Mademoiselle Ella Zoyara: Drag on Horseback

A little post to follow up on a character I made mention of my recent “drag vaudeville” piece in Chelsea Now. 

Omar Kingsley (1840-79) hailed from St Louis and ran off to join the circus when he was only eight years old. He aspired to become an equestrian trick rider, and was taken on by Philadelphia -based circus impresario Spence “S.Q.” Stokes as an apprentice — but only if he agreed to do so in female guise, for lady horseback riders were especially in favor with audiences in those days.  Billed as “Mademoiselle Ella Zoyara,” or “Miss Ella”,Kingsley became an international star, famed both for his skill and for his (‘her”) beauty.

What is especially intriguing about this dodge is that Kingsley never dropped character in public. This extended beyond the circus ring. Accoutred in fashionable dresses, he socialized with prominent local women wherever the circus went, never dropping the female impersonation. The rub is that many men fell in love with “her”, as often happens with stage stars. In Moscow, a Count proffered beaucoup rubles to meet the Mademoiselle. King Victorio Emanuelle II of Italy paid many an amorous visit; Kingsley was always careful to have companions around to keep the lascivious Latin monarch at bay.

In private life, Kingsley was actually straight, as far as we can tell; at least, he married a biological woman, a fellow equestrienne named Sallie Stickney. 

The big secret was finally revealed in Manila, where an army officer made advances, was rebuffed, and continued to press the issue, forcing a donnybrook betwixt the circus folk and Spanish soldiers. Stokes and Kingsley were put in jail where all was revealed. Kingsley put his skirts in storage after that and went into circus management. By most accounts, he died of smallpox while on tour in India.

KIngsley had his competition in the field. “Mademoiselle Lulu” was an act presented by The Great Farini in the 1870s. And of course, our beloved Adah Isaacs Menken skinned the cat from the other direction — a female equestrienne actress who made her name in the male role of Mazeppa. 

To learn more about show biz history, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.