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Drag queen Foxy De-Rossi's last Canada Day performance due to illness

07/01/2015 01:10 EDT | Updated 07/01/2016 05:59 EDT
It's not the path you might expect for the adopted son of a mill worker growing up in northern British Columbia, but for the last decade and a half, Travis Shaw has been better known as Foxy De-Rossi, a biracial diva from Prince George decked out in mascara and high heels.

"My mom has pictures of me like in a turtle neck pulled down as a dress and things like that," said Shaw, "And my auntie gave me high heels for birthday and stuff, so… they raised me to by myself, whoever I might be."

When Shaw first performed in drag, he was in high school. Same-sex marriage was still illegal in Canada, and he remembers when Prince George city council refused to recognize Pride celebrations.

Now his diva persona has gone from being a source of controversy to being a welcomed performer at this year's family friendly Canada Day celebrations at Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park in Prince George.

For De-Rossi it will be bittersweet as severe illness means this performance will be one of the last.

Shaw was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2013. He's had multiple surgeries, and no longer has the energy to perform like he once did. But, he says he's approaching this challenge the same way he's approached every challenge he's faced. 

"For me I've always looked at the things like what do I have to learn from it? There's lots to learn and it proved to me how strong of a person I am." 

Strength through drag diva alter ego

While Shaw's family was always supportive of his drag performances growing up, many of his peers were not. He became subject to harassment and name calling, but found strength in his drag diva alter ego.

While Travis Shaw is shy and soft-spoken, Foxy De-Rossi is loud, proud, and the centre of attention. 

"It takes shape when I'm painting up my face, or I'm in the shower shaving. Then there's more confidence. I think more of like a mask I hide behind, like 'I can do this' and I know I can get away with it."

Shaw used that confidence to not only become a bold performer, playing shows in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, and at one point sharing the stage with famous drag queen RuPaul, but to also become a fierce advocate for gay rights. 

He helped form the first gay-straight alliances in the Prince George school district, creating safe spaces that he never had as a student.

He also joined the fight for marriage rights, and when British Columbia became one of the first provinces to legalize same-sex weddings in 2003, he performed at a ceremony held in the same park where his diva persona was born a few years earlier when a friend encouraged him to enter a talent contest.

"My friend was wanting me to enter and I didn't know and she said, 'Just put on a dress and do this and sing a song,' and I'm like 'OK' and then I won."

By 2012, De-Rossi was named "Ms. Gay Vancouve,r" but before getting positive recognition in cities across the country, it was a struggle to find acceptance back home. 

Journey to centre stage

In 2010, Dan Rogers was the mayor of Prince George. He frequented a coffee shop where Shaw worked, and as the two got to know each other, Rogers attended a gay-straight alliance meeting alongside Foxy De-Rossi. 

"Certain people in the community voiced that they thought Dan Rogers was a family man, and they didn't want to involve their families with him if he's supporting gay people," Shaw says, calling it the worst press he ever received. 

"All kids are our future. So why are we trying to hinder and cripple and break kids now who are going to be our doctors, police lawyers, things like that. So, for me, I didn't understand why there was such a backlash, but then it is Prince George and at the time it was still a little behind the times."

But times have changed.

Now Foxy De-Rossi will be playing the main stage in the same spot where the diva persona first came to life in 1999. Shaw says when he takes the stage, it will show him just how far his city has come. 

As Foxy De-Rossi the pioneer and provocateur is being retired, what's the next challenge for Travis Shaw, the person?

"I've never been on a date," he laughs. "So, yeah ask for a guy's number. I'm too shy." 

Travis Shaw will perform as Foxy De-Rossi as part of the Canada Day celebrations in Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park in Prince George at 5:20 on July 1. His final performance will be at Vancouver Pride celebrations on the August long weekend.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled Foxy De-Rossi

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