By Neil Armstrong
TORONTO, Ontario (Wednesday, April 7, 2021) — Legendary Jamaican-Canadian drag queen, Michelle Ross — who passed away, late last month, and believed to be in her sixties — is being remembered as a Canadian drag icon, a diva, a trailblazer, a philanthropist, a community advocate, a source of upliftment, and a world-renowned entertainer.
Since the news broke, on the morning of March 28, that the incomparable female impersonator had died suddenly (the cause of death is unknown) the outpouring of tributes has been unabated.
In the eyes of the Black LGBTQ+ community, Ross — who created space for the Black community in Toronto’s queer community with her first performance at The Manatee, a Toronto club, in 1974 — was a gem to be celebrated, over and over again.
Douglas Stewart, a gay rights activist and community worker, first encountered Michelle Ross at The Manatee, an all-ages gay male space which notoriously had a no-women-allowed policy, in 1978. Every Halloween, his girlfriends would dress in male drags and would join him to check out the place.
In the 1970s, Black people went to all kinds of places but some of us were also looking for where Black folks and Black community were, says Stewart. He found that in Michelle Ross’s presence and performances.
“Many of us came out who were looking for Black community in queer community and lamented that there wasn’t, for example, a Black place to go, a Black gay bar or community spaces where you go and see lots of Black people.
“What Michelle began to do, along with other people is she began to create those spaces. She became what I call the magnet so the buzz would happen where is Michelle performing, Michelle is going to be at whichever club so you know that when you go that club you see a significantly larger number of Black people than you would normally see in those spaces,” says Stewart, who was the founding executive director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention and a founding member of Zami, the first Black queer group in Toronto.
For 47 years, Michelle Ross had reigned as the fabulous veteran drag queen, whose performances so many encountered and gained inspiration.
Many Black queer people saw themselves on a stage which was also “a metaphor for the larger world stage for our lives so to suddenly stand and see this glitter and light shine on this person who is fantastic, who also resonates with us because they are performing music that our parents were in our homes that we grew up with,” says Stewart who came to Canada from Jamaica in the 1970s.
“But there’s a way to that where Michelle just came on and shone and you saw that, and connected us and made us feel more confident, more thoughtful about your whole location in this community and your belonging in this space and the way she commanded a presence. And then you realize you could also take up space.”
DJ Blackcat, a friend of Ross for more than 30 years, honoured her at a Pride Toronto event, Rise Up!, to celebrate Black History Month in February of this year, which was recorded at her home. As a program curator at Pride Toronto, it was his idea to celebrate her.
Before meeting the celebrated drag queen years ago, Blackcat would hear people talk about the artist but had never seen her or even a photograph. All he knew was that she was a performer.
Being new to the gay scene in the early 90s, he didn’t know what drag was but his first memory of Michelle Ross was at a house party where she said hello on a vista speakerphone to the partiers. He recalls that, suddenly, all the lights were turned on and the music shut off so that she could greet them. They all responded in unison.
Blackcat’s first time seeing her was at the iconic Toronto Latin nightclub, El Convento Rico, where other performers opened for Michelle Ross. He was enthralled by her performance which commanded attention.
“It was one of the best drag shows I have ever seen, to date. I’ve never seen so much money …the whole stage was just covered with money; she wasn’t holding the money anymore,” he says, noting that patrons were calling her Diana Ross and he was confused and wondered if it was actually the veteran African American singer performing that night.
Later, he realized that it wasn’t, but Blackcat says it was the first time that he saw a drag show of that calibre with outfit changes to boot.
He says Ross was a very private person and would only allow people “to know so much about her.”
“When Michelle likes you she will let you in, in certain ways, and like she will let you come over to her house, she will cook you food. We stayed up a couple nights just running jokes about men that she encountered in her trips and in Toronto. The stories were hilarious and she was a very good storyteller and I appreciated those stories.”
In her public persona, Michelle Ross was featured in Anton Wagner’s and Edimburgo Cabrera’s 2002 documentary, Divas: Love Me Forever, which is described as a comic-serious documentary about female impersonation, desire, fantasy, self-acceptance and the search for love.
Edimburgo Cabrera, the Cuban-Canadian director and videographer (Latin Queens), follows six black female impersonators through Toronto’s vibrant gay club scene as they search for home, family, and love. The life stories of these six divas become a prism illuminating gay life in the Caribbean and North America from the 1970s to the present.
