We interviewed photographer Jess Desaulniers-Lea, leading up to our 'Age Does Not Matter' Festival last year, about her documentary film with Michelle Dubarry, the worlds oldest performing Drag Queen.

Words and images by Jess Desaulniers-Lea

"I came to the realization that there’s a kind of defiance and wisdom you have when you’re younger, and a defiance and wisdom you have when you’re older. Both are of equal importance."

Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

I think age has a prominence and importance in society - it is a marker of sorts, psychologically and physically. But rather than an all encompassing story of one unique individual’s past and present, our perception of age, especially in western cultures, has whittled age down to our very fear of mortality. This includes specifying beginning and end times with respect to when it’s acceptable to be or do certain things.

"I just turned 31! It’s quite surreal - before 30 it seems like you get to sit with each age and then everything suddenly feels like it speeds up. But the feeling about age also changes, you get to befriend people younger and older and everywhere in between."

Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

Source www.vice.com

Age is as complex as any other part of the human experience and therefore different for everybody. I have two very strong matriarchal figures in my family in both my grandmothers. I see that the things they weren’t able to do/ pursue when they were younger, either because of set roles for women and/ or just trying to survive war time,  so either by circumstance and/or disposition, their distinct appreciation for life has made them certainly defy what most of us would think an elder person can do or be. I think age can be profound, its also simply circumstantial and just one part of our existence - it by no means entirely defines a person.

"I think age can be profound, its also simply circumstantial and just one part of our existence - it by no means entirely defines a person."

Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

Michelle as a young boy, source www.vice.com. and Russel by Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

I just turned 31! It’s quite surreal. Before 30, it seems like you get to sit with each age and then everything suddenly feels like it speeds up. But the feeling about age also changes. You get to befriend people younger and older and everywhere in between. Your confidence changes and your willingness to express yourself unapologetically starts to show itself.

Jess Desaulniers-Lea.

Speaking with Michelle who is 86 years old, I came to the realization that there’s a kind of defiance and wisdom you have when you’re younger, and then, there's a defiance and wisdom you have when you’re older. Both are of equal importance. The idea that you only find wisdom and reflection when you’re older, I think, is a myth.

In Michelle’s life, that young defiance helped her/him get through police violence, moving to the city on her/his own from a small town, etc., and as an older person her/ his defiance has been re-defined to work against against stereotypes of older performers and people. Now, her defiance proves, quite effortlessly, that you can just ‘be’ as long as you’re willing, to be.

I began this photo series when I saw a segment on Canadian prime time news that a drag queen named Michelle had just won the Guinness World Record for oldest performing drag queen. Rarely does Canada really embrace, support or revere their local national talent, so any public figure that isn’t American on our news stands out. I was just beginning to get back to my photojournalistic roots after shooting entertainment for many years, and immediately she/he stood out to me as a perfect subject matter.

My motivation wasn’t so much in the record title or even her/his age, it was more that I’ve had a long time interest in performers and especially drag artists of a certain era. This is not only because of their performance styles but because of what they faced. What they went through politically and personally has paved the way for the current LGBTQ icons and performers.

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