Skip to main content

Barbette, 1899 - 1973



  • Existence: 19 December 1899 - 5 August 1973


Barbette was a circus aerial performer and female impersonator, born Vander Clyde Broadway on 19 December 1899 in Texas, U.S.A.

Barbette’s fascination with aerial performance started at a very young age, when his mother took him to a show. Soon after he started practising and performing in the fields around his home during harvest to earn money to attend circus shows.

Barbette started to perform after leaving school aged fourteen, in an act called The Alfaretta Sisters, impersonating a female performer. Following this act, he performed with the Erford's Whirling Sensation troupe, hanging from a spinning apparatus by the teeth, until in 1919 he debuted as a solo act under the pseudonym Barbette at the Harlem Opera House. Barbette performed in the high-wire and trapeze dressed as a woman and revealed his male gender at the end as part of the act.

In 1923 Barbette started to tour around Europe. It was in England and Paris that he achieved most fame and appeared in some of the cities’ most iconic venues including the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergère, the Empire, London Palladium and the Alhambra Theatre. He alternated the vaudeville scene with the circus also performed with Bertram Mills, Circus Medrano and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

While working at the London Palladium, Barbette was found engaged in sexual activity with another man. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, so he lost his contract and was never granted a visa to work in England again.

Poor health caused by chronic pain ended Barbette’s career as a performer at the turn of the 1940s. After this he became an artistic director and aerialist trainer for a number of circuses and worked as a consultant for the film industry, famously coaching Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on gender illusion for the film Some Like It Hot. He also created the aerial ballet for Disney on Parade, which toured Australia from 1969 to 1972. Barbette returned to his family home in Texas after this where he committed suicide by overdose on 5 August 1973.

Barbette served as an inspiration to a number of artists during his lifetime, including Jean Cocteau, Albert Goldbarth and Man Ray and was part of Josephine Baker, Anton Dolin, Mistinguett and Sergei Diaghilev’s circles. Barbette was also in films in the 1930s including Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of a Poet) and Jumbo. He continued to be an inspiration for others after his death including Alfred Hitchcock, performance artist John Kelly and play writers Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin. He is also believed to be the inspiration for the film Victor and Victoria.

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Circus Friends Association Collection

Reference code: NFA0122
Scope and Contents

This collection consists of a large library of books and journals, as well as archival material including posters, programmes, photographs, films, handbills, research material, scrapbooks, original artwork and many other items of ephemera relating to British, Irish and European circuses

Dates: 1795 - 2020

Newspaper and Magazine Cuttings on Circus, 1897 - 2005

Reference code: 178G21.95
Scope and Contents Newspaper cuttings and journals containing circus related articles on a range to topics including; animal rights, the death of Gordon Howes lion tamer, the Great Wallenda, George Sanger and Poppy Ginnett's wedding, other articles on Lord George Sanger and the Sanger Circus, The Smart Circus, Carlos Rosaire and Tina Paolo's wedding, King Ohmy's death, the death of Carmer Rosaire, the Paolo family, Circus Krone, Orfei Circus, Koringa, Circus Sarrasani, World War 2, Barbette, Omi, the Fossett...
Dates: 1897 - 2005

Newspaper Cuttings and Scapbooks, 1838 - 2007

Reference code: 178G21
Scope and Contents

A collection of newspaper cuttings on circus, circus proprietors and performers and scrapbooks containing newspaper cuttings, posters, programmes and other items of ephemera, covering mainly British circuses and venues such as Belle Vue and also some international circuses.

Dates: 1838 - 2007