Voguing, toujours en vogue
Voguing and the ballroom scene of New York
Interview with Chantal Regnault
(paris is burning)
(TRANSLATED FROM AN ARTICLE FOR VOGUE PARIS JAN 2012)
A cultural phenomenon that is largely unknown, yet infused in mainstream pop culture, Voguing is more than a few dance steps recovered by Madonna in her Vogue in 1990: it is a major change in the ballroom culture in New York, used as both an outlet and a refuge for the gay, black and Latin community for nearly a century. Between the parade, the game and the pure dance, its complex aesthetic codes (and the term “popular” itself) wholly the result of the climate of exclusion that gave them birth, and the fascination that the white establishment and bourgeois mode of exercising even among the outcasts of the gay community. Fascinated by the cultural emergence marginal French photographer Chantal Regnault attended many balls in the 80 and 90. After years in limbo in a closet, beautiful photos, portraits or impromptu effusions collective captured on the fly in the smoke of evening, are finally the subject of a book worthy of that name published by the British label Soul Jazz. Maintenance. By Olivier Lamm
First of all, how did you found in New York?
I really got installed in 1971. I thought to stay two or three years, I still live 40 years later. I loved the city, its people. I came from a family that embodied more or less everything I disliked in France. There, I found myself very free, and I felt a strong sense of belonging. New York was a cosmopolitan city, in the truest sense: being a foreigner means to be part of the family. Of course, I also fell in love with the place, its space, its architecture, its light. I left the city in 90 years, and moved to Haiti. And I rearranged after being driven out by the earthquake of 2010, in which I lost everything but life …
Did you practice the picture before coming?
I started studying literature in France, I started pursuing at NYU. But soon I gave up. And photography quickly become very clear. New York in the early 70s, was a gold mine for the pictures and I was soon published in journals. The street was incredibly photogenic. All marginalized groups who lived there made it even more photogenic. I started very early became interested in hip-hop culture, which was still in its infancy: the breakdancing, graffiti. I became friends with a lot of people’s Liberation and a combination of circumstances, I became a correspondent for Gay Foot. Inevitably, I began to document the Gay Pride events and other less known. The photos Voguing evenings, they were published twice, in Libération, and Gay Foot. Didier Lestrade often came to New York and I seem to remember that he signed the two articles. And then later, in 1991, he had to pass something in Paris. I met Jean-Claude Lagrèze, which was among the first to organize house parties in Paris. It was a key figure of the Parisian night, at the time. He organized parties at a club called the Boy, which Laurent Garnier was the DJ. He wanted to organize an event there, with a slide show, called “Black night in New York” … Unfortunately, the club was closed by police the day of the event … The photos are returned in boxes and they are no longer … never emerged until this book.
How, precisely, the book he finally emerged?
Almost by accident. I know in the gay scene in Paris, the publication of these photos was a bit arlésienne.C become a ‘friend is a photographer Leah Gordon, who made a book for Soul Jazz last year (Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti, ed), which was offered to show the photos to Stuart Baker. And that’s it.
How did you echo the early evenings Voguing?
If I learned anything, it arrived very late. In 1988, there was an article by Lisa Jones in the Village Voice called “Venus Envy,” with pictures of Sylvia Plachy. Immediately, I did everything to find out where it went. Out at the time, there was little balls. A self-respecting house was a ball a year, two at the most. Fortunately for me, there was not bad at the time, six major and about fifteen smaller ones that had just created. You could just go to an event – it was called a “function” – to know where would the next Queens since the present announcing the next ball that night by distributing flyers. It was the ball of the House of Pend’avis and LaBeija took the opportunity to announce his own, usually months in advance. Once we were back in the middle, it was very easy to keep.
So it was easy to enter an environment?
I am often asked how I found myself there, I who am white and heterosexual. But the black middle and outcasts myself was far from unknown. And then there was no hostility in the balls. On the contrary. The idea of these balls and Voguing was a representation of the glamorous, chic recovery of which belonged in reality to the world of white that excluded blacks and gays. They expected one thing to be photographed, and that honors their recreations and their representations of Diana Ross or models of Vogue. They felt even more liberated that someone was there to take pictures. I welcome, and I spent the night fantastic with them.
There’s something a little tragic aesthetic horizon as Queens Woman Pepper LaBeija or Octavia Saint Laurent: it was the opposite of their condition, and essentially out of reach.
Most of them dressed as prom night. But few have managed to exist outside the context of the ball: Carmen Xtravaganza has worked as a model, Octavia, Willi Ninja, Adrian Beautiful were both dancers and models for Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. They traveled, they had a career. With balls. Even if they died very young …
This is another aspect of this terrible story. AIDS has wreaked havoc in the middle.
