Vesta Tilley was the most famous of all vaudeville male impersonators.
Completely unthreatening by today’s standards, she typically portrayed a dandy young man. Nevertheless she was the first male impersonator to be even a jot convincing and the first to dress wholly in male clothes, so she was revolutionary.
Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864, she was the daughter of a music hall Master of Ceremonies (or “Chairman”) in Worcester, England. A child prodigy, “Tilley” started singing along with her father at rehearsals, and at age 4, she made her debut at a going-away benefit for her father, who was about to assume a new post at St. George’s Music Hall in Nottingham. Billed as “the Great Little Tilley”, she was such a hit that he started taking her on the road. Tilley became a star in her own right; her father stopped performing in order to become her manager. In 1872 she made her drag debut at Day’s Concert Hall in Birmingham, the top music hall of the provinces. Dressed in white tie and tails, the six year old scored big as “the Pocket Sim Reeves”, after the popular singer she impersonated. Her London debut was six years later. By then she was Vesta Tilley.
As she grew into adulthood she specialized in a certain type of character; a rakish young dude named Algy. Songs and sketches were written around the character; one pictures something like the aristocratic drunks Chaplin used to play in films like A Night Out or One A.M, only a much younger character. Tilley even worked with Chaplin (and Stan Laurel) in the Karno sketch “Mumming Birds”. Mime was not her forte, however; it was song:
I’m following in Father’s footsteps, I’m following dear old dad.
He’s just in front with a big fine gal, so I thought I’d have one as well.
I don’t know where’s he’s going, but when he gets there I’ll be glad!
I’m following in Father’s footsteps, yes, I’m following the dear old dad.
In 1890 she made a fortuitous marriage with music hall manager Walter de Frece. The two were part of a movement to make music hall “respectable”, something similar to the transformation Pastor, Proctor and Keith accomplished in American variety. The married life allowed her to very much the traditional domestic woman in private life. In this respect, she is very much the female analog of Eltinge.
Her U.S. debut was at Tony Pastor’s in 1894. Her engagement in New York was a triumph. She returned to the States six times. In 1912 she gave a Royal Command performance – the first ever presented by Music Hall performers — but reportedly Queen Mary was so revolted at the prospect of a woman acting like a man that she couldn’t even look at the stage. Tilley was famously associated w/ the song “After the Ball” which became the title of her 1957 bio-pic. In 1920 de Frece went into Parliament as a Conservative and Tilley retired to support his career, proving who really wore the pants in the family. She played the role of Parliamentary wife for the remaining 23 years of her life.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including drag performers like Vesta Tilley, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous