Style

Executive Realness

Chopping, mopping, fierceness, and shade: the legendary children of the New York ballroom scene.

RuPaul photographed by Chantal Regnault via Scab

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the ballroom scene was one of New York’s most vibrant subcultures. Balls were extravagantly creative pageants where predominantly black and Latino LGBTQ men and women competed, catwalking and voguing their way to trophies and underground fame—what they called “legendary child” status. The book Voguing by photographer Chantal Regnault and Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning (totally worth the Netflix subscription), capture the fierce competition at the balls as well as the behind-the-scenes lives of the performers and their makeshift families, aka “houses.”

Photos by Chantal Regnault via Vogue

At these balls, contestants from different houses dressed up according to a theme and walked a runway, with judges scoring them based on the fierceness of their attitudes, outfits, and catwalk stomps. The categories were incredibly specific. In the Butch Queen Realness competition, contestants were judged on their ability to blend in as a heterosexual thug, pretty boy, school boy, or business executive. The ability to pass was summed up in one word, which you hear thrown in the ball world a lot: REALNESS.

L-R: Photos by Chantal Regnault via Vogue and Scab

The funny thing about the use of the word “realness” in ball culture is that it means the exact opposite of what you think. When people talk about realness now, it means staying true to your roots and refusing to soften or change yourself for the dominant culture. But at a ball, realness means: how well can you pass as or pretend to be somebody else? Contestants were expected to embody their chosen look as naturally as possible, and judges gave harsh penalties for neglecting minute details that might give away an impostor. For instance, if you showed up in the Eveningwear Realness category without your purse, or the Executive Realness category without a clean shave and a copy of the Wall Street Journal under your arm? Child, prepare yourself for a demerit—and some derisive catcalls from the crowd, too.

Cover image from Chantal Regnault's Voguing

L-R: Octavia Saint Laurent via Scab; House of Dupree Ball (1989) via the Guardian

The importance of “realness” in the ball world is fascinating to me, because it highlights “passing” as a survival skill. In a world that was (and still is) openly hostile towards anyone who doesn’t present as heterosexual, LBGTQ people had to learn to walk, talk, and dress straight if they want to survive. The balls honor the careful observation, skill, attention to detail, and fashion sense that this demands, while at the same time subverting the heterosexual mandate. Ball participants got to try on not just the clothes, but also the power that comes with being a part of the dominant culture—if only for the night.

House of Chanel via Scab and the Guardian

There’s a subversive thrill in dressing head-to-toe in Chanel, or in portraying yourself as a successful businessman when you’re actually a broke hustler, like many of the people in Paris Is Burning are. The men in the Executive Realness category look damn good in their three-piece suits, and there’s a poignancy to these faux-businessmen when you realize that if not for being born poor, black, and gay in a culture that’s hostile towards all three, they might have had a better chance of being an actual executive. Dorian Corey, the matriarch of the ballroom scene, explains it beautifully:

In the drag and the ballroom scene, LGBTQ people created an amazing thing: a community that loved and celebrated them for all the same reasons the rest of the world rejected them. Creativity, love of fashion, performance, and the refusal to conform to gender norms made you a star, not an outcast. The ballroom is about the refusal to be marginalized based on your identity or circumstances. It’s about creating a world where you’re free to play with your identity and where a person can, through the sheer force of their own fierceness, survive and thrive. The legendary children of the ballroom scene knew that performing could be powerful and that the ultimate freedom was self-invention, and that’s even more beautiful than Dorian’s spangly dresses.

Dorian Corey by Michael James O’Brien

21 Comments

  • ravenflamingo May 14th, 2012 7:06 PM

    The first time I watched Paris is Burning I remember being so inspired. Thank you Rookie for reminding me of this amazing subculture!

    http://ravenflamingo.tumblr.com

  • Adrienne May 14th, 2012 7:09 PM

    Wow I’ve never heard of these balls! Great article, Leeann! I especially love the last paragraph. :)

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • avalonforever May 14th, 2012 7:13 PM

    Paris is burning is such an inspirational documentary- although the whole thing with Dorian Corey after he died was kind of freaky…he had murdered someone and kept them mummified in his apartment – the body was only discovered after Corey died…Octavia St Laurent was beautiful on a lighter note!

