Outrageous Misfits: Female Impersonator Craig Russell and His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie

Outrageous Misfits: Female Impersonator Craig Russell and His Wife, Lori Russell Eadie by Brian Bradley came out in 2020. It was a hefty and substantial biography of the couple, beautifully laid out with text and photos. I grew up knowing who Russell was and I own the DVD of his most famous film, outrageous! Despite being gay Craig married Lori in 1982. Lori herself didn’t like labels yet her marriage surprised many people because they all thought that she was a lesbian. Bradley used extensive resources–just look at the lengthy bibliography and list of source material at the end of the book–including Lori’s own journals. He had an insight into the psychological makeup of two needy people who were desperate to be loved.

Craig was an overweight effeminate boy who from an early age liked to dress up in women’s clothing and accessories. His own grandmother recognized this and gave him earrings when he was five. Craig drowned his sorrows from teasing and low self-esteem in his idols, famous women stars and singers, and mastered the art of impersonation. He copied every subtle mannerism, twitch and turn to make you feel that you were actually watching Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Peggy Lee, Carol Channing or Bette Midler onstage. But no one impressed Craig more than Mae West. Craig eventually lived with West for a short time as her personal secretary, but was fired after the legendary actress discovered he had been taking liberties with her wardrobe.

Craig’s ability to transform into these women was uncanny: the generous photos show how he made himself look identical to West, Lee and Channing. Craig never lip-synched to their songs or dialogue. He was a true impressionist who copied their vocal delivery as well. He dreamt of stardom and achieved it. In the early seventies Craig was one of the first drag stars, however he preferred the terms female impersonator or female impressionist to drag queen. When onstage he was adored and the teasing and bullying stopped. Fans mobbed him backstage for photos and autographs. Bradley reported that Craig rarely left character offstage, even when at home. While this annoyed many people, it was easy to see why he did this. As long as he acted as one of his beloved ladies, the public adored him. He no longer had to deal with his insecurities. Therefore if he held a phone conversation with you while talking like Bette Davis, he felt you couldn’t hurt him:

“His impressions made him feel happy and they were a place to hide. There was no place to feel and talk about sensitivities and emotions if you were doing impressions of a movie star all the time.”

Bradley wrote two full biographies and treated both Craig and Lori with equal space. While Craig was certainly the star, the author didn’t frame Lori’s story always in the perspective of her husband. Lori grew up in an abusive household, tormented by a mother who rejected her. She found comfort in the performing arts, spending her time lost among the actors onstage in movies and live theatre. Lori developed an attraction to Craig, perhaps by seeing how the act of transformation can make an entire audience love you. She attended many of his performances and met him backstage. There was an immediate attraction of souls and the two were inseparable. Lori attended to Craig’s every need and eventually was hired as his dresser, in charge of his wardrobe, and accompanied him to shows.

Both Craig and Lori dealt with their own mental issues: Craig was manic-depressive and Lori was bipolar. In the late seventies they dealt with these issues not by psychotherapy and licenced prescriptions but through drinking and drugs. While no stranger to boozing and snorting coke, Craig’s decline started only after he made the film outrageous! Although he was lauded with awards and praise for his groundbreaking role as a female impersonator as the star of a movie, he felt that he was always under pressure to do something even more outrageous than the last. He had a reputation to live up to and the drinking and drugs helped move him along. He missed shows–sabotaged them even while onstage–and it wasn’t long before booking agents refused to deal with him. He was losing his star calibre. After a string of bad news stories and show disasters, the public needed some good news about Craig to start off 1982. Craig knew how to ring in the new year right: he announced that he was going to be married.

Outrageous publicity stunt it might have seemed, Craig and Lori did live together–at first–and then, without Lori, he left for a tour of Europe that lasted four and a half years. The constant strive to ever be more “outrageous” took its toll as Craig got into fights, ruined gigs and sunk deeper into the mire of booze and drugs. I had little to dislike about this book aside from Bradley’s overuse of the word outrageous, when he clearly didn’t have to. A film sequel, Too Outrageous! in 1987 and a return to the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel were not successes. The public and critics had grown tired of his act since he had not updated his impressions or repertoire. Reviewers felt he should be impersonating more modern entertainers. Craig’s comeback was a failure and he never recovered professionally as HIV was weakening him. Lori, devoted to Craig unconditionally, cared for him until the end.

Lori took the role of wife seriously and while she may seem to be an obsessed fan awarded with the ultimate prize, she always honoured Craig during his life and after his death fought–rightfully so–for her place in history as his widow. She herself died of melanoma in 2008 and is buried alongside Craig with his mother and stepfather.

Bradley wrote a biography of a remarkable couple that I could not put down. It chronicled the theatre and gay scenes in Toronto in the early seventies and also paid tribute to drag history. I would love to see this book turned into a movie.

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