The rise of Mado Lamotte, queen of Montreal's Gay Village

Thirty years after Mado Lamotte first took the stage, the man behind Montreal's most famous drag queen reflects on the evolution of his character and the Gay Village itself.

30 years after Mado 1st took the stage, Luc Provost reflects on her evolution and the Gay Village itself

Mado Lamotte, posing in her dressing room at Chez Mado, has been entertaining Montrealers for 30 years. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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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.

Baskets of jewelry fill a shelf in Mado Lamotte's dressing room. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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.

Drag queens prepare for their performance in the basement of Chez Mado. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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.

Luc Provost drew inspiration from the women of Montreal's Rosemont neighbourhood where he grew up. (Radio-Canada)

"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 Lamotte's nights as a bingo host helped hone her reputation for lightning-quick sass. (Radio-Canada)

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."

Montreal's Gay Village has turned into one of the city's biggest tourist destinations in recent years. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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."

A life-sized, 3D version of Mado herself hangs above Mado's cabaret in the Gay Village. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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.

A drag queen takes a moment before a lip-sync performance at Chez Mado. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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.

Hot pink isn't Mado Lamotte's only option when it comes to wigs. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

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.

"I wish in the future that we are going to be able to go to a place, and people will not ask, was it a gay bar?"
Quebec's most famous drag queen celebrates 30 years in the business. 2:19

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.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Montreal's Daybreak and Cecilia MacArthur