At 17 and fortified by a few pre-party drinks with friends, John Cumming walked through the doors of a GLBT* social at the Steamfitters and Pipefitters Hall on Higgins Avenue in Winnipeg. He was not only underage, but he was also wearing heels, a borrowed knee-length, long-sleeved brown dress, a blond frisbee wig and makeup.
His alter ego, Jennifur Coates, had arrived. It was Halloween 1974.
Now, 40 years later, Cumming says he finds it overwhelming to realize he is Manitoba’s senior drag artist, entertainer and charity fundraiser. He demurs when someone suggests that in living as a fearless openly gay man and drag queen, he has shattered social barriers and taboos and has elevated a marginalized community. However, he continues to do just that.
To mark his 40th anniversary of drag, friends have organized a celebratory evening of performance on Oct. 18 at Club 200, beginning at 9 p.m. The event promises to be a madcap romp through the decades of Jennifur Coates, with a variety of performers taking to the stage to honour the one who is a mentor and inspiration to many.
While quick to credit those courageous queens who came before him, Cumming had no drag mentor. Over time, he taught himself how to do makeup, hair, and to put together outfits. As an artist and cabaret entertainer, he became fiercely devoted to his craft. He is the consummate professional—always impeccably elegant in appearance, well prepared for the stage and able to shift with ease to sassy outrageousness. Cumming can deploy a razor-sharp, irreverent sense of humour at the blink of one of those sweeping eyelashes. As only a seasoned performer can, he senses the mood of the crowd—and changes that energy if necessary. The quick-witted improviser is adept at owning a stage and has a wide repertoire, from classics to the latest hits.
He laughs when he recalls the day he was at a classmate’s home and put on the girl’s mother’s dress.
The youngest of five children, Cumming was born in Winnipeg and grew up in Fort Rouge. He attended Ashland and Riverview schools and Churchill High School. He laughs when he recalls the day he was at a classmate’s home and put on the girl’s mother’s dress. It was so much fun that Cumming walked home in the dress. As he rounded the corner of his home, his mother noticed the spectacle and said, “John David Cumming, what are you wearing?” He recalled, “All I could think of to say was, ‘nothing.’”
By age 14, Cumming said he was “scared as hell” while trying to get into clubs such as the Mardis Gras and Detour on Albert Street—both establishments with GLBT* clientele. Cumming left home at 16 and often held several jobs simultaneously in order to be self-sufficient. At 17, he began working weekends at Happenings Social Club. “I was given someone else’s liquor ID, as I was underage,” he remembers, noting that he worked at that club for about five years. Seven years were spent living upstairs at “The Office Sauna Bath” and working part time at the front desk. He was also a food and liquor server at the first Sherbrook Street location of Giovanni’s Room (later Gio’s Club and Bar).
Cumming worked as a courier then joined the restaurant industry. He started as a busser at The Old Spaghetti Factory and he was trained in dining room service at the Manitoba Club. He was also head bartender at the Winnipeg Winter Club and has worked as a host and/or waiter at Underground Pizza, Chocolate Shop, East Side Exchange and Tre Visi. Cumming still works part time in catering for Star Grill.
He has an extensive history of voluntarism and GLBT* community fundraising going back over three decades. It all began with Jennifur Coates winning Miss Glamour (in a blue suit and pillbox hat) at a social at the Odd Fellows Hall. Subsequently, he became Miss Happenings (1983), Ms. Gio’s (1987) and Miss Club 200 (1990). He later became an honourary life member of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Inc. and a Club 200 Hall of Fame performer.
When the Snowy Owl Monarchist Society, Inc. (SOMS) was formed as a part of an international charity, Cumming was crowned Baroness 1, The Black Sable Golden Champagne Empress from 1997 to 1998 (the title has since been renamed Empress). The empress serves as the chief fundraiser. He has since served as SOMS president and vice-president and is currently the board’s representative from the College of Monarchs, which oversees the SOMS and provides liaison with past title holders. He was particularly moved in recent years to receive the Humanitarian Award from the Empress of Canada Foundation.
Cumming, 57, is president of Gio’s Cares, a GLBT* charity that fundraises to improve the lives of those living with HIV/ AIDS and other serious illnesses, and has served in the position for a total of six terms. He was the organization’s first Goodwill Ambassador, who serves as the face of the charity, and is currently president of Artemis Housing Co-op, which provides homes to those living with chronic illnesses.
The province’s foremost and fearless doyenne of drag plans to continue entertaining and fundraising.
– Jay Rich is secretary of Gio’s Cares and Artemis Housing Co-operative, and four-term president of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Inc.