What do I love more than learning about a time that existed before I did, the olden golden days if you please? What do I love more than entering people’s lives for an hour or so, absorbing all the details; the culture, the atmosphere, the vibe, the passion, the fear?
Cinnamon buns that’s what.
Oh but I love documentaries, books, films, letters; really anything that allows me a glimpse into another life. I particularly like how they expose me to other things. Whenever I watch or read something I jot down interesting names and details that I would like to read up on later. So often I find myself in a twenty tab rabbit hole wondering how I got there.
I do not remember when or where I first heard of Paris is Burning; all I know is that it was mentioned somewhere a little while back and my intrigue drove me to Netflix to see if this documentary was on it. To my disapointment, It was not and I forgot about it for a while. Imagine my absolute delight when after watching the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Netflix recommended I watch Paris is Burning. You know me too well girlfren! (Turns out it is also on youtube)
So watch it I did and I loved every minute.
Paris is Burning chronicles the lives of African American and Latino gays, transgenders and drag queens in Harlem circa the mid to late 80s. The documentary particularly focuses on the ball subculture in gay communities in which contestants compete for trophies by walking in different categories. It is similar to a fashion parade/runway show but with more diversity, more character and definitely more categories. Contestants are judged on their realness which is how well they are able to pass for being women or heterosexuals. Some of the categories were going to school, Butch queen first time in drag at a ball, military, banji, and executive realness in which contestants mimic business men.
“In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive.”
The contestants belong to Houses-the term given to a sorority like group which serves as a family. The houses-named after the French fashion houses-have a mother who takes care of the children, helps them get ready for balls and just provide general advice like a real mother would (or rather should).
“The houses…are families for a lot of children who don’t have families…a group of human beings in a mutual bond”
“You wanted a house because you wanted a name. The people the houses are named after are ball walkers who became known for winning.”
We are introduced to a number of characters starting with Pepper Labeija, mother of the House of Labeija. Pepper is possibly my favourite character. First of her voice is a pleasure to listen to, so deep and vibrating. Her stories and experiences are also quite interesting. Pepper talks about her mother’s aversion to her wearing female clothing and recounts an incident when her mother found a mink coat in her (Pepper’s) closet and set it on fire because she could not stand her son being a woman.
Pepper also talked about not wanting to be a woman. In his own words:
I have been a man, and I have been a man who emulated a woman, but I have never been a woman…I can never say how a woman feels. I can only say how a man who acts like a woman feels.
This was interesting to me because it is easy to believe that all drag queens are either transgender women or in the process of sex transformation. I realise now that this is a simplistic view and a lot of drag queens are actually happy being men. Drag for them is simply an escape or an avenue to channel their energy and creativity. This documentary as well as RuPaul’s drag race have been great in teaching me more about drag culture. In season 2 of Drag Race a female judge praised a contestant by telling him he could teach her a thing or two about being a woman. He replied “I am a man in a dress, what could I teach you about being a woman?” Haha
Dorian Corey conducts most of her interview while doing her makeup in front of a mirror. Her scenes have a hint of sadness to me; she reminds me of an wise ageing star who has not achieve all she wanted to.
“I always had hopes of being a big star, then as you get older you aim a little lower.”
Ms. Dorian touches upon the challenges Black people face especially Black LGBT people. Her comments about race were interesting to me because I watched the entire documentary thinking she was White but it turns out she is just really light skinned. In true older generation fashion, she reminisces fondly on the balls of her time and the changes that have taken place.
“75% of the children you see at the ball wouldn’t know what a ball was if it knocked them in the head.”
My first impression of Venus Xtravaganza was that she appeared to be a delicate frail beautiful girl. She is on a bed and she looks very tiny and pretty. Her voice is soothing to listen to. She speaks about not feeling mannish at all and her desire to become a full woman. We also hear of her experiences as an escort; she claims she does not have to sleep with the men and that 95% of the time they just want to buy her things but also mentions once having to jump out of a window to escape being attacked by a man who had just discovered she had a penis.
Angie Xtravanganza is the mother of the House of Xtravanganza which remains to this day the most popular of all the houses. Angie is a good mother to her children as evidenced by her winning mother of the year at a ball and the fact that one of her children bought her breasts.
Willi Ninja, mother of the House of Ninja, never appears in drag in the film, neither does he walk the floor, preferring instead to vogue across it. Willi is touted as the best voguer there is and he provides an explanation as to what voguing is:
“Voguing comes from shade because it was a dance two people did because they did not like each other. Instead of fighting…whoever did the best move threw the best shade”
Willi is a seriously good voguer and like most of the other characters he wants to be famous. He spoke of his desire to take voguing and the House of Ninja to Japan. Now when I hear voguing the first people to pop into my head are Willi Ninja and Jose Extravanganza (Most known for being one of Madonna’s dancers). A young Jose can also be seen voguing in the film.
Paris Dupree, whose annual Paris is Burning ball the documentary is named after, appears in the documentary a few times but did not give an interview which is a shame as I would have loved to hear her speak. One of my favourite scenes in the documentary is Paris yelling Butch Queen. I could watch this clip on an eternal loop.
