paris is burning again
No matter what category you walk in, you better work it! The vogue ball scene has found a new lease of life in its spiritual home, Paris.
Lasseindra, the green-eyed Guyanese-American mother of the House of Ninja's Paris chapter is credited by many as one of the founders of the city's thriving ball scene. It was her dancing at gay club nights that got Parisian party-goers interested in what was, to them, a new form of dance, expression and, later, community.
Voguing is new to the city, but so swiftly and deeply has Paris taken to it, it feels like it's always been there. The Houses that rule the Paris ball scene are Mizrahi, Ninja, LaDurée and Ebony, and they've all been built in just six years. Already balls regularly draw in 200 passionately dedicated people, and some — like the legendary Cleopatra Ball — hit close to 1000. They're irregular, Facebook-invite happenings that take place all over central Paris, from La Générale to Le Carreau du Temple, but with performers coming from anywhere from the city's banlieues to Baltimore, USA.
Lasseindra hit the Harlem scene growing up in New York. "I was 13 and the first time I went to the club, I felt that I finally had a place where I could see people like me. I felt free, but at the same time understood." The community proved to be a major confidence booster and wider education about sexuality and trans identity for Lasseindra, so it's only fitting that when she moved to Paris in the mid-00s, she instinctively began teaching the ball lifestyle to curious French clubbers.
Precious, now the Mother of the House of Ebony in Paris, was one of the people drawn to Lasseindra's dancing. "When I came here, Precious was the first one on this dance," Lasseindra says. "She was watching videos on YouTube and was really into a particular video of Leiomy Mizrahi vs. The Evisus, where she had the pink wig on. I said, 'I know her,' and she looked at me, like, 'Bitch you're lying.' I said I knew about the dance and she said, 'Show me' so I did a dip and she was like, 'Oh my gosh, she knows!' I never claimed to be the best, but I knew some stuff, and what I knew, I gave them."
Before long, Lasseindra had set up the House of Ninja in Paris, Precious ran Ebony and "another big girl came: Mother Steffi Mizrahi. She helped me put everything together," Lasseindra explains. Many of the Paris Houses are extensions of the New York originators and have good contact with fellow members over in the States. The French learn from their more experienced American counterparts, and many of the New York Houses take pride in the prestige of having a Parisian chapter. Paris is, after all, the idealized city of fashion and face that many ball scenesters hold in high regard.
Precious — in a baseball cap, braids, and with face full of flawless make-up — has been transformed by the development of the Paris scene. Ten years ago he was a quiet student, Gary, but now she's grown into a House Mother taking care of 15 kids. "It's my passion," she says. "Before I was shy, and it's opened me up. Now I'm busy looking after my kids." She's arranging impressive extravaganzas — it's the House of Ebony who put on the Murder Ball documented in these photos. "It's giving me a real mission," she says.
More than just one big long fierce vogue-off, the scene is about dedicated, supportive communities. Lasseindra is fully committed to looking after her family. "I really take care of my kids. I have to make sure they get a job. I have to give them some energy and courage. We have to help one another in the house."
Another key player on the scene is the big (probably pushing 6'5), beatific, beautiful Kiddy Smile, who started out playing mixes for the balls before he was taken into the House of Mizrahi by Mother Steffi. Kiddy (who's also created soundtracks for Balenciaga catwalk shows and plays sets in Berghain) says his membership of a House has helped him build confidence ("I feel very empowered when I walk on the catwalk"), learn skills ("I didn't go to fashion school, but I think my stuff looks pretty neat. I got all these skills from ballroom!") and even come out to his real life mother.
Kiddy credits the House of Mizrahi with "creating a place where people can be themselves," continuing, "You wanna wear a wig? Wear a wig! You wanna have fake titties? Wear fake titties! Nobody's going to judge you. They're going to judge you on your performance. If you step on to that floor, you got to deliver, but on your look, or the fact that you're gay, no one is going to judge you." He wishes this scene had been around earlier. "I'm 28, I envy these kids who are 14 or 15 and are able to turn to the ballroom scene and be themselves, not to be judged. When I was 15, there were no places like that."
Kiddy sees the scene as an inherently political movement, even if he suspects many people haven't realized that yet. He sees the Paris gay scene as racist and unwelcoming, so is happy to be creating new spaces for gay and trans black kids to flourish. "As a colored, homosexual movement, it's historic. Just the fact that we're there at the beginning and building this, we should feel proud."
Text Stuart Brumfitt
Photography Pierre Ange Carlotti