In his teen years he founded the International Mae West Fan Club and on the basis of that was invited by Mae West to become her personal secretary. She fired him when she caught him trying on her clothes and makeup.
Back in Toronto Craig finished high school, worked as a typist and hairdresser, changed his name to Russell and started building a career as a drag artiste who used his own voice - one of the last to do so. He also helped Rusty Ryan to get started as a drag artist. Craig had a three-octave vocal range and could impersonate Barbra Streisand in her own key. He could perform a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
He became friends with a schizophrenic writer, Margaret Gibson, and for a time shared an apartment with her. In 1976 Gibson published a collection of short stories, The Butterfly Ward, which includes ‘Making It' about Liza, a pregnant schizophrenic in Toronto and her exchange of letters with Robin, a rising female impersonator. The collection was much praised and the story ‘Making It' was expanded in 1977 into the film Outrageous!, although the focus of the story was shifted to Robin.
The film was a great success and made Russell into the star he wanted to be. This film was the first commercial success to have a gay character played by a gay actor. He was voted Best Actor at the Berlin festival. At the Virgin Islands festival Russell was voted both Best Actor and Best Actress. The film contains Russell's impersonation of Mae West, and this, combined with West's own film, Sextette, bombing at the time, lead to a final break between the two of them.
The follow-up film, Too Outrageous! was not made until 1987, and quickly died without a trace.
As Mae West died three years after her final bomb, so did Craig Russell after his.
In 1992 Margaret Gibson published another collection of short stories, Sweet Poison, one of which is ‘Golden Boy' where the drag performer is now called Phineas and the writer friend Meg. He had once starred in a film based on her life for which she received only $2,000 and almost no credit. Phineas has changed and become mean and violent.
Although openly gay, Russell married one of his female fans, Lori Jenkins, in 1982. He had also fathered a daughter in 1973. He died of a stroke related to AIDS.
Margaret Gibson died of breast cancer in 2006.
*Not the British novelist, nor the US composer, nor the US comic book writer/artist.
- Margaret Gibson. “Making It”. In The Butterfly Ward. Ottawa: Oberon Press 1976. Toronto: A Totem Book 1979. New York: Vanguard Press 1980. Toronto: HarperCollins 1994.
- Craig Russell with photographs by David Street. Craig Russell and his Ladies. Toronto: Gage Publishing 1979. New York: Methuen 1979.
- Margaret Gibson. “Golden Boy”. In Sweet Poison. Toronto: Harper Collins 1993.
- Robert Fulford. “The 3 a.m. Craig Russell – again”. The Toronto Globe and Mail. 1994.
- “Craig Russell”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Russell_(actor).
- David de Alba. “Craig Russell”. http://www.david-de-alba.com/russell.htm.
What a gifted, talented artist Craig was!! I saw OUTRAGEOUS years ago, and as far as I'm concerned nobody could TOUCH Russell: his ear, his capturing of the essence and spirit of whoever he impersonated. He was quite simply the best ever...The movie contains a line (he says this to Mc Laren's character) "honey, everybody's crazy! The trick is...make it work FOR you!" I've never forgotten him. And I never will. God bless.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your posting on Craig. Although I never had the opportunity to see him in person, I did manage to interview his mother, Lori Russell and Margaret Gibson as part of the research for my manuscript entitled "In Search Of Mae West."ReplyDelete
I am aways happy to get email from anyone who has memories to share of Craig of Mae. Thank you. R. Mark Desjardins
As Anonymous said; " Craig was a gifted talented artist." I saw Craig perform many times at the Theater in the Dell. He and I became friends when he lived in Toronto not too far from Yorkville Village where I made my home. He made his living as a typist at the time and played out his vocation at the Dell.ReplyDelete
He was a very loving, caring, and thoughtful individual. He was there for me at a very scary time in my life. It wasn't until I read this page that I found out that Craig was a year younger than me; not older by a few years.
It was through this page that I found out he had died at the age of 42 in 1990. I had always believed that he and Lori were living together out on the Canadian west coast. I give my sincere thanks to the writer of this page for letting me have some closure on my dear friend Craig. I will remember him with fondness and know that he is in a better place with other friends.
I was a really fucked up kid growing up because of problems in the past with my family, I was on the street at age 12, and this is when I met Craig and when he married Lori.ReplyDelete
Craig and Lori always made sure I had a roof over my head they taught me work, business and life skills (which I will always use) he opened his home, family and life to me.
I believe I was the last person Craig talked to before he passed away; he called me at work from his deathbed he asked me if I wanted anything of his, I told him he already gave me everything I will ever need, hours later he was gone.
I watched as Craig built the gay community in Toronto with his own voice, (I never ever knew of him having sex with a man) he made tourism flourish in Toronto and sold more booze in bars than any other entertainer ever.
It upsets me when I read lies about Craig online mostly about his drinking, everyone drank back then, Craig worked in bars, people who work in bars sell booze, know one could sell drinks like Craig, and the few people that say these things would drink more than anyone in the bars and would be pissed every night?
Off stage Craig was a father, a husband, a family man, a friend with a heart of gold, he would help anyone he could that was in need.
I didn’t know at the time but before he passed away he spoke to Lori and his friends (most were entertainers from his movies) and had them make sure I would always be ok in life and never be alone. Before each of them passed away they contacted me and offered me anything they could from there life, I told them they already gave me every thing I need. Craig gave me the work skills to get money myself use it to get anything I ever wanted in life.
P.S. The same time that Craig passed away was the same time my son Kyle was born.
My name is Brian Bradley. I am a writer living in Toronto, currently working on a piece about Craig.
I am having difficulty tracking down a copy of the CBC Life and Times documentary about Craig. Can anyone be of help?
Please get in touch with me if you can -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheers and thanks,
I watched his movie "outrageous" this year 2011 and was amazed at his voice and thought he was a wonderful entertainer.So when I looked him up on the net and found out he died many years ago I was sad. They would have loved him in England.ReplyDelete