Vesta Tilley was a male impersonator from the music halls. Born in Worcester in 1864 she had a huge interest in theatre as a child. She first wore male clothes on stage when she was just five years old. Later she became bored with her song and impressions acts declaring, ‘I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy’. Success quickly followed and by 1874 she had made her London debut at the Canterbury Hall.
Born Matilda Alice Powles, Vesta was only six years older than the most famous woman in music hall, Marie Lloyd, who was also named Matilda at birth, but their performance styles were very different.
Unlike Lloyd who worked spontaneously, Tilley rehearsed her act down to the last detail, practising every word and every gesture. She impersonated dandies and fops and her dress was so immaculate that she became a fashion icon for men. She revealed male foibles and eccentricities, which were especially appreciated by the women in her audiences.
Vesta paid meticulous attention to detail when dressing and took over an hour to get ready, padding and constructing her figure. She even wore men’s underclothes. Women’s underwear of the time was tightly corseted and would have looked strange under men’s clothing. She never cut her hair short but wore it plaited into tiny braids and coiled around her head under a wig.
Vesta aimed to create convincing male characters. Her most famous character was the man about town – smart, middle class, well dressed and polite. This was the character in her hit song ‘Burlington Bertie’. It tells the story of a ‘swell’ who stays out all night partying and doesn’t get up till 10:30 in the morning.
In the first Royal Variety Performance, she appeared as Algy, ‘The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye’, and was described as ‘the most perfectly dressed young man in the house’.
Vesta also performed as a judge, a clergymen and a soldier. Her songs included: ‘After the Ball’ and ‘Strolling Along with Nancy’. During the First World War songs such as 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier', 'The Army of Today's All Right' and 'Six Days' Leave' inspired men to sign up, thus earning her the nickname 'England's greatest recruiting sergeant'.
She was immensely popular with women who saw her as a symbol of independence (she earned £500 a week). She also poked fun at men and their vanities. She retired in 1920 with a special matinee performance. Nearly two million people signed the People’s Tribute to her.
Like many music hall stars, she made the crossover from music hall to pantomime, appearing as principal boy in Augustus Harris’s spectacular pantomimes at Drury Lane theatre. She married Walter de Frece, who was active in theatre management and later became a Member of Parliament. On his knighthood, she became Lady de Frece. She died in London in 1952.