She started in a beautiful red dress.
It was sleeveless, with a gold piece of fabric down the front. She wore it with a large matching red hat and black boa.
That’s not a getup the average woman could pull off.
But no one has ever accused Gillian Campbell of being average.
Over decades of performing on stage, designer Ray Buchanan has outfitted her with more than $100,000 worth of original hand-beaded gowns, hats, jewelry, and boas.
Those creations – along with the exuberant woman who wears them – have become as much a part of Rendezvous festivities in the Yukon as anything else.
This year Campbell has been named an honourary lifetime member of the Rendezvous board.
It’s an honour that Campbell compares to “winning an Oscar.” Festival organizers say it is well deserved.
“She’s so much a part of everyone’s favourite Rendezvous stories,” said board president Marj Eschak. “She can capture a room no matter who is in it.”
Campbell first arrived in the Yukon in 1967. She moved to Dawson City from England as a single mother with two young sons. She was there for a summer to be one of the city’s famous gaslight follies at the Palace Grand theatre.
By the ‘70s she was performing annually at Whitehorse’s Rendezvous events.
A self-professed “touchy, feely, huggy sort of person,” Campbell’s “Klondike Kate” shows have always been musical. She’ll sing herself, but aims to include as much audience participation as possible.
The crowds grew quickly.
In the early years, Rendezvous sets scheduled to last 45 minutes at Whitehorse’s Sternwheeler Lounge would go on for hours.
During one show, Campbell remembers coming out to perform and finding audience members had borrowed chairs from an adjacent restaurant so that they could have a seat.
“I said, if the fire marshal comes in here they’ll be hell to pay,” she says.
The manager of the event pointed to a man sitting on the floor near the front of the stage. It was the fire marshal.
On another occasion, a particularly excited fan tried to get to the front of the line to see a show.
“Some guy thumped him out. They said, ‘No we’re waiting for Gillian,’” she remembers.
“That’s very nice and very sweet but I don’t want people having a punch-up to get in my show.”
Over the years she’s faced food poisoning, broken zippers and laryngitis.
Then there was the time that former MP and deputy prime minister, Erik Nielsen, tried to undo her zipper while she was sitting on his lap.
“I said, you naughty boy, you keep your hands to yourself.”
He’s the only one who has ever tried to do that, she said.
Campbell’s show has taken her across Canada and all over the world promoting the Yukon.
But for all that she’s given to the territory, Campbell says she’s received much in return.
That includes close friendships with a core group of people who have watched Rendezvous grow to this year’s 50th anniversary.
“The whole crew is wonderful, just love them all,” she says.
The Yukon is responsible for introducing her to her second husband, Edward, and a marriage that has lasted 25 years.
Edward was a bank manager in Dawson City when Campbell got off the plane in 1967.
He and a manager from another bank had been asked to pick up the luggage for the new performers in town.
“Gillian came off the plane, with these two babies in her arms, and I said to (him) ‘I think she’s going to be the best of the whole works,’” he remembers.
Decades since it started, the show hasn’t changed much.
“We do a lot of the old stuff, you won’t catch me doing rap,” Campbell says laughing.
And she can still pack in the crowds.
“People would come from Alaska. There was one guy who came from Fairbanks every year just to be the doorman at Gillian’s show,” Eschak said.
After a hiatus, she returned to Rendezvous in 2010.
She’ll perform wherever she’s asked, whether that’s at a high school or a special performance at the Macaulay Lodge and Thomson Centre continuing care homes.
The people singing with her there are the same ones who filled the Sternwheeler Lounge in the early years.
Eschak says she’s seen residents, many of whom struggle with Alzheimer’s, light up when Campbell enters the room and starts to sing.
For the 50th anniversary she will be at a variety of events around the city.
That includes the Queen contest, the Sams show, the Queen reunion and the tent at Shipyards Park.
She says she’ll always be grateful for the career she’s been able to create for herself and her family.
“The Yukon has always been so good to us.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org