It's been five years since Lulu LaRude last fluttered her lashes.
I can remember the first time I met Lulu. It was in the basement of a theatre, and she was putting on her makeup in front of a very large mirror. Dancers were putting on belts, stretching, practising routines. I was dating one of the dancers at the time, and I just sat in the back, nervous and quiet. I was 19 and I had rarely had occasion to be around so many people who were queer.
That night was the first time I saw Lulu perform. She was surrounded by dancers, flanking and lifting her as she performed to Julie Andrews' recording of "Le Jazz Hot" from Victor Victoria. As she took off her wig at the end, the audience roared. She had them in the palm of her hand.
Then again, she always did. Lulu LaRude was born Chuck Gillis, but she lived as herself, no matter what name or gender you gave her. She was a phenomenon on stage, and I can say that without a softened tinge of nostalgia. She knew that people would go out to see her perform, not to walk around idly mouthing the lyrics to some innocuous pop tune. It was about fun, flair and fabulousness.
Image via Reflections Cabaret
This is not to say that Lulu could not bring shade to the table. I myself was once a victim of a reading by Miss LaRude, about which she later declared, "Honey, you know I don't mean it." And I knew. But damn, if reading was an Olympic sport, she would've cleaned up. Not only because she was good, but because she probably would have entered in various disguises and costumes, leaving the judges to think she was someone else entirely.
That was another of her gifts: understanding the art of artifice. One minute she was Carol Channing, the next she was a buxom blonde bimbo singing along to Julie Brown's "I'm a Blonde." One of my favourite performances was when she decided to do a number from Thoroughly Modern Millie. At one point during the number, she opened up her robe, allowing two weighted pantyhose to fall to the ground. Her ersatz tits hit with a thud, and then she started to spin around. The centrifugal force of her motion made her boobs spin around at a great distance from her chest. She stopped on a dime, and they spun around her and hugged her until they stopped, thwacking her in the face. She then proceeded to spin the other way, all the while making "Trinkt le Chaim" a song I will never forget. Now who else could do that?
It's been five years since Lulu passed away. No, I was not one of her many drag daughters. No, I was not a close confidant; I was never that lucky. But Lulu did introduce me to an idea of what drag could be, of what playing with gender and with the artificiality of it all can mean. It can mean beauty, laughter and love.
For that, I will always thank, and think of, Lulu.