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Jackie Roberts, In Memoriam for a Diva

Jan. 10, 2017
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Jackie Roberts, a Milwaukee drag queen legend, died in hospice on Thursday, Jan. 5. She succumbed to complications due to cancer. Diagnosed in 2015, she managed to survive the disease for just over a year enduring surgery, chemotherapy and various regimens of medications. 

Her loss was met with a collective outpouring of condolences rarely expressed in Milwaukee’s LGBT community. True, Miss Roberts was well known in the Wisconsin drag scene. Over the decades, she won her share of titles in numerous pageants. She appeared on stages throughout the state in a variety of venues, but her home bar was Milwaukee’s LaCage. She performed there for decades, led its LaCage Presents drag revue and was even seen at the door as a drag bouncer. Anecdotes about her abound, but her reputation went far beyond the stage. 

She was what one might call a mensch. In the world of drag, that’s a rare compliment. There’s a pervading personality that seems to be expected of drag queens. It can best be described as exaggerated, self-centered and full of snarky sarcasm. There’s even a drag contest category called “reading” that consists of being able to out-insult the competition. Deprecating humor as a virtue isn’t really exclusive to their style of entertainment, but it has become part of the requisite drag persona. Sarcasm and expletives seem to be their standard brand. But Miss Roberts chose to be something else. She was warm, gracious and let her humanity show through.

That acknowledgement of her kindness was the common thread found in the hundreds of messages of condolence posted for her on social media. She was the ultimate drag mother to the up-and-coming talent, and a true sister to her friends in an out of drag. Everyone mourned her death in terms of personal loss even though they may not have really known her.

She had a special affinity for Marilyn Monroe. Yes, a typical role to impersonate, perhaps, but Miss Roberts seems to have had a connection to the blonde bombshell beyond the classic white dress. There was fragility to Marilyn but also an ever-hopeful optimism and an almost naïve conviction in the good in people’s hearts. Roberts seemed to live by that very same philosophy. She even quoted Marilyn on her social media page: “Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together.”

Back in 2009, interviewed by this paper about the annual Brady Street Festival, Roberts insisted on the importance of the drag show held there as a means of bringing the whole community together. “Even if it’s only for one day,” Roberts said, “if people can put aside their differences, open up their hearts, open their minds, then that’s all the reason to do it.” When, in 2013, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award, she quipped, “Does this mean I’m done?” But she was far from done, continuing to perform and spreading her positive encouragement and love of life to all those she touched.

Memorials are planned for Jackie Roberts at both Granville Presbyterian Church and at LaCage Nightclub. Details may be found on social media.

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