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Remembering Michelle Ross, a pioneering Black Toronto drag queen

Click to play video: 'Remembering Michelle Ross: Her introduction to drag' Remembering Michelle Ross: Her introduction to drag
Remembering Michelle Ross: Her introduction to drag – May 15, 2021

Michael, born Earl Barrington Shaw and affectionately known by his stage name Michelle Ross, was a Jamaican-born, iconic drag performer who, for nearly five decades, captured the hearts of audiences in Toronto and around the world.

Through his captivating renditions of Black female entertainers, such as Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross — his namesake, to whom he bore a striking resemblance — he leaves behind a legacy of art, activism and gentle perseverance.

Credit: Spencer Xiong (via The 519). Spencer Xiong via Pride Toronto

Michelle was a well-beloved staple along the Church and Wellesley Street strip, otherwise known as the Gay Village in downtown Toronto. There, patrons would close out their weekend with his weekly, hour-long Sunday evening set, a near church-like ritual and for many members of the LGBTQ+ community in Toronto, just as sacred.

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Sadly, in late March, Michael passed away in his east-end home, leading to an outpouring of collective grief for the performer from Toronto’s LGBTQ and Black communities.

Click to play video: 'Remembering Michelle Ross: Black men and drag' Remembering Michelle Ross: Black men and drag
Remembering Michelle Ross: Black men and drag – May 15, 2021

Recently, Pride Toronto hosted an online memorial tribute for Michelle Ross, where nearly 900 friends and fans, as well as city leaders like Mayor John Tory and MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam, came together to pay their respects.

I couldn’t help but be moved by the scores of shared testimonials about this man by his colleagues and community, bookended by archival footage of him performing on the stages of the local nightclubs where he was a regular act.

Michael’s impact was personal for me too. I thought of my teenage self nearly two decades ago, fake ID in hand, sneaking into the local nightclub where Michelle Ross performed — being mesmerized by this towering figure. Michelle Ross embodied a classic Hollywood regality but could slip effortlessly into a fierce force more reminiscent of a Pentecostal worship leader on any given Sunday.

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Click to play video: 'Remembering Michelle Ross: Her legacy, contribution to Toronto' Remembering Michelle Ross: Her legacy, contribution to Toronto
Remembering Michelle Ross: Her legacy, contribution to Toronto – May 15, 2021

I recall the honest sit-down I had in 2018 with this fiercely guarded performer and listening back on my interview with him; Michael’s words are even more poignant three years on. It was then that he shared his thoughts on race, ideas of manhood and masculinity, the many experiences of homophobia he’d encountered, the challenges of being a Black performer in the LGBTQ2 community, and the discomfort of being a private person with a public platform.

Here, I’ve attempted to capture the heart of what Michael shared while also respecting the personhood of the man known for his careful thoughts and words.

Courtesy: DJ Blackcatt.

For those who aren’t aware of who Michelle Ross was, I hope that this interview excerpt can offer a glimpse of what an exceedingly kind, thoughtful, deep and sensitive man he was, and why he and the character he embodied with such grace and grandness, Michelle Ross, were so well-loved in Toronto, and the world over.

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Rest well, Michael.

Watch the full interview above.

David is a Toronto-based writer and freelance contributor. He has produced work for publications such as CBC Arts, Huffington Post Canada and ByBlacks.

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