    • Ben May 15th, 2012 9:22 PM

      I know! That was really creepy and sad!

  • Tracy May 14th, 2012 7:31 PM

    So happy to see this on Rookie!

    The 80s ballroom scene is so fascinating and inspiring. I recommend that everyone watch Paris is Burning if they haven’t already because it’s truly a superior documentary about this culture.

  • fizzingwhizbees May 14th, 2012 8:23 PM

    YES YES YES!!!! Paris is Burning is my LIFE.

  • Celiabow May 14th, 2012 8:42 PM

    This was such a great article.
    Gee, Rookie is such an awesome magazine :)
    http://celiabow.blogspot.com.au/

  • Laia May 14th, 2012 10:45 PM

    Paris is Burning is SO EVERYTHING. everyone must watch right away and it will totally change your life.

  • AJ May 14th, 2012 10:50 PM

    If you don’t mind Japanese subtitles, the entire documentary is on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS0_NUqPgw4

  • janeeyre May 14th, 2012 10:55 PM

    not entirely on topic, but last week i confirmed once more why i love being southamerican. the congress voted unanimously the new gender identity law, which gives all trans people the right to change their identity, and i’m so happy i thought i could share it here.

    http://feministing.com/2012/05/11/friday-feminist-fuck-yeah-argentina-makes-history-with-new-gender-identity-law/

  • Amy Rose May 14th, 2012 11:07 PM

    KILLER POST

  • Jenny May 14th, 2012 11:24 PM

    Ugh, this post is everything I want to encounter, and now I’ve encountered it and loved it.

  • anisarose May 14th, 2012 11:32 PM

    interesting!

    http://anisarose.blogspot.com/

  • Susann May 15th, 2012 12:32 AM

    I’ve never heard about this but it’s really interesting!

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Gemm May 15th, 2012 1:43 AM

    As much as I loved the idea of this piece, it missed many of the issues that make “Realness” so meaningful, and emotional.

    1. Transexuals and drag queens/kings are a minority within the already marginalized, and face discrimination from those thought to be part of their community, the more widely accepted LGB community.

    2. The concept of realness is fun and fabulous, but you didn’t describe what’s really at heart here. It’s not just letting your freak flag fly (something I think defines a rookie haha) but being comfortable in your own skin. Literally feeling at peace with your body.

    I filmed a mini-documentary this year about transgender civil rights, and complaints aside, was ECSTATIC to read something like this on a website aimed at young girls. It’s really shows how far we’ve come as human beings.

    Sucks the U.S is behind the times in terms of trans legal rights, THAT’S SHADE.

  • imola May 15th, 2012 4:54 AM

    aaahh i’ve seen Paris is Burning many times, it’s so amazing! the Voguers, the costumes, everything is beyond fabulous.
    also, there’s a new film about contemporary LA ball culture titled Leave It on the Floor, has anyone seen it? here’s the trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkuuHX1iebE

    • OlyGirl_LAWorld May 17th, 2012 3:14 PM

      It’s fun and wacky. Has some good music too! I don’t know if it really hit the nail on the head of “realness” and that more serious side of queer culture like this article did (it’s more general/Hollywood in its story), but it’s a fun watch. I don’t know if/when it’ll come to indie theaters, but keep an eye out.

  • Caden May 15th, 2012 5:44 AM

    Ahhh this is all so glamorous and fun! Thank you for introducing me to a culture I didn’t even know existed!

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

  • caro nation May 15th, 2012 3:17 PM

    Prior to this post, someone had written “Paris Is Burning” in the school’s box for dance theme suggestions.

  • Ben May 15th, 2012 9:21 PM

    I just watched Paris is Burnig recently and it’s really cool!

  • OlyGirl_LAWorld May 17th, 2012 3:10 PM

    I recently worked on a movie musical that used the current LA Ball scene as it’s setting. It was fun and interesting, but ultimately I felt that something was off about the story. It was so very typical Hollywood in its arc (fish-out-of-water, montage, rises to legend status), and I felt that they missed the point behind Ball culture in the end. I’m so glad you wrote this article and really put the emphasis on the meaning of “realness” and the implications it has in lgbtq life. Great read!