Throughout the years, New York City’s queer underground ballroom scene has been highlighted in documentaries like 1991’s classic Paris is Burning and 2017’s Kiki. Both films capture the scene’s intricacies and how it became a home for the marginalized LGBT youth of color. For its main stars, the art of voguing, playing dress up, toying with gender norms and flirting with lipstick all form a means of survival within a world that thwarts their attempts at being themselves.
VICELAND’s new reality series, My House, takes a stab at showing a more magical side to this culture while staying authentic to its characters and their storylines. It follows the lives of six fierce voguers—Tati 007, Alex Mugler, Jelani Mizrahi, Lolita Balenciaga, Relish Milan and Precious Ebony, a charming ballroom scene insider and frequent host of the balls.
Precious’ presence is easy to love on and off screen. As she puts it, she’s “big, black and beautiful.” She joined the ballroom scene during her tenure at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx where she brought her A-game with confidence. During the series’ first two episodes, Precious—who sounds like the life coach we all need on a rainy day—shares how much she’s struggled yet how fortunate she is to travel the world and stay at lush hotels for doing what she loves. With the ballroom scene, she’s found self-worth.
“I had to learn how to be more comfortable in my own skin. I had to learn how to accept myself. You can’t expect other people to accept you if you don’t accept yourself wholeheartedly,” she says over the phone. “Even with being perfect there are still some imperfections. I know I have my flaws but my flaws are what make me unique; that’s more of what makes me Precious, and that’s the most beautiful imperfection in the world.”
That sense of inspiration is what the program’s producers hope resonates with viewers. In a recent interview with i-D, field producer Nneka Onuorah quieted the negative misconception placed upon those within the scene. “The stereotype that everyone is living, sad depressing lives because of oppression. No honey, they are living their best lives and growing and booking gigs, having relationships, and learning,” Onuorah said. “They are not victims. There are hardships, but it has not held them down.”
Voguing and the scene itself provides a sense of escape from the many issues and tribulations that most in the community face. But despite these hurdles, the scene provides them with strength and success. Voguing holds a poignant conversation of its own. It gives the power of expressing one’s emotions through movement.
“Vogue is an art and art is communication,” Precious explains. “When you’re voguing you’re having a conversation with someone. You can shut your mouth and tell someone how your day has been just by voguing. The way you lay across the floor can be a sign of intimacy because when you’re on the floor that’s the time you feel your inner self.”
Alex Mugler, a trained dancer in the House of Mugler, views the ballroom scene as a gateway to other elements of self-worth. “My House shows that within ballroom you can do many great things,” he says. “And it can help you evolve your career, inside and outside of it. You get more of a third dimension of what you’re getting in ballroom today of when you go to a ball, and what’s happening in a person outside of the scene. “
For Mugler, the visibility has come with great exposure. He’s modeled for the fashion world’s most coveted runways and danced with Rihanna and FKA Twigs, but the idea of being on camera took some getting used to. “I was really nervous,” he says with a deep sigh. “My family knows about me going to vogue and stuff, but it’s different when it’s going to be on TV every Wednesday at 10:30.” While he was hesitant about this opportunity, Mugler feels that his presence in the show is crucial for others getting comfortable with their sexual identity.
“I felt like it was needed to be done,” he continues. “I was going to sacrifice my comfortability to share my stories with others. I felt like somebody coming from Brooklyn who wants to be a part of the ballroom scene can see what I’ve been through, and that can inspire them. It’s not even just about ballroom, but just being a black or Latino LGBT person coming up in this world.”
Amidst the aura of empowerment, My House shelters a refreshing dosage of realness coupled with seamless execution. For Tati 007, a stunning Dominican and Trinidadian transgender woman who joined the scene in 2010, the way her trans identity is introduced to viewers is clever. During a shopping trip to a beauty supply store with another trans woman, both were dissecting the politics of being perceived as cis-gender women in society. As they were having this innocuous conversation, you get the sense that the dialogue is becoming more normalized—they weren’t introduced in front of a green screen simply saying, “I am a transgender woman.”
Openly speaking about her identity came naturally to Tati, she says. “I’ve been living my life as a trans woman for so long that I’m just naturally comfortable with the topic. It doesn’t really make or break me because I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m just so content with my being, so I just feel like it’s nothing to talk about it. It’s a conversation that needs to be had.”
My House offers new insight into a fascinating underground world that has surpassed most expectations. Its main characters are full of personality and undeniable talent within a program that has all the ingredients of a good reality show—there’s drama, fierce competition, out of this world dance moves, personal turmoil, beauty and light all in one. And there’s still a good balance between showcasing the many social issues that encircle this community.
What matters most about the ballroom culture is what it can offer those who need it most. “Once I found out what the culture was about, and what the ballroom experience had to offer me,” Precious says, “I grabbed it and ran like I was a thief in a store.”