by Steve Desroches
“You’re mad as a hatter, darling. But that’s alright because so am I. So am I. I’ve never known anyone worth knowing who wasn’t a positive fruitcake.”
Craig Russell delivers that line in the semi-autobiographical 1977 film Outrageous! Writer Brian Bradley uses the quote to begin his new book Outrageous Misfits: Female Impersonator Craig Russell and His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie, a sparkling, in-depth biography of a wild and eccentric partnership that defied convention, striking down labels and defining marriage on their own terms. Born in Toronto in 1948, Russell Craig Eadie was an effeminate and imaginative child who’d grow and swap his name around to his stage name Craig Russell and become a hit female impersonator in the Canadian city by the dawn of the 1970s. Lori Jenkins was a shy girl who loved the theater and eventually discovered Toronto’s drag scene, becoming a devoted and intense fan of Russell’s. The two became tight friends, and despite Russell identifying as gay, they married. The relationship caused many to scratch their heads and shrug at first, before accepting that indeed two people as kooky as Craig and Lori, regardless of sexuality and gender, belonged together.
With LGBTQ+ history still largely ignored and the overshadowing success of RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s too easy to forget that, using the language of Russell’s time, female impersonators were internationally famous. Outrageous Misfits thoroughly fascinates as it tells a largely untold tale, giving a detailed history of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community and entertainment history. But Bradley, a reporter for the Toronto Star, also puts Russell’s career in a larger context as its in the 1970s that drag began to break out into the mainstream with other performers like Arthur Blake, Jim Bailey, Lynne Carter, and Charles Pierce. All of the aforementioned entertainers performed frequently in Provincetown, and the Cape tip was an especially beloved location for almost a decade for the Eadies, as two outsiders like them felt not only welcomed here, but celebrated.
“Everyone there has a happy, tourist look and they dress and act to please themselves,” said Russell in a late 1970s interview referenced in the book. “You see all kinds of people and they all seem to blend together. You feel comfortable colliding with other people.”
While achingly devoted, the couple’s demons did emerge as both struggled with mental health and addiction issues as well as past experiences with abuse and sexual assault. It was often in Provincetown where their excesses tripled, making them alternately the life of the party or the guests everyone wishes would leave. The fame that came after the premiere of the film Outrageous! garnered Russell the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival and only amplified the good, the bad, and the ugly. Outrageous Misfits is an engrossing read about a time gone by, with rich details on Provincetown, which set the trajectory for today’s drag queen phenomenon, as well as an intimate portrait of two true characters who found each other and became partners in a madcap life.
Outrageous Misfits: Female Impersonator Craig Russell and His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie by Brian Bradley (2020, Dundurn Press) can be purchased in local bookstores as well as online. Support local booksellers.