The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of the Male Impersonator upon the music hall stage. These radical, cross-dressing female performers found liberation from gender stereotyping and the oppressive patriarchal society of Victorian and Edwardian England.
Male Impersonation had its roots in the traditions of the opera ‘trouser role’ and the pantomime ‘principal boy’, but by the turn of the 20th Century, it had developed an almost cult status.
Bessie Bonehill was one of the earliest of the Male Impersonators and her success inspired a generation.
Women in male guise found themselves empowered to undermine the values and attitudes of the ‘dominant sex’.
Satirical lyrics and parody were the ideal way to poke fun at patriarchy and actively challenge social convention.
Perhaps the most famous of all the Male impersonators was Vesta Tilley upon whom the character of the Emcee in Rhondda Rips it Up! is based.
Ever the perfectionist, Vesta Tilley aimed to created believable and convincing male characters. She even went so far as to wear men’s underwear while performing. She was extremely popular amongst women who saw her as a symbol of independence and rebellion.
Vesta’s most famous role was as Burlington Bertie, the well-dressed ‘swell’ who stayed up all night partying and didn’t get out of bed until 10.30 the following morning.
Male impersonation was as popular in America as it was in England and stars such as Kitty Doner and Hetty King enjoyed great success and notoriety.
Male impersonation reached something of a pinnacle in the 1930’s when Marlene Dietrich was cast as a cabaret singer in the film ‘Morocco’. In this guise she dressed in white tie and tails and kissed another woman; a gesture that would have been considered both radical and provocative for the time.