A diva is a female impersonator who stands out amongst her peers because of her superior performance talents, devoted public following, and public advocacy on behalf of her gay community. The divas in the documentary are Michelle Ross, Chris Edwards (who passed away in 2016), Jackae Baker, Stephanie Stevens, Matti Dinah and Duchess (who passed away in 2001).
“It’s a mask that I’m wearing,” Ross says in the documentary while expressing her foibles and her joys in this window into her personal life.
“I’ve done well, I can do better and I thank him every day,” she says, looking upwards and acknowledging that her performances, which started in 1974, had taken her around the world, to places, such as Switzerland, Japan, Puerto Rico, Paris and London.
Asked where did she see herself 10 years from then, Ross said, “Back in Jamaica, retired,” and living on a big property, with many tenants, and “lots of things to do.”
Michelle Ross also appears performing at The Manatee in Outrageous! – a 1977 Canadian comedy film, directed and written by Richard Benner, and starring Craig Russell as Robin Turner, a female impersonator, and Hollis McLaren as Liza Conners, Turner’s schizophrenic roommate. Shot in Toronto, it was one of the first gay-themed films ever to receive widespread theatrical release in North America.
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says the passing of Michelle Ross is a huge loss and she can’t imagine what this type of loss means for all who loved her and knew her intimately.
“I don’t remember when I first saw Michelle Ross, I feel like she was always a beautiful presence in Black queer space, on Church Street and at Pride, especially Blocko. But the moment that really affected me was when we were living in Sudbury. For many reasons living there was just a horrible experience. And I felt stuck, trying to figure out how I would leave that place. It was really harmful to my mental, emotional and physical health and well-being.”
In the summer of 2014, Dryden was in Toronto, having arrived early for Pride and her partner, Gwen, would join her later.
Dryden remembers being in the Loblaws at Church and Carlton and Michelle Ross was doing a Pride event. “Ayende and I chatted and I just watched Miss Ross in awe. She saw me, and came over to say hi. It was her recognition of me that was so impactful.”
“At Blocko that same year, Michelle Ross performed early in the line-up and she performed King Jesus. I didn’t know that song. But she absolutely took us to Black Queer church. Everyone was singing, everyone was clapping, everyone was swaying, Miss Ross held each of us, lifted us up and honestly, I felt so healed in that moment. That song stays with me to this day and each and every time I play it, it is Miss Ross’ performance at Blocko that I am replaying, revisiting. And I’m healed again. That was such a very difficult time for me, but that performance, that intervention by Michelle Ross helped me in ways I cannot fully put into words.
In an essay, entitled “Fragments of Toronto’s Black Queer Community: From a Life Still Being Lived (2005)” in Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, Rinaldo Walcott opens with a meditation on three Black drag queens: Michelle Ross, Jackae Baker and Miss Burundi.
The director of Women and Gender Studies Institute and an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, underscores his belief that “black drag queens hold an important political and emotional place in the queer community that is often not acknowledged.”
“Rarely are these brave black men – who are out for all to see as both gay men and imitators of black and sometimes white women – given any consideration in discussions of black or, generally speaking, queer communities. These days, when folks write about queers, especially black queers, drag queens hardly get a mention.”
Walcott notes that Ross has enduring ties to Jamaica and concludes his essay with a description of her performance.
“Miss Ross’s performance almost always ends with a gospel set – more often than not, her particular rendition of “King Jesus.” When she performs this song, she also does a strut around the bar, “anointing” the participants as any evangelical Pentecostal preacher might do.”
He posits that these “underacknowledged community makers provided – and continue to provide – examples of how to live a life still in progress and how to imagine a future that might be different from the present”.
Filmmaker and director, Phillip Pike — who organized Bigger Than We, a celebration of the Black LGBTQ+ community in 2017 where Ross was honoured, and the producer of the documentary Our Dance of Revolution, about Toronto’s Black queer community over four decades — says many of the people he interviewed for the documentary emphasized how important it was to include Michelle Ross.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was brought home to me that no history of Toronto’s Black queer community could be told without including Michelle.”
