Toronto

A Toronto drag queen who 'wowed audiences' has died and people are paying tribute

A Toronto drag queen described as legendary has died and people in the city are mourning her loss with heartfelt tributes on social media. 

Michelle Ross is being remembered as kind and talented

Michelle Ross, born in Jamaica and believed to be in her 60s, has died, Pride Toronto has confirmed. (Pride Toronto/Twitter)

A Toronto drag queen described as legendary has died and people in the city are mourning her loss with heartfelt tributes on social media.

Michelle Ross, born in Jamaica and believed to be in her mid-60s, was known as "true drag royalty." Pride Toronto confirmed her death in a statement on Twitter on Monday. Her cause of death is not known. The tributes say Ross was kind and talented.

Glad Day Bookshop, which describes itself as the "first queer-focused Canadian bookstore," said the death of Ross is a huge loss for the community.

"Our village, our city and our world has lost Michelle Ross. Michelle was legendary for her kindness, friendship, commitment, style and raw talent. May she continue to inspire us all," the bookstore said on Twitter on Sunday.

Drag queen Brooke Lynn Hytes, originally from Toronto, said in an Instagram post that Ross had an international career that lasted decades and she described her as a "Icon, Legend, Diva and STAR" of the drag scene in Toronto.

"If you were booked in a show with her, it was understood that you were the intermission or the smoke break. People were there to see Michelle! Her shows were a drag master class. She held her audience captive!" Hytes said.

Salon Noir, a community group, expressed condolences on Facebook to her family, friends and admirers on Sunday. The group says it was "born out of our desire and commitment to black trans, gender fluid, gender queer and queer people to provide a safe place for our communities to laugh, learn, love and socialize."

"I don't think any of us were prepared for this news this morning — confirmed by the family. We wish you all comfort during this time of grief. Miss Ross may you rest in glory with your King Jesus."

Pride Toronto, for its part, said Ross was a much-loved performer at its annual festival.

"Michelle wowed audiences at Pride Festivals past with electrifying performances and this year's Rise Up! event. We'll cherish her memory for years to come," it said in its statement. "Classy. Elegant. Glamorous. Miss Ross."

According to Pride Toronto, Ross began to perform in 1974 at Club Manatee in Toronto. She had a six-year stint with La Cage Aux Folles in Toronto as well as a residency at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. She appeared at events in Canada, in the U.S., in London, England, and Jamaica.

CBC Arts once described her as "a reigning queen on Toronto's Church Street." 

Ross called 'unofficial representative' for Black queer life

Rinaldo Walcott, a University of Toronto associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute, said as a Black gay man he was "deeply influenced" by the work Ross did in the community. He went to many of her performances. 

"Michelle has been performing since the late 1970s. There are all of these myths about Black queer people and Black gay men in particular. But here's someone who, from the mid-70s right into the 2000s, has been a constant in the queer community," Walcott said.

"She lived through the AIDS and HIV epidemic and has been a constant for Black queer people to see and other queer people to see. That, in and of itself, is remarkable."

"She's always been there. She's always been out. In many ways, she has been our unofficial representative for Black queer life."

Walcott said her performances were among the best, they were almost spiritual experiences, and they have "seeped" into his research.

"Sometimes, she would just channel Diana Ross, or Shirley Bassey, or even Rihanna, or the dancehall artist Lady Saw, and the way that she would channel them, both her and the audience became one," he said.

"It would be entirely uplifting and entirely an out-of-your body feeling of what you would be experiencing there with her in a community of people. That was the power of the kind of performances that Michelle Ross could give."

Walcott said he thinks her presence in the queer village, in effect, saved many lives. "Many of us might have gone off and done other things but instead we ended up at a Michelle Ross performance and we stayed there, and because we stayed there, we didn't do things that might have been deeply damaging to our lives. It's not too much to say that she was incomparable."

He said he would like to see a big celebration of the life of Ross.

Ross gained 'cult following' through gigs, magazine says

Xtra magazine, in a June 17, 2009 article entitled "Parliament of queens," said of Ross: "The supremely talented Ms Ross is a true Canadian drag legend. Like her namesake Diana, Ms Ross is The Boss."

After performing thousands of times, "her presence is true drag royalty," the magazine said.

"Worldwide stints and weekly gigs on Church Street have garnered her a huge cult following of loving fans who can't get enough of that huge fabulous hair. There just ain't no mountain high enough."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

With files from Muriel Draaisma

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