I was appalled to realize how much they were likely to be dead when I started working on the book, a year ago. Especially since I had lost contact with most of them after I left for Haiti. The stock is on the cover of the book was a close friend, with whom I kept in touch until 2005. But I could not find her. Someone told me she was dead. And then after a series of misunderstandings, I learned she was not dead but it had become a Jehovah’s Witness after a sex change. And I realized why I had such a hard time getting back in touch with the transsexuals who had their operation: they no longer want to be remembered at the time they were men who posing as women. They take too much social integration.
Most of those interviewed you still seem to be part of the circuit, often more than 20 years later.
They are all very active, but they still attend, at least on facebook … They marched over, of course. They are too old, even if they are beautifully maintained. But some still perform at the former. They call it “performance, the old way.” And then the movement has just institutionalized. There is the Ballroom Institute has created. Latex Ball and the House of Latex, which was created by the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) at the end of 80 years to reach young gay at that time falling like flies. It remained a legendary ball, and the veterans are happy to make an appearance.
All interviews you’ve done is to end up elsewhere on the same conclusion: it is “easier” to be gay and black today. And function of the balls itself has changed.
The fact that the Ball Culture has fascinated both the mainstream at a time has probably done a lot for a certain acceptance of gay culture, and worked for the gay liberation that began in the 70s. The Black Woman Queens, who accumulates marginalities, helped the community to come out. And do not forget also that the New York clubs were revived thanks to voguers. The Queens woman has become the number one attraction of parties also attended by whites, at a time to AIDS, was preferred to the cocooning at home with VHS tapes.
You were aware that the original was Voguing rediscovered in recent years?
I had no idea. Only at the last Gay Pride in New York that I realized that something was happening. I must say that I lived in Haiti, and that even if there are only three hours and a half flight from New York to Port-au-Prince, when you are there it feels to live on the other side of the Earth. In short, I noticed that young gay African-Americans had built gestures voguers in their dances. On the occasion of the book, I reconnected as best I could with the protagonists of the first wave – three-quarters died, a tragedy – through the internet, facebook and all that. And then I realized that the culture of the balls had not only continued after 90 years, but it has amplified and extended to the whole country. Balls Andre Mizrahi North Carolina walk the fire god, and there is one week. There are kiki functions, which are like mini balls. And the houses have become national institutions, with variations in all major cities are called “chapters.” Of course, the Voguing itself has evolved. There is the old style, new style … I even discovered that there were Voguing Knights in a club right next to my home in Chelsea. But if we talk about it again and if a label like Soul Jazz is interested again, it is because the mainstream culture itself is interested again, as he was interested in the late 80 years with Madonna and the film Livinsgton Jennie (Paris is Burning, ed)
Let’s talk about the film. He promoted the movement internationally. But it is decried in the community …
The film has incredible market for a documentary, especially with the grand prize he won at Sundance. Miramax has decided to distribute it, and it generated a lot of money. Which probably has not been paid back to everyone as it should. But the image that the film shows in the middle is good. The woman did all the Queens hustler bars in Times Square, which at the time had nothing to do with Disneyland that it has become today … They were working all night. And balls, there were plenty of small strokes, too. It is no coincidence that in the categories of battle, there was the “mugging” (strip), the “mopping,” where he had to prove that something had stung, or “grafting”, where prided outright credit cards or checks. Many kids were fucking at the door by their biological families and homeless. For them, Angie Xtravaganza and Pepper LaBeija were true surrogate mothers. They were not content to sew the costumes to the machine, they welcomed them home. But besides that, there were plenty of people from the middle class. It was quite a mixture, I swear. I think the community was particularly insulted by all the articles surrounding the film.
The Voguing has become so popular at one time it just seems to have supplanted the culture of the balls from which it came. What happened?
It happened gradually. Spurred on LaBeija Pepper, who was “queen” of the House of LaBeija, the drag balls were opened up to Butch Queens. Until then, they were reserved for transvestites and drag queens. Very athletic young boys, dressed in homeboys, stormed balls. The Queens Women are those who have developed all the hand gestures. But it is mainly the Butch who invented the dance known today Voguing. They were dancing everywhere. It is also through them that the balls are out of the woods. There began to have parties in clubs, at the Paradise Garage, Better Days in … These young gays dancing to right to left, it has certainly helped raise awareness of the culture. I still believe that it happened in response to the rise of breakdancing. They came from the same neighborhoods as their straight counterparts. So, it was very physical as Butch … The women, who sailed on stiletto heels. That said, it was nothing compared with the kinds of Voguing practiced by today’s youth. And my veterans who have all their fifties, they are not flexible enough, and they make the mouth a little …