Lesley Gore’s sugary ’60s song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” is a fitting introduction to the story of an extraordinary man whose life does seem to have been remarkably sunny – despite, or perhaps because of, the fact he has spent a goodly part of it in ladies’ clothing.
Drag artist Roger Shepard, 82 years young and still with the legs of a chorus girl, is described in Adelaide’s Feast Festival program as having been the “gold standard of drag for over half a century”.
And Rouge, as he is known when all frocked up, is not done yet.
Puttin’ on the Rouge sees the veteran performer – resplendent in a glamorous sparkling red gown, heels, blonde do, spangly jewellery and immaculate make-up – sharing the stage at Queer Nexus with his friend, radio host Peter Goers, to share beauty tips and chat about his life.
And what a life it is, from growing up in Norwood and attending his first drag performance with his mother as a child in the 1930s (“I thought they were real ladies!”), to starting his hairdressing apprenticeship at age 16 in Gay’s Arcade, and embarking on a performing career that continues to this day.
Shepard shares tales of his early days playing male roles in revues at the Savoy and Majestic theatres, before his drag career was launched when he had to fill in for an actress playing the role of one Cecilia Sisson – a film star with an unfortunate speech impediment. He went on to play many more female roles, making all his own costumes, and helped launch Les Girls in Adelaide, later performing with the troupe in Sydney after the venue here mysteriously burnt down.
Prompted by gentle questioning from Goers, Shepard gives his audience a whirlwind tour through a golden era of gay bars and theatre parties in Adelaide; a time when ladies dressed to the nines, social shindigs went all night and revues were the entertainment du jour. There are amusing anecdotes about places visited and icons met (Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli), snippets of sketches, and make-up advice – including a demonstration of how to achieve a non-surgical, but not necessarily non-painful, facelift.
One might expect that a man performing in drag might have been the target of harassment in the days when homosexuality was still against the law, but Shepard says he never suffered for his art or lifestyle – except for an accidental arrest, but that’s another story. Perhaps society simply had, and has, more tolerance for gender bending when it’s also entertaining; perhaps it helped that he’s so utterly charming
I suspect there are many more secrets and stories to be shared by Roger and Rouge – they may come out in the latter performances, or maybe Rouge holds true to the tenet that a lady never kisses and tells.
Goers describes Shepard’s life as lucky. It is also bold, colourful and glamorous.
It would be nigh impossible not to be enchanted by this performer, who clearly had the largely mature opening-day audience in thrall from his elegant entrance to the very fitting and upbeat finale song.
Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows is still resonating in my ears.
Puttin’ on the Rouge will be at Queer Nexus (in the Lions Arts Centre) again on November 17 and 23.
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