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Russell, Craig (1948-1990)  

Craig Russell was one of the major female impersonators of the 1970s and 1980s. He was one of the last of the school that actually sang or spoke live in the voices of the ladies he impersonated. He was also an accomplished actor.

Born Russell Craig Eadie in Toronto on January 10, 1948, he began mimicking people at age five to amuse his family. His parents divorced when he was nine. As an adolescent, he suffered from skin problems and therefore wore makeup to school and was all too predictably picked on.

When he was a teenager he became president of the Mae West International Fan Club and soon moved to Los Angeles to work for West as her secretary-companion. He returned to Toronto to complete high school, but quickly dropped out. He worked as a typist and, from 1969 until 1971, as a hairdresser.

By 1971 he had adopted the name Craig Russell and began performing at gay clubs in Toronto. He soon became a popular attraction at drag venues across the continent, acclaimed especially for his impersonations of a remarkable range of characters. His ladies included Bette Davis, Carol Channing, Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Peggy Lee, and Mae West.

Equally remarkable as the range of his characterizations was Russell's three octave vocal range that allowed him to impersonate Barbra Streisand in her own key. He could perform a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. For his act's finale, he frequently performed a run-down of all the ladies who had performed in Hello, Dolly!

Another favorite impersonation sure to whip up the audience in the late 1970s was his Anita Bryant singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Russell's satirical impersonation of the anti-gay crusader indicates a level of political awareness and commitment on his part.

As a female impersonator, Russell attempted genuine verisimilitude, but he also added a great deal of his own personality and comic sensibility. His approach lies somewhere between the sharp-witted performances of drag comedians such as Charles Pierce or Lynne Carter and the dead-on likenesses of impersonators such as Jim Bailey or Jimmy James.

Russell became famous as a result of his starring role in the Canadian feature film Outrageous! (1977), directed by Richard Benner. The film was one of the first North American films with a gay theme to receive widespread distribution. In it, Russell played Robin Turner, a gay hairdresser who wants to be a drag queen.

The film is based on Margaret Gibson's novel Making It, a chronicle of the author's life as Russell's roommate. Russell was awarded Best Actor by the 1978 Berlin Film Festival for his work in the film.

After Russell's success in Outrageous, he was able to play much larger and more prestigious venues than he had previously. He performed in Las Vegas, Hollywood, Berlin, London, and Paris. He even had a one-man, off-Broadway show entitled A Man and His Women (1977).

But at the peak of his success, Russell became unable to cope with the pressures of fame. His substance abuse and psychological problems increasingly affected his performances and his career suffered.

In 1986, Russell returned to Toronto to film a sequel to Outrageous. Entitled Too Outrageous! and also directed by Benner, the sequel follows Russell's life as a female impersonator in New York City. It was released in 1987 to mixed reviews and failed to find an audience.

Although he never made a secret of his homosexuality, Russell married Lori Jenkins, one of his female fans, in 1982.

During the final years of his life, Russell battled AIDS. He died of an AIDS-related stroke on October 30, 1990.

Joe E. Jeffreys


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social sciences >> Bryant, Anita

Former beauty queen, popular singer, and orange juice pitchwoman, Anita Bryant became the poster-girl for homophobia in the late 1970s; her name continues to be a byword for bigotry.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Garland, Judy

The fragile persona and emotion-packed voice of actress and singer Judy Garland are powerfully linked to gay culture and identity; she appealed especially to gay men, but also to lesbians.

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Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Slide, Anthony. Great Pretenders: A History of Female and Male Impersonation in the Performing Arts. Lombard, Ill.: Wallace-Homestead, 1986.

Street, David. Craig Russell and His Ladies. Toronto: Gage Publishing, 1979.


    Citation Information
    Author: Jeffreys, Joe E.  
    Entry Title: Russell, Craig  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 9, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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