Initially, he wanted to interview her for the documentary but she declined. Pike was feeling somewhat frustrated as, on the one hand everyone was saying Ross had to be included but, on the other hand, she did not want to be interviewed.
“Then, while I was interviewing Rinaldo Walcott something he said gave me the idea of including her not by way of an interview but by way of having others pay tribute to her. Knowing that she would be present at Bigger Than We, I sneakily arranged with Mykel Hall to coral her and pay tribute to her, which we of course captured on film. I was very happy that I was able to include her in the film in that way which, in the end, made more sense than simply interviewing her.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Jill Andrew, MPP for Toronto-St. Paul’s and Ontario NDP Culture and Women’s Issues Critic, says Ross was an icon, a visionary, and “a force in our community and changed lives across the globe.”
“Her leaving our world is such a loss. I never met someone with more confidence who literally lit up the room and made each person in her presence feel ALIVE and FREE! Blackness Supreme beauty and queerness…”
Andrew has seen her perform many times and cannot name the first time from memory – could have been at Crews & Tangos or at The 519 – “but God did I ever love her performance of The Boss (Diana Ross),” says Andrew who is a huge disco fan.
“She made us all know that we had every right to live our lives and to live them FULLY and IN COLOUR never shrinking ourselves for anyone anywhere. We love you Michelle Ross. REST. IN. POWER.,” wrote Andrew on Twitter.
Twysted Miyake-Mugler, co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance and host of a new podcast, The Plot Twyst, “that covers just about everything,but from my lens. Black. Gay. Canadian,” reminisces on seeing a performance of Michelle Ross for the first time.
“The first time I ever saw Michelle Ross, I don’t even think I could remember the exact date, but it was my first time experiencing Church Street beyond the Black gay clubs. We were going from bar to bar, on a Friday night and were looking for the spot where familiar faces were.
“As we approached Crews, I remember there being a flood of people, with an open window with a drag queen performing. This was the first time I had ever seen a Black drag queen, in person, and I remember having a multitude of emotions, ranging from confused to mesmerized. As she lip-synched the song, with an “air of regality” – the money just started flowing in from everyone in that club and I knew that she was THE one!”
Verlia Stephens is a part-time professor at George Brown College, the program coordinator and mentoring coordinator at Supporting our Youth, Sherbourne Health Centre, and a longtime friend of Ross.
“Whenever we had any parties that I had with Nik Red, Michelle would always be there to support us,” says Verlia Stephens, noting that, “She was there for me all the time and I’m really struggling with feeling like I couldn’t be there for her, especially during COVID times.”
“Michelle really knew how to take care of our community, like our Black community, especially those who may have been undocumented, don’t have status. Always making sure that folks were okay, but she did this on the down low. A lot of people didn’t know that and I think that’s what made her safe,” Stephens says.
She noted that Ross “really honoured where people were at and kept it like that. People trusted her with their stories, with what was happening, with their secrets and you know that if you spoke to her, she’s going to keep that and support you and that’s how I saw her, she was a safe haven for us, especially Black Caribbean folks”.
“And I’m hurting and I’m sad that I wasn’t there for her, that’s how I feel. Every time Michelle and I saw each other it was like I was seeing someone who was my chosen family.”
When Michelle Ross entered the world of performance as a drag queen, the only person she might have seen as a Black queer artist in Toronto was Jackie Shane, a pioneer transgender performer.
Born on May 15, 1940, Shane was an American soul and rhythm and blues singer, who was most prominent in the local music scene of Toronto in the 1960s. She was a contributor to the Toronto Sound and is best known for the single, Any Other Way, which was a regional Top 10 hit in Toronto in 1962 and a modest national chart hit across Canada in 1967. Shane died in Nashville, Tennessee February 21, 2019.
Honouring Michelle Ross
Since her death, Stewart says there has been talk about connecting with city politicians to see if there can be some acknowledgement or commemoration, whether it is a significant civic recognition from the city. Community members are also looking at, COVID or no COVID pending restrictions, at some point in the warmer weather to be able to lock off Church Street and have some kind of celebration.
Stewart thinks at any point when the next Blockorama or whatever happens, it does not have to be one thing but that multiple things can happen because of the different kinds of relations Michelle Ross had with people.
