It’s not every day that one turns 87.
- Roger Shepard, aka Adelaide drag queen Rouge, celebrated his 87th birthday this week
- Rouge has been entertaining audiences across Australia for almost 60 years
- Friends in the industry say Rouge helped to pave the way for others in the craft
But it’s also not every day that it would mean donning copious amounts of sequins and taking to the stage to celebrate.
This week Adelaide’s Roger Shepard — stage name Rouge — marked almost nine decades of glamour with a birthday performance.
“It certainly takes me longer to get ready than when I first started,” Shepard said.
“It takes me two hours from the time I have my shower to when I’m finished.”
Still, you can’t hurry true beauty.
Taking to the stage at Adelaide’s Mary’s Poppin bar, the crowd certainly appreciated the effort from the “Grand Dame of Adelaide cabaret”.
A life of drag happened by chance
Rouge has been entertaining audiences across Australia for almost 60 years, but Shepard’s career as a drag performer — or female impersonator, as he put it — started almost by chance.
For most aspiring performers, a lisp is the kiss of death.
But in 1959, Shepard’s ability to slip easily into a stream of lisps was a big break.
“I was in a musical comedy and they’d asked my co-performer to do a character named Cecilia Sisson, putting plenty of esses both on Cecilia and Sisson,” Shepard recalled.
“She couldn’t do it and I could. I had to get into drag … that was the first time I was in costume.”
It wasn’t long after that performance that he adopted Rouge as his stage name.
Throughout the 60s to the 90s, Rouge regularly performed with a troupe called The Gay Deceivers.
“There were four of us, all friends in costume, and we had two boys dressed as boys,” he said.
“We used to do lots of hotel shows, because there weren’t any pokies in those days … we had somebody scouting for jobs for us and we worked practically every Friday, Saturday and Sunday of every week at different hotels.
“We weren’t paid much, but it was fun.”
Rouge also performed with the famous Sydney Les Girls in the 70s, alongside Carlotta and Vonni.
Vonni said drag shows in those days were big, bold, lavish production numbers.
“Celebrities used to line up to see it,” Vonni said.
“Shirley Bassey, Rod Stewart, anyone who was touring Australia came to Sydney Les Girls to see the shows.
“It was fabulous, and Rouge was a massive part of that.”
Changing venue scene
Changing tastes, the rise of pokies and the decline of live venues have all played a role in the scene.
“You don’t get the same performing groups,” Shepard said.
“The shows are smaller, just one performer at a time, and then another.”
Nevertheless, Mary’s Poppin is doing its part to keep the dream alive, holding drag performances every Thursday night.
While the craft itself has changed, it’s nothing compared to the changes drag has helped bring about.
Adelaide’s Vonni and Wundes are good friends with Rouge. Wundes said Rouge helped pave the way for others in the craft. (ABC News: Simon Royal)
Wundes, 26, credited Rouge as being one of the people who helped do just that.
“It’s everything and I think it’s incredibly important to remember the people who came before us,” Wundes said.
“People like Rouge and Vonni gave us our start and encouraged [us] to be ourselves and that’s beautiful.”
Wundes said reality television had also played a part in a renaissance of the craft.
“I think people are more relaxed now, even from when I was a kid, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have helped, we are much more visible now than we have ever been.
“We are all doing drag from the moment we are born, putting on clothes to change perceptions about who we are.”
It’s all about entertainment for others
Despite what both Wundes and Vonni said, that’s not how Shepard said he saw things.
Almost 60 years ago when he first donned a frock, he didn’t think he’d be helping bring about a costume change in Australian attitudes.
“No, no, I don’t think I helped do that,” Shepard said.
“To make people laugh and to be entertaining, that was my idea of life.”
He said he may well be the oldest person in Australia regularly performing in public drag shows.
There are no plans for retirement, but equally, no promises of how much longer the show will go on.
“My legs are going on me a bit, so now I have to take some stronger tablets so my legs don’t go on me,” he said.
“But they don’t look too bad, especially this one [my right leg].
“I’ll wear a split in the frock to show it off!”