Follow-up film returns to drag queen ball scene
by JOE CUNNINGHAM
New York Post
September 21, 2001
In 1990, a documentary about the outrageous and insular Harlem and Brooklyn drag ball scene, Paris is Burning, introduced the world to voguing, a little-known dance style that Madonna promptly parlayed into a full-fledged craze.
Now, more than a decade later, How Do I Look, a sequel of sorts that revisits many of the same places and personalities, is currently shooting in New York and is expected to be released for a theatrical run in 2002.
There's no telling what kind of influence the new film will have on pop culture, but there's no question Paris made its mark in many ways.
"You hear expressions from the ball community everywhere in our culture," notes Kevin Omni, the producer of Look. "You hear people say, 'You're fierce,' or 'You're tired, Ms. Thing' or 'You better work.'"
"It's influenced everything from the bright colors you see in urban fashion to the way people dance. The voguing that Madonna took from the ball world and mainstreamed began in jail in the '70s. It was something the jail queens started."
The ball scene is broken up into individual "houses" -- most named for famous designers, like the House of Prada or House of Chanel.
The most respected members are designated "Mother" or "Father" to the houses' "children." These close-knit crews often serve as substitute families for their young black and Hispanic gay and bisexual members.
The houses then participate in runway competitions in which members get to strut their stuff in full diva mode before judges for cash prizes.
Omni's House of Omni is one of the oldest houses, boasting chapters across the country. The 42-year old Omni spends much of his time these days trying to raise enough cash to finish Look.
"This is going to pick up where Paris Is Burning left off," says Omni. "The ball community is a world unto itself…. Many of the kids feel alienated and uncomfortable in school or trying to fit into the heterosexual world. That's when this community becomes their whole life.
"My ultimate goal is to open up possibilities for them."
That's why the filmmakers are an empowerment program. They want to help raise awareness and, they hope, grants for artists, designers and performers in the ball scene.
"We hope to be educational as well as entertaining with this film," says Wolfgang Busch, 45, a former promoter for Limelight, the Palladium and the Tunnel, who is making his directorial debut with the film.
"I think the whole scene is about to blow up. The buzz is going international."
Omni says he's now trying to enlist one of Harlem's most high-profile residents to lend a hand.
"I sent Bill Clinton an invitation to our press conference a few weeks ago, and he responded with a letter saying he couldn't make it but that he's interested in lending his support," says Omni. "I'm going to request a possible grant, but what I really want is for him to appear in the film."
Among the characters the new documentary profiles is Monica Xtravaganza, who recently took over the title of "Mother" of the high-profile House of Xtravaganza.
The 33-year-old pre-op transsexual, who lives in Hell's Kitchen, says she became involved with the project because she believes it will portray the scene more faithfully (and sympathetically) than did Paris, which was directed by documentary filmmaker Jennie Livingston.
"It makes a big difference that people who are involved in the scene are making this film," she says. "I think this movie will be more expressive and more real than the last one, which I felt was a little exploitative."
And Xtravaganza says she's not worried about the scene being co-opted (Madonna's song, "Vogue," hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 1990) and watered down by exposure.
"I would like to see the heterosexual community learn more about the ball scene and about gay people in general. I'm not afraid of being mainstreamed -- you want to be more accepted."
For his part, Omni says he's determined to finish and release How Do I Look because he believes the ball scene didn't peak with Paris Is Burning.
"There's so much enthusiasm from everyone in the scene that you could hold these balls in a closet and nobody would care," he says. "It's like a huge fashion and talent audition where you can sing, dance, vogue -- anything you want.
"People have been holding costume balls for centuries. The ball scene is the continuation of that kind of tradition."
Special Note: For a link to an exact copy of this article, which was originally published by The New York Post in its Sunday edition on September 23, 2001, please visit: 'Paris' revisited.How Do I Look is available on Amazon.com.