When Bolivia Carmichaels first began performing drag at the now-shut Embers Avenue, she was warned against working for Darcelle XV. She’ll take away your individuality and make you a Darcelle girl, they said. Carmichaels’ response?
“Sweet,” she said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a Darcelle girl.” Carmichaels went on to dance under Darcelle XV’s wing for 20 years.
On Tuesday afternoon, more than 2,000 people gathered at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to remember Walter W. Cole, who was fondly known as Darcelle XV. The artist died on March 23 this year due to natural causes at the age of 92. Darcelle will be the first Portlander to be inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn.
“She gave thousands of people a chance to have a full and fruitful life and she entertained us,” former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts told OPB. “She protected this community, she educated this community and she educated both the gay side of the community and the straight side of the community.” Activist Terry Bean later remarked, “Darcelle was brave, courageous … and yet, she was humble. And boy, she was authentic!”
The memorial was a celebration of Darcelle XV’s life and the legacy she left behind. It was also a celebration of the support Darcelle offered to a community that thrives on individuality and uniqueness.
There were drag queens who shimmered in their elaborately sequined outfits. There were friends, family members and fans who lined up around the block hours before the event.
As a bearded drag queen, Pluto considers herself to be a “shock factor.” And Darcelle knew how to put a positive spin on that. “Darcelle told me, ‘I want this (beard) hidden until you go out on the stage.’ So when I have the privilege to perform on that stage, I walk out and some people gasp… Everyone loved it,” she said. “I will always cherish my beard.”
The event also drew high-level dignitaries such as current Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“Darcelle drew a bright line between her life as a performer and Walter Cole’s life, as a husband and a grandparent, including changing pronouns on and off stage. That is what freedom looks like,” Kotek said. “Being Darcelle was Walter Cole’s superpower. And then he said that that superpower saved lives.”
The evening ended with a rousing recording of Darcelle XV singing “The Rose,” a song that she often sang as a tribute to community members who died due to HIV/AIDS. The recording was accompanied by Thomas Lauderdale, of the band Pink Martini, on piano, and ended with a standing ovation from the crowd. The event was a heart-to-heart conversation on the legacy she has left behind, and, more importantly, an encouragement for the show to always go on.
“The way she has paid it forward has inspired me to continue paying it forward too,” said BinKyee Bellflower, the winner of the 2022 edition of La Femme Magnifique International and current cast member of Darcelle XV Showplace. She, along with drag queens Kristie Champagne and Ilani Estrella, raised $3,000 for New Avenues for Youth last week via a charity event they organized.
“It makes younger performers like us have so many more opportunities, so much less obstruction and so much more gratitude for life. I think that’s what I owe for life,” she said.