Vogue and Drag Queens in Paris is Burning

5/02/2011 08:10:00 PM ·

Paris Is BurningParis is Burning is a critically acclaimed documentary by Jenny Livingston diving deep into the lives of New York’s drag queens. The documentary gives us a glimpse of “voguing” which was the underground dance style later made famous by Madonna. Controversial subjects such as racism, AIDS, and homosexuality are some of the many topics discussed.

The documentary starts in New York, 1987. There were two things that challenged the black men in this documentary, being black and gay. But in actuality, these two things didn’t exist in the underground, where gold sequins and hip walking charmed the crowds.

The Ball Circuit, like any game or event, is what these men of the underground train for. This is where the stories unfold. The Ball is the closest many of these men will ever get to fame and fortune and they thrive on it. They see the way rich people live and they think they want that life. The Balls are a fantasy and whatever you want them to be. There are legends and there are children. The legends have their trophies and the children seek out their legendary status by attending the balls, using every bit of money for a new outfit, often showing up starving. These men don’t mimic the drag queens of today, but rather the couture models of the Paris runway. Styled in their hand made fashions and overdramatic hats, walking on the floor is an art, not a parade.

“It’s an addictive high which won’t hurt you. It’s a fame. It’s a small fame. You like the applause and adoration”, Dorian Corey replies.

When Pepper Labeija started going to balls, it was like going to see Las Vegas showgirls. Feathers, ruffles, and beads abound until the 1970’s, and then a downward movement, towards a more mod, movie start look was embraced.

It wasn’t just men in these balls, rather transsexual men, competed in such categories as a luscious body or even going to school in the School Boy/Schoolgirl Realness contest.The Town and Country category was the epitome of the classically dressed men on the green or polo field and the stylish executive men of the 80’s.

What is it about these labels? It’s about being the person you want to be in a ballroom when racism rears its ugly head in the real world.

The documentary turns to the changing of the sexes where the true queens are almost undetectable in real life, going through the normal growing pains as a woman would. They’ve lost their real parents or their parents have rejected their lifestyles, so the “children” latch on to the more experienced legends.

These loners take up with a “House” and they act as a gang or family, like the hippies had families in the 60’s, yet they perform at balls together rather than take up street fighting down the dark alleys of New York. You street fight at a ball by walking in the categories.

Angie, the Mother of the House of Extravaganza

The “houses” are led by the walkers who have won trophies in the past and the children will work to give the house a better name and reputation. They assist the children during their contests and they give them advice, things they learned about gay life when they were their age.

If any of you are Top Model fans,you will remember Benny Ninja, the posing god of the fashion world. Benny is the  father of the House of Ninja, a post given to him by the late Willi Ninja. The Ninjas are the voguing queens of the underground.

Pepper Labeija is the Mother of the House of Labeija. He’s been around for two decades and says “he holds more prizes than all the rest”. He claims he has more members than any other house and everyone in New York wants to be a member. Of course, the children speak another story.

Reading and Shade

Reading is a ritual insult, either a snide remark about their body shape or how much makeup they wear, down to the cheapness of their clothing. This translates to shade, in that, the person doesn’t have to “tell you you’re ugly, because you already know you’re ugly”.


Voguing came from shade because it was a dance that two people did when they didn’t like each other. Who ever has the best shade, or moves, wins the battle, without violence. There’s no touching involved, as touching results in cutting (elimination) from a contest.

You will notice, many of the poses in Paris in Burning are seen on your favorite fashion models in the magazine Vogue. The poses draw from Egyptian hieroglyphics and straight lines in the body.

In New York, 1989. voguing officially hit the media and the main persons involved finally were making a name for themselves, outside the underground clubs of Harlem.

The Fashion

Eileen Ford, Ford Models

In the documentary Willi Ninja is training models on the catwalk, just like Benny Ninja teaches posing. His abilities when it came to voguing were just as high in demand as posing is today. Yet, the walkers in the underground walk in a smoke filled room with trash on the floor and paper table cloths and the models of today walk on glitter paved catwalks.

If you can afford a label it means you have wealth or you shoplifted the clothing. They call it mopping (stealing) and you can tell by a person’s facial expression on the circuit if they bought it or stole it.

The Money

The circuit doesn’t pay, so the individuals turn to hustling and escorting to pay for their clothing for the ball. Why do they do it? To become legends I suppose or to make a name for themselves so they can obtain a better life on the outside.


In some cases, like Willie Ninja, they were able to break out after the media introduced this stylized craft. After traveling all over Europe and working as a choreographer to models, Ninja made a name for himself, globally. Others suffered different fates. One legend (Venus) was murdered in a hotel room, probably the result of one of her clients from hooking , whom she had previously said, never forced her to have sex.

If you capture the white way of living in the ballroom you are a marvel. The want to be somebody, a rich somebody, because this is what they have been told is not attainable. There wasn’t money involved, only trophies, so I assume the chance to live a life they may never get to experience is their reward.

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