“Hello, this is Darcelle,” the voice on the other end of the phone says. Darcelle ― the Darcelle ― is, at 85, the oldest working female impersonator in the country. The queen of drag queens, a living legend, a rock star whose revue is the longest-ever running show of drag performers west of the Mississippi. Got a minute, she wants to know. Yeah, I got a minute.
Within seconds, I’m breathless just listening to her. She is 85 and does six shows a week at the Darcelle XV Showplace, the Portland Oregon club that she owns with her life partner of almost 50 years, Roxy LeRoy (Neuhardt). And she’s happy to the point of oozing energy. “I’m alive. This keeps me alive!”
Darcelle wouldn’t dream of stopping the speeding train that is her life, which includes a centerfold-worthy performance each night of “Rhinestone Cowboy” ― right down to the split-in-the-back chaps. “Never mind a facelift,” she says, fully in character, “I might need a butt lift.”
Darcelle, who was born Walter Cole, says she stopped thinking about her age a long time ago. She laughs wickedly when a fan tells her that she doesn’t look “a day over 65.” Truth is, she doesn’t ― although she has a son who is 61 (”I don’t believe that myself!!”) and a daughter three years younger. Darcelle’s granddaughter was just married last weekend, she told Huff/Post. The whole family was there and a terrific time had by all. Bride looked great. Back before she began performing as Darcelle and fell in love with Roxy, Cole was married to a woman and had two children.
Now that everybody is being honest with everybody else, Darcelle says, loving is again possible. “I was closeted,” she says. “I was married and I loved my wife ― I still do. We are still friends. I love my family.” Taking that step away was hard, she says and repeats what she tells her ex-wife and kids, “I’m sorry for the hurt I caused you, but I’m not sorry that I became truthful to myself and to you.”
Darcelle and Roxy’s club is a Portland landmark that tourists come to see. It’s also a coming-of-age rite of passage in the lives of many Portlanders and a place where bachelorette parties are thrown down with shots of booze and bawdy laughter. But the customers that Darcelle most takes note of are those who bring their parents. “They bring them here to show them who they are,” she says.
Darcelle is an activist of sorts. Not an activist with a bullhorn who marches down Main Street or tries to shout down the haters. For the past 30 Christmas Eves, she’s thrown open her club to the homeless and anyone else with no place to go who wants to come. She provides free turkey dinners, replete with pie ― enough for people to take home a plate of leftovers. Last year, the crowd topped 300. It’s more than a “nobody should go hungry on Christmas” thing, she says. “It’s what Christmas is.” The very essence.
And as The Oregonian wrote of the event: “It’s one of the city’s best holiday traditions. It is unattended by headlines or celebrity guests or fundraising appeals. It’s just holiday dinner. For the neighborhood. The vets in recovery. The guys behind the blue tarps. The runaways who can’t afford the night’s last bus to Seattle.”
Portland loves Darcelle. This comes into evidence with the Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary, “Darcelle XV,” released in June. It’s a straightforward love story between the city and its favorite female impersonator.
Darcelle is a regular on the city’s charity circuit. She keynotes, she inspires, she signs autographs and poses for photos. She was the grand marshal for the 2011 Rose Festival Starlight Parade and received the city’s Spirit of Portland award. In 2010, she published an autobiography called Just Call Me Darcelle ― a central theme of which is that when you don’t like something about your life, you need to change it. Period.
And she does all-ages fundraisers, like this one. Acceptance, after all, needs to start early.
Only because we asked her did Darcelle even mention her age. She long ago stopped defining herself by the number of candles on her birthday cake.
But right now she has a bigger concern. While she stays away from politics in her act, she can’t ― and doesn’t try ― to escape it in her life. Too much is on the line with this election, too much at stake. “Everything is at stake,” she corrects herself, “everything.”
“I cannot understand how a gay person would even give a thought to the GOP party and Donald Trump,” she said. “Those walls he wants to build? They will be around us!”
She closes with a joke, albeit a tempered one. It goes like this: Trump dies in the holy land and the question is asked: Would you spend $50,000 to send his body back to the United States for burial or simply put him in the ground right then and there? The punchline: “I’d spend the money to ship him back. Someone else buried here rose after three days and I know hundreds of people who can’t take the chance of that happening again.”
Yeah, neither of us laughed.