The XX Factor

Danny La Rue, a Woman’s Man and a Man’s Woman

Reading the obituaries column of the newspaper is so much cheaper than therapy, yet it’s often just as effective at driving a trip down memory lane. This morning’s tributes to British female impersonator Danny La Rue , who died at the age of 81, sent me back three decades to my grandma’s house where the family would gather around the telly to watch his performances. ( Scroll down for a video of one .)

La Rue disliked being called a “drag artist.” His act was all about convincing the audience that the person on stage or screen was the most glamorous, dazzling dame in the world. Being a working-class lad himself, he knew how to tap into the ultimate British fantasy-that rich people aren’t all condescending twits-as well as female audience members’ hopes that male performers won’t denigrate women. This understanding is what made his entrances such genius-he would stride on stage, showing off the gorgeous gown, the great gams, and the glittering jewelry, looking every inch the lady, and then he would declare in a deep voice and a Cockney accent, “Wotcher, mate.” With those two words he revealed his sex and his class roots and declared, I’m not trying to deceive or mock you-I’m just going to put on a lovely show.

It was hard to dislike Danny La Rue-partly because he was such a sentimentalist. His signature song (delivered in his very mediocre baritone) was ” On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep ,” an anthem to endless love in which he wondered if Sally from the alley still remembered her childhood beau Joe-at the mention of Joe, he would point to his heaving bosom. In a modern context, the song reads like the wistful memory of a male to female transperson, but like all La Rue’s work, it was just a look back to the good old days when everything was simpler.

Danny La Rue was always very discreet about his sexuality-he described his longtime manager as “the love of my life,” and the Guardian obit mentions that his “companion” died of AIDS in 2000. Although La Rue was one of the most successful figures in British show business in the 1960s and ‘70s, he was conned and exploited and, as the New York Times put it so beautifully, at the end of his life, he “depended on the kindness of friends and the Grand Order of Water Rats, the theatrical charity, which named him King Rat in the 1980s.” Fittingly enough for a man who always depended on wardrobe, he ended his days being cared for by his longtime dresser and friend Anne Galbraith.