A couple of seasons ago on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when a younger contestant blithely admitted that he’d never seen Paris is Burning, there was a collective gasp — not just from the other people in the studio, but from viewers worldwide. It’s not just that Paris is Burning — Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary about the drag pageant world of New York’s underground ballroom scene — is required viewing for queens vying for a crown, but for anyone who has a shred of appreciation for contemporary pop culture.
While voguing (of the ye olde Madonna hit) was born in the ballrooms — it was a way pageant contestants could directly face-off on the runway, with dueling poses — so was much of modern style and humor, and even contemporary music. It’s not just that pop culture has gone full circle back to the ‘90s, especially to house music, but that the particular language and look of drag, from phrases like “serving realness” (to describe your look) to the kind of uber-glamour that can make Beyonce look like a female impersonator, has it origins in the ballrooms.
Thankfully, Paris is Burning is now on Netflix, but there’s also Voguing: Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92, a book of photography by Chantal Regnault. Her photos don’t get as deep as Livingston’s footage does, but there are plenty of essays and interviews in Regnault’s Voguing that describe the scene and the players in it, like Willi Ninja, Muhammad Omni and Hector Xtravaganza — all, as they would say, “legendary children” of the scene. (Sadly, many of the major players’ interviews are published posthumously since AIDS ravaged the ballroom community.)
Since so many drag performers, especially those who are black or Latino, aren’t accepted by their biological families, it’s common even today for queens to create families of their own, with a “drag mother” who takes them in and shows them the ropes. Voguing extensively covers those families in the ballroom scene, where they were called houses (like fashion houses) and named after the legendary mothers who founded them, e.g. the House of Xtravaganza or the House of Ninja.
Willi Ninja, house founder who was featured in Madonna’s “Vogue” video and toured with her around the world, is profiled extensively in Regnault’s book, often striking some of his famous poses both on and off the runway, and is discussed by some of his fellow surviving ballroom performers. As explained by fellow voguer Muhammad Omni, “Willi opened the doors for future historians and choreographers and performers to give light on the world in which he came from.”
While not every face in Voguing is famous, they all seem to have a story to tell. Regnault’s style is sometimes composed and in-studio, but she mostly captures the performers on the runway, in the park or just riding the subway home. In some of the photos, they’re dressed to the nines, striking their fiercest pose, but other times, they’re just showing genuine warmth and affection for each other. She captures both their drag personas and their earnest humanity in a way that touches those who know about the ballroom scene and intrigues those who have no idea who these strange people in crazy clothes are. If Regnault was setting out to present a thorough, visual-heavy historical record of the ballroom scene, she does not, to paraphrase RuPaul, fuck it up.