The rise of Mado Lamotte, queen of Montreal’s Gay Village

Is Montreal Pride inclusive enough? Mado Lamotte opens the door. 
It’s a transformation that Provost, the tireless performer behind Montreal’s most famous drag queen, has been undergoing for decades, often several nights a week. “Once I’m dressed up and ready for the show, I feel perfect,” Mado said in her dressing room — a kaleidoscope of bright colours, filled with hundreds of custom-made costumes, baskets of glittering necklaces and row upon row of high heels. Luc Provost drew inspiration from the women of Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood where he grew up. “Even after 20 years, when I listen to her, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, she’s always right to the point.'”
Gay Village gone mainstream
When Provost started performing as Mado, the Gay Village was barely on the map — consisting of, as he describes it, “one transvestite bar, one leather bar and one sex shop.”

Montreal’s Gay Village has turned into one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations in recent years. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

On this night, a mix of young men and women are packed into Cabaret Mado to see a ’90s lip-sync show. “I wish in the future that we are going to be able to go to a place, and people will not ask, was it a gay bar?”

Mado Lamotte’s 30th anniversary show takes place in Parc des Faubourgs Saturday at 8:30 p.m. “It’s good to have a little privacy once in a while,” he said. “I love your hair. As Mado, Provost draws inspiration from the strong-headed women in the works of playwright Michel Tremblay and those of his own childhood in the working-class neighbourhood of Rosemont. Provost, who dropped out of theatre school two credits shy of his degree, began playing Mado in 1987 — first as a dancer at the Poodle, then as a “cigarette girl” at Le Lézard. And, in his view, that’s a good thing. “Before it was like, crazy, tacky and funny,” he said. I’ve been a witness to a very important part of our history.”

A life-sized, 3D version of Mado herself hangs above Mado’s cabaret in the Gay Village. A star was born. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Now, the Gay Village — a square of land roughly defined by St. Hubert Street to the west, De Lorimier Avenue to the east, Sherbrooke Street to the north and René Lévesque Boulevard to the south  — is thought to be the largest neighbourhood of its kind in North America and, with Ste-Catherine Street East closed to cars, a prime tourist destination in the summer months. He doesn’t allow photos to be taken of himself when he’s not in costume, though. Baskets of jewelry fill a shelf in Mado Lamotte’s dressing room. Montreal Pride aims for ‘bigger, bolder’ 2017 festivities

Mado has become a Montreal icon — a life-sized figure in her likeness can be found at Montreal’s wax museum, and she will serve as one of the grand marshals at the Montreal Pride parade. In the dressing room, the voice, the smile, the laugh and the clothes are all uniquely Mado. It was as a bingo host, though, that Provost honed Mado’s trademark lightning-quick sass. Mado Lamotte’s nights as a bingo host helped hone her reputation for lightning-quick sass. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of police raids, and in response LGBT people “banded together and sought safe spaces,” Donald Hinrichs writes in his book, Montreal’s Gay Village, The Story of a Unique Neighbourhood through the Sociological Lens. Luc Provost has slipped into an orange satin dress, pulled on a hot pink wig and carefully applied makeup. From bingo to Cabaret Mado
Provost has been performing in drag since the 1980s when, on a whim, he dressed up as a secretary and his friend as his female boss, for a party at the Poodle, a club above a grocery store on St-Laurent Boulevard. Is it real?” he quipped at one point, after a drag queen in a blond mushroom-cut wig ended her dance with the splits. “I saw the evolution. “I went from ‘Value Village lady’ to ‘Holt Renfrew.'” 
Mado’s essence, though, has remained, say those who know her best. Visit Montreal Pride’s website for details. “It’s the colour, it’s the feathers, it’s the joke, it’s the humour,” explained Steve Poitras, his longtime manager and friend. For Canada’s LGBT community, acceptance is still a work in progress, survey suggests

Cabaret Mado, the club Provost opened on Ste-Catherine Street 15 years ago, with its life-sized, 3D version of Mado on the sign, has become a beacon for the area. Over time, her style and fashion sense have evolved. Mado, the host between songs, takes jabs at everyone — Quebecers, unsuspecting English-speaking tourists, even his own performers. Popular gay bars, too, have shut down, with experts pointing to smart dating applications as a key reason young LGBT people are ditching bars and nightclubs as places to find partners. Hot pink isn’t Mado Lamotte’s only option when it comes to wigs. A drag queen takes a moment before a lip-sync performance at Chez Mado. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

As Mado prepared to celebrate 30 years in the business with a free outdoor show at Montreal Pride earlier this week — while preparing to host a lip-synching show at her bar — Provost reflected on the evolution of his character and the Gay Village itself. Provost, who lives in the village, said it still feels like a neighbourhood where everyone is welcome. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

By day, Provost walks through Montreal’s Gay Village, where he lives, in a nondescript T-shirt and shorts. as part of Montreal Pride. Drag queens prepare for their performance in the basement of Chez Mado. When a gay bar is no longer a gay bar
In some quarters, there’s been grumbling that the village has lost its purpose as a safe space for the LGBT community as it has gone more mainstream. (Radio-Canada)

Mado developed a following, even hosting a bingo night at the Spectrum, a concert hall normally reserved for popular bands. With files from Montreal’s Daybreak and Cecilia MacArthur It could take hours to declare a winner. The nights were more about the performance than the game. “It’s very open-minded, like it should have been long ago,” he said. (Radio-Canada)

“The owner of the bar found us funny, and he said, ‘You two, you should do shows here,'” Provost recalled. “The village, gradually, became that space, where people became very open, ‘out of the closet,’ for the first time in Montreal,” Hinrichs writes. “Slowly but surely, it started to change: there were more places, like the Sky nightclub, I think, that attracted a young crowd,” Provost said. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Provost estimates that more than half of his patrons are now heterosexual.