Jason Rose-Spurrell heads into the Unleashed Fitness and Dance studio on Alderney Drive to practice, bringing with him some news. Earlier that day, he was told he has to fill a 90-minute slot at the Halifax Pride Festival with entertainment. The one routine he’s here to practice was to fill several minutes.
Rose-Spurrell and the dance crew sit in a circle on the hardwood floor watching a video on his iPhone. It’s “(I Love It When) You Call My Name” by Charlotte Church, the young Welsh pop singer.
“This song is very burlesque-y,” Rose-Spurrell says.
Dressed in grey sweatpants rolled up to his knees, a white tank top, flip flops and a hot pink ball cap with a NYC logo on the front, Rose-Spurrell looks nothing like his well-known alter ego. As a performer, Rose-Spurrell is better known as Rouge Fatale, one of the city’s busiest drag queens.
Rose-Spurrell remembers first dressing in drag for Halloween, in what he calls a “foolish little thing.” When he was 16, he did “real” drag at the high school performance of Cabaret. “I hated it,” he recalls. Then while in college in Cape Breton studying nursing, friends dared him to do the Mz. Sydney pageant on a dare with drinks as the reward. He won with his one dress, one wig and one pair of shoes. “It was so bad!” he says.
Still, he was hooked. “I got to act, it was a persona,” he says. “I got to play a character.”
He moved to Halifax after school, and started doing drag at now-closed Club NRG. For 12 years, he has become she as Rouge performs on stages and in parades around the country. Just this year, she’s performed in Montreal and Yellowknife, where she will return in September. For four seasons, she enjoyed a stint hosting a regular show at Casino Nova Scotia. Three years ago, Rose-Spurrell gave up a nursing career to perform as Rouge full time.
Not everyone in his family understood, including his grandmother. ”She thought I was trying to be a hooker,” he says. “Now she comes to my shows. She’s my biggest fan.” He adds that his dad found out about it after Googling his name, and is now OK with it.
After Rose-Spurrell and the dance crew run through a few rounds of the new routine, they talk costumes. One of the dancers, Matt, gets a pair of black shoes with stiletto heels, tries them on and struts around the dance floor. Rose-Spurrell shares the vision for costumes: corsets, bustiers, frilly pants and longhaired wigs with ponytails they can whip around while dancing, and, of course, the heels. Rose-Spurrell demonstrates the cleavage required for the costumes by pushing together the sides of his chest, adding he will get Nerf Balls to fill out the costumes. The dancers collectively adjust their own chests. “Boobs for everyone!” Rose-Spurrell shouts.
Transforming into Rouge Fatale takes time and skill. And Rose-Spurrell freely shares trade secrets. After getting out of the shower, he shaves everything in all directions for the closest shave. “I am actually quite hairy,” he says. “[Shaving is] hateful on my skin.”
He works his eyebrows with wax and spirit gum and then applies makeup, including foundation, concealer and contour. The eyes, he says, take the longest because he’s a perfectionist. “As soon as the eyelashes are on, I say, ‘Oh, there she is!’”
The body is next. He puts on hip and rump pads. A gaff that looks likes thong underwear keeps everything below the belt tucked in place, creating “the most horrendous wedgie ever.” Dancer tights help smooth out the edges of the body forms. A boned corset then goes on, followed by the boobs with Nerf Ball enhancements. The wig is the last detail. “From shower to shoes, it’s about two hours,” he says. “It used to be six.”
For a short time, Rose-Spurrell learned the tricks of the trade from his adoptive drag mother, Lulu LaRude (Charles “Chuck” McDuff). When McDuff died from cancer in 2012, Steven MacLeod (AKA Deva Station), had a dream in which McDuff in full drag lying on her hospital bed commanded him to give Rouge some guidance.
“Goddamit, I am dying,” MacLeod recalls Lulu saying in the dream. “I am pissed off I didn’t get to spend any time with Rouge. I would love it if you could help her.”
That weekend, MacLeod invited Rose-Spurrell over for a makeup session. As Rouge applied her face, Deva, who was standing in the mirror next to him, while slowly rotating the blush brush over her own cheeks, looked over and said, “What the fuck are you doing to your eye?” The pair have been friends since, with Deva serving as “Auntie” to Rouge and other queens in city.
But Rouge is not just about the physical. Rose-Spurrell says she’s evolved over the years, starting out as an alternative, gothic queen and eventually becoming a comedic queen after getting laughs when cracking some jokes during one of her first hosting duties. But he says Rouge can still pull out a serious number and entertain.
But Rouge has changed Rose-Spurrell as a person, too. She gave him a backbone, he says. “I’ve had to start paying attention to things going on around the world,” he says. She also taught him diplomacy, particularly on the business side, and opened up his personality. “And I am thankful for that,” he says.
MacLeod says he loves Rouge’s backbone. “He’s got balls,” he says. “He’s very ballsy. I think that’s why we get along so well.”
Rose-Spurrell and MacLeod both credit RuPaul’s Drag Race TV show, now in its seventh season, as one of the reasons drag went mainstream. That kind of mainstream acceptance translates into more business for drag queens. Rouge performs at birthday parties, corporate and private functions, travels to bars and Pride parades. He’s even performed at the Savoy Theatre in his hometown of Glace Bay, an event he calls a “feather in his cap.”
About halfway through the one-hour practice, a friend of Rose-Spurrell’s stops in. Chris Cochrane, AKA Elle Noir, is here to practice her Beyoncé routine for her 10-year anniversary show on July 4. Cochrane grew up in Glace Bay, too, but didn’t know Rose-Spurrell until she got into the drag scene in Halifax. A former member of the Canadian Forces, Cochrane says she is the only transgendered queen in the Maritimes. When not performing, she’s studying to be an esthetician. At the practice, she puts on her heels, a set of golden, glittery stilettos, which make her quietly say “ouch” every time she moves on the floor.
Although they are friends now, Cochrane remembers being intimidated by Rouge the first time they met. Elle Noir was performing in a show hosted by Rouge, who adjusted Elle’s slightly twisted wig.
“I went into the washroom and threw up,” she says. “She’s a very big force.”
But over the years, Cochrane, who’s made dresses for Rouge, has seen Rouge soften her style. It’s a transformation most queens go through, she says. “It’s like every drag queen; you have to find your way. She’s pushed herself to the level she is now.”
At the end of the practice, Rose-Spurrell and the Unleashed dancers have a solid grasp on a sexy routine they will perform at Pride. By now, Rose-Spurrell’s feeling confident about filling those 90 minutes, which will include performances by other titles holders as well as Deva Station and Elle Noir.
But Pride is a time, too, where drag queens like Rouge Fatale can educate others about their work.
People, he says, have to understand the difference between drag queens, cross dressers, transvestites and transgendered. “We’re not just some guy in a dress,” he says. “There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.”
“We have amazing talent in this city,” he continues. “It’s such an artistic and creative centre and we’re just taking it in a different way and people are starting to notice it here.”
Check out this exclusive video from videographer Bruce Murray, as Rouge Fatale confronts common misconceptions about drag queens.