French singer and drag artist

Born; June 18, 1931;

Died: January 26, 2020.

MICHOU, the colourful, outrageous and off-beat trendsetter of Paris night life, has died aged 88. He was a trailblazer who established drag cabaret in France and owned one of the most flamboyant (and smallest) clubs in Montmartre.

Cabaret Michou was launched in the mid-1950s when it put on shows featuring men caricaturing great divas of the era. On opening night Michou dressed as Brigitte Bardot: “I finished my number” he recalled, “almost naked... for the time, it was very cheeky.”

The success was immediate. Tous Paris and tourists flocked to the club. The bar staff and waiters were soon swapping their aprons for over-the-top wigs, extravagant gowns and enormous eye-lashes: they became known as the Michettes. Cabaret Michou was soon a central part of Paris night-life as much as the Moulin Rouge, Lido and the Crazy Horse. One reason for its enduring success was that the cabaret mimicked the stars of the day - they never mocked them. Michou insisted, “We do not ape them. There is never any vulgarity”.

Michou (real name Michel Georges Alfred Catty) was born in Amiens and brought up by his mother and grandmother. He moved to Paris in the late 1940s and took whatever work was available. With no theatrical background or training he worked in the clubs of the city.

He settled near the famous Moulin Rouge club and found work at a cafe at 80 rue des Martyrs. In 1956 he bought the cafe from the owner and opened it as a dinner theatre cabaret. He delighted in telling of the club’s origins: on one Mardi Gras he dared some male friends to dress up as famous women for after-dinner entertainment. The club caught on and Michou and two friends were the regular drag artists and dancers. They lip-synched to many of the personalities of the era – notably Maria Callas, Diana Ross and Edith Piaf. From such beginnings Michou and his club became a major feature of the Paris club scene for 60 years.

In Montmartre he was an institution. He held court in his own club invariably sipping champagne (he called it, “the fountain of youth”) and always dressed in blue. He held free lunches for elderly residents of the neighbourhood and played host to many celebrities both from France and abroad. Liza Minnelli sat on the bar, Jacques Brel, Sophia Loren, Charles Aznavour and Jacques Chirac (the former president, who awarded Michou the Legion d’honneur in 2005) were amongst the celebrities who enjoyed nights of ‘spectacle transformiste’ chez Michou.

Michou told his mother when he was 19 that he was gay. “If you’re happy, that’s all I care about,” she replied. Throughout his life he was openly gay – at a time when it was still illegal in France – and his honesty did much to break down social barriers. “He helped open doors to liberate others,” François Soustre, the co-author of an autobiography of Michou (The Blue Prince of Montmartre) has written.

His obsession with the colour blue was life-long. His flat, overlooking the Sacré-Coeur, was decorated entirely in blue, including a turquoise lavatory seat in the bathroom. He only drank champagne from crystal blue glasses and was invariably dressed in a dazzling blue suit with blue shoes.

“They call me the ‘the Blue Prince of Montmartre’. Around here I’m treated like a saint” Michou told an interviewer last year. One of his last wishes was to give instructions to ensure he would be buried in a blue coffin. Montmartre and its people were his life. He loved the area, and once fondly said: “I live in a little village close to Paris. It is called Montmartre.”

Such was his fame that he and his club inspired the hit 1978 French comedy film, La Cage aux Folles. The musical which followed was a huge success but it was set in St Tropez not Paris. Michou appeared in cameo roles in French soaps and released several singles including a “song-biography” recorded to mark his 70th birthday. He appeared in a cameo as himself in the 1973 film La Bonne Annéewhich was directed by Claude Lelouch.

His 80th birthday party was a major Paris society occasion. The stars partied long into the night and Jean-Paul Gaultier did the designs and fashion and Nana Mouskouri headed the cabaret.

Even the President of France commemorated his life in a statement from The Élysée Palace. “The sky” the President wrote, “above Montmartre will be a little less blue from now on.”

Michou is survived by his long-time companion, Erwann Toularastel.

Alasdair Steven