This March will mark the 32nd anniversary of the NYC release of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. This documentary features the 1980s underground drag and ballroom culture that consisted mainly of queer Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and African-Americans in New York City. To the viewers who were already alive at the time, this was the first time that many learned about this rather exclusive scene.
But if you weren’t alive in the 80s-90s, or you’re unsure what the ballroom culture is, you might be asking “what is Paris Is Burning?”
When Jennie Livingston moved to NYC, she worked at Staten Island Advance — but left one summer to pursue film at New York University. While taking photos at Washington Square Park, she came across two young queer men who were dancing. Intrigued, she then asked them what they were doing. The young men responded that they were “voguing.” Eventually, Livingston attended her first ball where she met the legends of the ballroom scene. Not long after, she documented their lives.
When Paris Is Burning was released, it was when people found out what the terms “voguing,” “realness,” “legendary,” “reading,” “houses,” and other phrases (we use today) meant. It was also the documentary where the public was made aware of the struggles colored queer people in the 1960s-1990s dealt with — being kicked out for not having accepting parents, being harassed for being queer, being discriminated against because of the AIDS epidemic, etc.
Many of the Paris Is Burning icons and legends went on with their usual lives after its release. However, some suffered fates more tragic than others.
Here’s what happened to some of the cast:
If you watched the documentary before, then you probably already know that the young and ambitious 23 year old Venus Xtravaganza was found strangled to death and hidden under the mattress of a hotel before Paris Is Burning finished filming.
The killer is still not identified or found up to this day. And the suspected motive of the perpetrator was that it was because they found out that Venus Xtravaganza was not a cisgender woman. The person who had to identify Venus’ body was her “Mother,” Angie Xtravaganza (who also had to inform Venus’ biological parents of her death).
Angie Xtravaganza, the co-founder and Mother of the House of Xtravaganza was diagnosed with AIDS — and subsequently, cancer — one year after Paris Is Burning was released. 2 years later, she died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 28. Unfortunately, was cremated and buried under her deadname.
Some may know Dorian Corey for being involved in an unsolved case where a mummified body of a man was found stuffed in a suitcase. But in Paris Is Burning, the mature drag queen uttered the lines, “I always had hopes of being a big star…and as you get older you aim a little lower, and I say you still might make an impression. Everybody wants to leave something behind them, some mark upon the world.” Dorian Corey also passed away from AIDS-related complications at the age of 56.
Considered to be “the last remaining queen of the Harlem drag balls,” Pepper LaBeija belonged to the House of LaBeija. She was known for her Egyptian-inspired fashion, being the drag daughter of Crystal LaBeija (founder of the New York ballroom culture as a whole), her voguing skills, and her legendary status — where she amassed over 200 trophies. After Paris Is Burning, Pepper LaBeija continued to take in more queer, gay, and transgender Latinx, African-American, and Afro-Latinx children (especially during the AIDS epidemic). She passed away from type 2 diabetes complications at the age of 54.
Willi Ninja is known as “The Godfather of Vogue” — due to his voguing skills that captivated everyone’s attention. He also walked for the “butch queen” category. Willi Ninja was also said to be the inspiration for Madonna’s Vogue. He, sadly, also died from heart failure due to AIDS.
Octavia St. Laurent was known to walk for the “Face” category in the ballroom scene because of her elegant looks. When she got diagnosed with HIV, she educated others about AIDS, drug use, and prostitution (which was a common type of work the LGBTQ+ resorted to in order to make ends meet). She passed away from cancer at the age of 45.
Hector Xtravaganza (the Father of House of Xtravaganza alongside Angie Xtravaganza) mainly walked for the “Face” and “Model’s Effect” categories. He lived long enough to gain recognition for his talents — he got to work as a fashion designer and stylist for various pop artists. Hector Xtravaganza also starred in Icona Pop’s All Night as well as appeared as a judge in the series Pose. He died of lymphoma last 2018.
To learn what Paris Is Burning is, is to also learn what New York City (particularly Harlem) and its once-underground queer culture was in the 80s. Most of the people who appeared in the documentary tragically passed away from AIDS at a young age. We may have come far from how the LGBTQ+ community was treated in NYC, but there are still cases of harassment, discrimination, assault — and sometimes even murder. Do your best to stand up against these crimes.
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