He is hoping that Black queer scholars and thinkers will facilitate “some kind of academic conference which talks about Black drag and its significance, call it the Michelle Ross Symposium, I think multiple things because there are so many things.”
Many years ago, he discussed with colleagues that there should be an event called “Artifierce.”
“We recognize sometimes the complexity of drag because it also plays with ideas of femininity and womanhood and so on that can be seen as problematic. But at the same time, we know that it also interrupts and challenges these constructs of gender in ways that are also playful and entertaining on another level.
“For Michelle herself, it’s about where and how that looks. I think it can look all kinds of way, all kinds of different things can happen but I think we as a community…if it wasn’t for COVID when we all got the news we’d probably gather on Church Street and would have found ourselves at some place to be hanging out together.”
Stewart had always been pushing the idea that Michelle Ross should have been getting recognition and invited to academic conferences to speak.
“Artifierce” to look at how the fierceness of culture that drag represents, in terms of how it contributes to what we see as the idea of high art, the definition of high art. Look at what these men do consistently. RuPaul’s Drag Race has shone that attention, he says.
“I think much could be done to more talk about what that represents in the ways that Walcott is saying and I think that’s why I say so many things could be happening.
Not just generally drag, but Black drag queens and I think it’s no accident that the Ru Pauls of the world is the ones who are at the leadership, as problematic as RuPaul’s Drag Race can be, but is at the helm of that, who got the idea, who put that out there is a Black queer man.”
Stewart underscores that before people came to the place where they were comfortable or even to find space, there was Michelle Ross and other drag queens holding court and finding a space that they could be “a magnet as space creators because when you saw them it’s like the Pied Piper we’re pulled back to there’s one of us, our home, we’ve got to go hang with them.”
He remembers that The Manatee, Voodoo, Katrina’s which became Colby’s were clubs on St. Joseph St. and even if you couldn’t get in them, the nights that you know that Michelle Ross or any of those Black drag queens were performing “when you went outside the club at 2am, 3am, St. Joseph St. was full of people, and what was always striking it was predominantly Black people because Michelle and those girls were somewhere around performing or something.”
After their performance, they might have something at one of their apartments and partiers would go back there or they would have specific parties.
As one of the organizers of Bigger Than We, Stewart emphasized to Pike that the notion of activism be expanded.
“Michelle lived her life with the value of more than herself, it’s like literally bigger than, I think if anybody epitomizes that it’s bigger than we, she did. However she was climbing she was bringing people with her. I think the other queens can tell you that, and even beyond the Black community because I think the Filipino queens, the white, all of them would say the same thing that she made sure there was more space for more people. And along with, she also saw you go into a space and Black people feel that, even when you go into the mostly white dominant space,” says Stewart.
Michelle Ross would acknowledge other Black people wherever she came across them even when she worked at Le Château as a tailor in the 70s. When a Black person walked in, she would connect with them right away.
Beyond being someone who sets a stage and a presence within her performing space, she collaborated with the parties that happened in St. James Town and it was at least a space where you would find Black community and queer within Black community.
Ross was the face but a lot of other people were putting on these events and making sure there were these spaces, people who weren’t out and maybe closeted but were all creating an underground community that we could all connect to, says Stewart.
“Many of us were saying that Michelle should get her flowers because beyond what she did for community. She’s a supreme performer, she’s been so present in the community, she has given us so much joy and all of that and who doesn’t know her. She’s world-renowned, including going to the Caribbean and into the belly of the beast of Babylon in Jamaica to perform and be who she is in all kinds of spaces — that she should get her flowers.
“Michelle made sure that people had roofs over their heads, they had food in their stomach, they got kicked out of home an encouraging word connecting them to folks, she was that person.”
Over the years, Stewart reminded Ross that she should not downplay the fact that she was creating space – an activist thing – and was doing something that was going against the grain.
Meanwhile, in 2019, Blackcat told friends that he wanted to do something big for Ross and honour her. They were planning to put together a committee to do so but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and it never happened.
Having taken on a new job with Pride Toronto, he shared the idea with them and they decided to include it in their Black History Month programming.
“We decided that we were going to surprise her with flowers and have a little speech and say something to her. I asked her to perform — she did not know that we were going to do that,” says Blackcat who assured her that he would come to her house and set up the lighting, get the music together, and make her look fabulous.
