“We are the new Mecca”: Can New York’s underground ballroom scene survive fashion? | life and style
Jhe temperature was barely below zero on the night of February 19, but inside a converted warehouse in Queens, New York, thousands of people had gathered for the Coldest Winter Ever Ball – l one of the greatest ballroom events to ever take place.
For eight hours, members of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, House of Lanvin, House of Balenciaga and House of Garcon, among others, competed to the sounds of R&B, hip-hop and house music, vying for trophies and cash prizes in categories including Runway and Queen of Sex in front of a cheering crowd of mostly queer and trans people of color. Ballroom is a competition, but it’s also a community – a space where people can live unabashedly and be celebrated for it.
The 50,000 square foot Knockdown Center is a far cry from the basements of community centers and YMCA halls where ballroom culture was born. In recent years, the ballroom has established itself in pop culture and fashion circles, thanks to television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose and Legendary. Large ballroom events can now bring in over $150,000 per event, while stage members have become celebrities in their own right. Where prom houses once adopted the names of designer fashion brands in an ambitious bid to align themselves with the most elite arbiters of taste, those same brands are now seeking house members for modeling gigs and parties. advertising campaigns.
With mainstream attention comes mainstream influence, however, and inevitably, many within the scene view the growing popularity of the ballroom with skepticism and concern. How can they ensure that the subculture does not lose touch with its underground roots, even as it becomes more entangled with corporate interests?
“[Ballroom] was created out of the need to give people space,” says House of Gorgeous Gucci co-founder Jack Mizrahi, a member of the scene since the early 1990s, in the Guardian film Inside New York’s underground ballroom scene. . “It was not created for people to learn and market.”
Icon Jusss Kelly, co-founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, goes further.
“Everyone is tolerating the LGBTQ community, because we are the new Mecca of money-making, but when this period is over, what are we going to fall back on and what are we going to rely on? Ballroom has been around for 50 years, why are you all accepting the community only now? »
Jhe first “balls” date back to the late 19th century, when they were private events known to draw men dressed as women, but what we now call “ballroom” began in the 1970s, especially in Harlem. Trans and queer people of color, many of whom are young and homeless, have built a culture of friendly competition between established “houses” — or chosen families.
“The ballroom is a place where you can choose your family,” says Gorgeous Jeter Gucci. “A lot of people come from backgrounds where they’re ostracized by their blood relatives because of their gender identity or whatever.”
The balls themselves were flashy, fun and energetic shows. Often themed, people came dressed in their finery to compete or watch. Competitive categories judged contestants based on their outfits, good looks, ability to credibly perform a specific behavior, or “voguing” skills on the dance floor. Balls were a place where marginalized individuals could retreat for a night together and fulfill their otherwise impossible fantasies of grandeur, luxury, and self-actualization.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be in a place where you’re accepted no matter what you are – and that’s really what a ballroom is,” says Lola, Legendary Mother of the House of Superb Gucci.
The ballroom remained an underground subculture until the 1990s, when Madonna’s Vogue single and Jennie Livingston’s influential and controversial documentary Paris Is Burning introduces the public to voguing, “reading” and “shading”.
Yet Mizrahi argues that the ballroom’s influence on the vernacular has long been underestimated.
“People think they have [their way of speaking] of 227 or The Jeffersons,” he says. “But no. It started with the queens reading and snapping their fingers, playing The Dozens and adding a little extra sauce to the way our usual heterosexual counterparts spoke.
“Our presence has always been there.
Mizrahi played a major role in opening the ballroom to the masses: he’s a co-executive producer on Legendary and served as a writer, consultant, and actor on Pose.. And he’s happy to see paid opportunities for members of the ballroom community, many of whom are struggling financially. Dominique Jackson, who started walking in balls, starred in Pose, appeared in American Gods and walked the runway for French fashion house Thierry Mugler. ‘Wonder Woman of Vogue’ Leiomy Maldonado is a judge on Legendary, ran an ad campaign for Nike and walked the runway for Rihanna’s lingerie line, Savage X Fenty.
But Mizrahi remains suspicious of the potential for exploitation, or what he calls the “Trojan horse syndrome.”
“People come into a community and they say they love it and respect it and honor it,” he says. “But once their little troopers hit and they storm off that horse and they’ve already picked up everything they want to pick up, then they all go from there.” And then you [have] a bunch of stuck up people who are still fending for themselves.
“They try to use fashion as a prop in a video or in an ad,” he adds. “But they come and some don’t even do the research to learn the right vernacular. They don’t even try to learn history. They don’t care. They just want to do the job and leave.
Yet Mizrahi believes that the ballroom, as a culture, as a institutionis strong enough to withstand the vagaries of capitalism.
“The ballroom is not a fad,” he says. “It’s a way of life, it’s a community, and we were governing ourselves long before [outside forces] even realized that we existed. So whether we get their acceptance today or not, we will always be well ourselves.
Ballroom icon Jack Mizrahi and legendary mother Lola will appear at the Cîroc ‘Iconic Ball’ on Thursday 30th June at Koko in Camden, London