led the charge for social change.

The second episode of From the Vaults focuses on musical artists who have led the charge for social change

Craig Russell. (CBC)

Last week, CBC premiered a true treasure trove for Canadians interested in our country's history of arts and culture: From the Vaults. To quote my wonderful colleague (and the show's co-host) Amanda Parris, Vaults is "a deep dive into six decades of music archives from our national broadcaster. It will present rarely seen performances from some of the biggest names in music. You'll see Shania Twain (before the braces), Carole Pope (at her crotch-grabbing best) and k.d. lang (in her cow-punk princess glory days)."

On tonight's episode, you'll also see a lesser-known Canadian icon. Craig Russell emerged out of the Toronto gay scene of the 1970s to become arguably the first drag superstar our country has exported, performing around the world in shows that often focused on impersonating celebrities like Carol Channing, Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland as well as starring in the groundbreaking film Outrageous! (read all about that film here).

Watch the clip:

Craig Russell performs on the CBC in this clip from episode two of From the Vaults 1:54

As you see in the clip and will see more of on tonight's show, Russell was featured prominently on the CBC during the 1970s — which is quite something when you consider that homosexuality had been illegal in Canada until 1969. He rose above countless societal norms to become a genuine celebrity, offering a generation of gay folks a rare mainstream role model.

One of those folks was Brian Bradley, who became aware of Russell when he was 14 years old and living in Northern Ontario.

"I saw a preview for a CBC documentary on Craig," Bradley tells CBC Arts. "This was 1996, so things were really different then in terms of diversity in media. And here was this colourful character who was being recognized and celebrated and he was very intriguing to me — not because I was interested or wanted to do his art, but because he was so different from anybody that I ever knew. Craig stuck with me over the years after that."

Brian Bradley on From The Vaults. (CBC )

This was so much the case that Bradley became a Craig Russell biographer, and is featured in the From the Vaults episode as an expert on his legacy. His hope for the episode is that people can identify that Craig "really was a wonderful figure not just of gay culture but also of popular culture."

"He totally advanced his art from the gay world and brought it into the mainstream world as an impressionist," Bradley says. "He showed — to quote him — that Canada has more star power than hockey players and politicians. His work went all over the world and he really was a Canadian ambassador."

Now, some 40 years later, hopefully From the Vaults will give a new generations an opportunity to celebrate him as a true Canadian hero.

Craig Russell as Carol Channing. (David Street)

From the Vaults airs on CBC Television Thursdays at 9 p.m./9:30 NT. Watch online at cbc.ca/watch.​

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.