At the end of the performance, he surprised her with flowers, on behalf of Pride Toronto and the community.
“You personify excellence and sometimes you feel that the community does not appreciate you,” he told her, to which she responded yes and was teary-eyed as he articulated her accolades.
Blackcat spoke to Ross about doing some things for Pride, which, unfortunately, will now not happen.
“It was really important to me to give her, her flowers, that’s what we’re all saying now, that’s the term we’re using — to give her, her flowers, while she was still here,” he says, noting that this is how the photo shoot that he posted on his Facebook page a few days ago came together.
Ross agreed to the photo shoot and parts were videotaped as something Blackcat would keep for himself. He posted it online ten days before she passed.
“It took me a while to get the pictures together…I sent them to her for her to okay. She loved them and then I put them up,’ says Blackcat, quite happy that he decided to take the pictures and videotape her performance.
He plans to eventually put the videos up in a way that will honour her, he says, still grappling with the loss of her.
Blackcat says 20 years ago, another Black drag queen, Duchess, passed away and at that time she was the closest person to Ross.
“Duchess was Michelle’s daughter and I was left with the task of letting people know that Duchess had died,” he says, noting that the first person he called was Ross who was in disbelief.
They commiserated together but now that Ross has passed away he is by himself saying goodbye to her.
In the meantime, the tributes continue to pour in from organizations within the Church-Wellesley Village and LGBTQ+ community.
“We bid adieu to a legend, a queen, an icon: Michelle Ross. A proud Jamaican-born Canadian, Michelle, reigned the local drag scene. Known to exude kindness and warmth, she wowed folks at our Green Space Festival helping raise funds for our communities, Rest in power, Ms. Ross!” The 519 tweeted on Monday.
Pride Toronto said Michelle Ross performed such female entertainers as Dionne Warwick, Gloria Gaynor, and the Diva Diana Ross.
“She continued to make a name for herself in a six-year stint at La Cage Aux Follers in Toronto, La Cage tours in Japan, Canada and Paris, a residency at Caesar’s palace in Las Vegas and high profile events in London, England, Chicago, Texas, Florida, New York City and her native land of Jamaica. Classy. Elegant. Glamorous. Miss Ross,” tweeted Pride Toronto.
On Sunday, March 28, Blockorama & Blackness YES posted on its Facebook page, “Our thoughts are with family, friends and the entire community that was touched by Michelle Ross’s work and presence. Today we remember a legend.”
The Black Gay Men’s Network says, “The queer community in Canada lost a true icon this weekend. Michelle Ross was the sort of drag performer that pierced your soul with just a look. She made you feel special, like it was just you and her in the room. There aren’t enough words, Michelle. Thank you.”
“Beyond the mourning and observation is also the celebration of a life
lived. There will probably be a coalition of people who come together and do something big, along some smaller things. It’s like a BLM protest,” says Stewart.
Some Sources for More Information
Legacies in Motion: Black Queer Toronto Archival Project – See We Yah!, curated by Courtnay McFarlane. www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/legacies-in-motion-black-queer-toronto-archival-project/
Our Dance of Revolution: The History of Toronto’s Black Queer Community, a documentary by Phillip Pike. www.ourdanceofrevolution.com
Rinaldo Walcott’s essay “Fragments of Toronto’s Black Queer Community: From a Life Still Being Lived (2005)” inOur Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Glave, published by Duke University Press, 2008. www.dukeupress.edu/our-caribbean
Video of Michelle Ross performing at Blockorama at Pride Toronto 2002. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Li06v7sLbIk
Michelle Ross was honoured at the Bigger Than We community celebration on June 18, 2017. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zV1Ufk73_I
Douglas Stewart provided me with links to archival information on The Manatee, the film, Outrageous!, and documentary, Divas: Love Me Forever, and the Bigger Than We video.
Thanks to: DJ Blackcat for photos from the photo shoot with Michelle Ross in February 2021 at her home, Junior Harrison for the photos and video of Michelle Ross performing at Blockorama in 2013, and Ricardo Goldson for the photo of the memorial outside Crews & Tangos in the Church-Wellesley Village.
Thanks Douglas Stewart, DJ Blackcat, Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, Verlia Stephens, Dr. Jill Andrew, Phillip Pike, Twysted Miyake-Mugler and Rinaldo Walcott.