I learned so much from this documentary. Before I watched it I knew Vogue the magazine; I vaguely knew Madonna has a song called Vogue; I know gay men sometimes dance a certain way that ends in a dramatic drop to the floor (the death drop). But I never knew what Voguing was until I watched Paris is Burning.
There are a few versions as to the origin of voguing. Some think it started in Rikers Island. Another version is that Paris Dupree created the dance. An excerpt from her wikipedia page.
It is reported when she attended an after hours nightclub called Footsteps on 2nd Avenue and 14th Street, some gay Black men where throwing shade at each other. Paris who had a copy of Vogue Magazine in her bag took out the magazine and started dancing then suddenly stopped, posing to the beat of the music imitating the models’ poses. That provocation was returned in kind by the other Black gay men in the club. What followed next was a dancing and posing competition to the beat of the music. This gave birth to the vogue art form we know today, and the name vogue is in reference to the magazine Paris was carrying in her bag that night.
I have a newfound appreciation for vogueing, especially when Jose Xtravaganza and Willi Ninja do it. Voguing is a combination of Egyptian Hieroglyphics and gymnastics and ballet and everything.
“Shade comes from reading, reading came first. Reading is the real art form of insult.”
The characters introduce us to a few slangs and terms. All the slangs that I ignorantly thought were new-Shade, Fierce, Reading, Face beat, have been in existence for decades. Dehcaydes hunty. When one of the queens used the word shady I sat up in bed thinking whoa! People were throwing shade back in the 80s?
“Shade is I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you you’re ugly because you know you’re ugly.”
When the Emcee said to the audience “Why y’all gagging though?” I thought well damn. I always knew it was the gay community that gave us these popular slangs but I assumed they were created fairly recently.
Of course I could not just watch the film (twice) and be done with it. I had to soak up everything I could find on the internet about the characters. I came across this great interview of the cast on the Joan Rivers Show. In the interview (see Part three), Pepper Labeija uses the now common phrase “24/7” and Joan had no idea what it meant. That blew my mind. This is such a common phrase now and to think that it was still foreign as at 1990. The gay/drag community has given us so much.
“It’s been really unbelievable my life. If I was to die a day tomorrow I could not say that I had not had an exciting life.”
This is what I feel when I watch Paris is Burning and other documentaries about creative people. There is so much life and passion and creativity that I just want to immerse myself in. My life is spectacularly dull and this further heightens the fascination I have with people who have lived life in the true sense of the word particularly in the face of so many odds.
Still I wonder, just how happy are these people? Just how happy can one be when up against so much? A lot of them talked about wanting to be big stars, known far and wide. They talked of their desire to be wealthy and to have good things.
I googled the main characters to see how they were faring presently and was dismayed to see that most, if not all of the main characters are dead. Most of them died just a few years after the documentary was aired. Before the film was released, Venus Extravaganza was found strangled under a hotel bed at the age of 23; she had been dead for 4 days. Pepper Labeija died at 58 from complications from diabetes. Angie Xtravaganza died from AIDS at the age of 28. Quite a few of them died of complications from AIDS. Willi Ninja did manage to achieve some success and bring his dreams to fruition but he too died of AIDS complications at 45 years old. Dorian Corey died in 1993 from complications from AIDS.
Octavia Saint Laurent was another character who talked about wanting to achieve so much and not wanting to end up “an old drag queen with nothing going for me but trying to win grand prize at a ball”. She even went to a model casting and really just wanted to be somebody.
“I want to be somebody. I mean, I am somebody. I just want to be a rich somebody.”
It really does make me sad that her dreams did not come true in the way that she wanted. She died of cancer at the age of 44. Read her last interview here . In it she talks about not wanting to be no damn woman, an attitude I was surprised to read seeing as in the film she was looking forward to becoming a “full fledged woman of the United States by 1988”
Still I am inspired by these brave, colourful people who dared to live their truth.
Even in death the ladies of the ball continue to fascinate. The most interesting post mortem tale is about Dorian Corey. When she died, a mummified body with a gunshot wound was found in her closet. The body was estimated to have been there for 15-25 years! Whoa. No one knows for sure what happened, some people say the dead man was an intruder who tried to attack her, others say it was an abusive lover. A reporter went in search of the truth and wrote an interesting article titled The drag queen had a mummy in her closet. There was even a play titled Dorian’s Closet which touches on the issues as well as explores Dorian’s life. She had a body in her closet for decades and went about like nothing was amiss. Everyone who knew her or visited her home must have been so utterly shocked when the story broke.
The director Jennie Livingston provides an invaluable insight into the Black/Latino LGBT community and touches on issues such as sex work, discrimination, gender identity, rejection and survival.
That is every minority’s dream and ambition; to look and live as well as a White person.
We have had everything taken from us and yet we have learned to survive.
My favourite quote from Paris is Burning:
“I’ve never felt comfortable being poor. Even middle class doesn’t suit me.”