Jean Guida was Canada’s oldest female impersonator, a star in Montreal’s nightlife scene for more than 50 years. The French-born entertainer, known as Guilda, was pitch perfect as Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Mistinguett, Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth.
He last appeared on stage seven years ago, after a Toronto newspaper declared him dead, just to prove that he was still alive.
A larger-than-life entertainer, Guida lived in a fantasy world of his own for so long that, when he died on June 28, one week after his 88th birthday, it was impossible to separate the truth from the fiction. In his 1979 autobiography, Elle et Moi, he said that his father was French and that his mother was a Sicilian countess by the name of de Mortellaro. But the Mortellaro name is nowhere to be found in the Libro d’Oro della Nobilta Italiano, the official registry of Italian aristocracy.
What is true is that, by the time he was 17, he was working as a makeup artist with the Ballets de Monte Carlo. During the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War, he discovered he could make extra money doing drag acts for German soldiers. As a result he was hired to be a movie stunt double in an eminently forgettable film, La Femme qui est coupe en morceaux.
He then befriended Mistinguett, an aging but still flamboyant cabaret artist who had worked at the legendary Moulin Rouge and was once the highest-paid female entertainer in France.
“I certainly didn’t think I was going to become a drag queen,” he said. “I was shy and lacked confidence as a boy.”
Guida came to New York with a burlesque troupe in 1949 and took the stage name Gilda, which came from the movie of the same name starring Rita Hayworth.
After his work visa in the United States expired, he moved to Montreal.
“There wasn’t much of a market for travestis when I arrived in Quebec, so I created one,” he said in an interview. “I knew my metier. I am a professional female impersonator, I was trained as an actor, as a stand-up comic, as a singer and as a model.”
Gilda doesn’t translate into French, (the G is pronounced as J) so he became Guilda. He opened at Chez Paree in 1954, and his act was an instant hit.
For the next 33 years, he was a regular at the Theatre des Varieties. As his career progressed, his costumes became more flamboyant, the song-and-dance routines better rehearsed and the production values bigger. In 1965, he filled Place des Arts with his own revue then was the headline act at the posh Caf Conc in the Chateau Champlain Hotel.
“His was an enormous talent. He did it all. He was a chameleon, the real thing. He didn’t lip sync. When he sang, it was his own voice,” said impresario Gilles Latulippe.
“He did a minimum of 100 shows a year. He never missed a season. He was a perfectionist. He left nothing to chance. He was not the first female impersonator in Quebec, but he was the most celebrated, the first to be accepted without moral judgment by audiences who recognized his talent. A large part of his following were women, who admired his makeup artistry. Often, in a room filled with women, he was the most beautiful.”
Off stage, Guida drank heavily, lamented the fact that he was not taken seriously as an artist, and suffered from chronic depression.
He often referred to his alter ego as a total stranger. “We are two different people, Guilda and I. Guilda is more direct, much tougher, much harder than I am. Her life has been fantastic, mine is a mess.”
Guilda was featured in film maker Lois Siegel’s documentary Lip Gloss, which examined the life of female impersonators. His last show was eight years ago. Comedian Dominique Michel described him as hard-working, consummate professional.
“I was extremely impressed the first time I saw him as Mistinguett when he first arrived. He was a real pioneer,” Michel said
Guida claimed to have been married three times and said he had fathered four children.
After the suicide of a lover in 1989, whom he variously claimed was his son, his nephew or his cousin, he gave up alcohol and took up painting. Psychologists would have a field day interpreting his artworks, which are either religious or homoerotic, images of weeping Christ or surreal nude figures with genitals aflame.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story misspelled Lois Siegel's name and incorrectly referred to her film as a National Film Board production. This version is corrected.