Years before Madonna recorded her hit song Vogue, with its sultry command to “strike a pose,” homosexual men in Harlem were striking drop-dead poses in the dance form known as voguing. Combining gymnastic contortions with the preening moves of fashion models, it is a highly vampish style—which perhaps explains its appeal for Madonna, pop music’s reigning siren. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles gay-culture magazine The Advocate, the singer said she discovered voguing while planning last year’s Blond Ambition tour. At a New York City disco, she encountered some gay men who regularly attend the socalled drag balls where voguing was invented, and said that she was “blown away.” Madonna went on to write her song about
the dance, and recruited some of the drag-ball stars to perform on her tour. A few years earlier, film-maker Jennie Livingston had also discovered voguing and the outlandish world that gave birth to it. The result is the funny and fascinating Paris Is Burning.
Livingston’s 78-minute documentary takes a walk on the wild side and shows the humanity there. The drag-ball participants portrayed in Paris Is Burning—the title comes from one of the events—are mainly black and Hispanic. In interviews with the film-maker, they describe backgrounds of poverty and family ostracism, and suggest that most ball-goers make their living as prostitutes. The balls are competitive events where the performers win awards for being most convincing when they dress up and act out their fantasies—most of which have to do with being wealthy, powerful and idolized.
In addition to such transvestite categories as “supermodel of the world,” there are competitions for being most convincing as a soldier, a male or female student, and a top-notch executive. Says one participant: “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You aren't really an
executive but you look like one, and that is a fulfilment.” Says another: “You go in there and you feel 100-per-cent right being gay.”
Livingston’s film shows how fantasy can mitigate the sadness of life. There is something endearingly childlike about the ambitions of some of the men. A young transsexual who called himself Venus Xtravaganza—he was found strangled shortly after the film-maker interviewed him—is unabashed about his Barbie-doll visions. “I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl,” he says. “I wanna get married in church in white.”
Another ball-goer, a wry, middle-aged transvestite named Dorian Corey, describes how he has come to be content with the “small fame” of winning at a ball. “You leave a mark on the world,” he says, meticulously applying his makeup, “if you just get through it and a few people remember your name.” Survivors of mean streets and harsh lives, the men who reveal themselves in Paris Is Burning possess a scrappy dignity.
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