Drag Queens | Film | Gay Iconography | Willi Ninja

Gay Iconography: Honoring Drag Roots In ‘Paris Is Burning’


As we cross the halfway mark on this season of RuPaul's Drag Race, the popular reality competition (1 million Facebook Likes, and growing) continues to be one of the primary drivers of a reinvigorated interest in drag culture and slang. However, long before Mother Ru was tellings us to “sissy that walk,” Venus Xtravaganza was asking if we were “going through it” in the iconic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

While the film introduced America to lots of drag vernacular -- launching “reading,” “realness” and “voguing” into the cultural consciousness -- it also perfectly encapsulated a specific moment in time. Filmed in mid-to-late ‘80s, director Jennie Livingston’s documentary sheds light on the faces of New York ball culture at its peak, including figures like Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey. It is a portrait of a segment of the LGBT community before the height of its struggle with AIDS. The film also tackles issues of race, class and gender.

Take a look back with some of our favorite clips celebrating Paris Is Burning,


Reading, as they say, is fundamental, and the fundamentals of reading were put on display in Paris Is Burning by Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza. In a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru and the queens opened up the library for their reading challenge. It’s the most overt homage the reality series makes to Paris, but it’s certainly not all the show owes that groundbreaking film.



Before Madonna had a hit song talking about Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean on the cover of a magazine, Willi Ninja was establishing voguing in New York City. Known as the ‘godfather’ of voguing, Madonna said of him: “He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people.”



The film was critically lauded; it was recognized by the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, as well as by the New York, Los Angeles and National Film Critics’ Circles. As the documentary gained recognition, so did its subjects. Several of the film’s stars appeared on The Joan Rivers Show for a fascinating episode in 1991. You can see part one above (and then you can watch part two, three, four and five on YouTube).



Paris Is Burning is noteworthy for showcasing gay and trans voices from people of color -- members of the community that are still dramatically underrepresented today. In 2012, rapper Big Freedia told NPR: “When Paris is Burning came out I was just a kid in the local choir in my church in New Orleans. I remember how much I loved everything about it — the characters, the costumes, the music. I couldn't believe there were gay Black and Latino men being portrayed like that on screen. It meant a lot to me and in many ways inspired me to do something different and follow my dream, no matter what others said.”



The movie’s influence is still felt today. Rapper Azealia Banks sampled the film on the track “Fierce” off her 2012 mixtape Fantasea (above). Swedish pop duo Icona Pop also used ball culture as the theme for the video to their single “All Night.”

Have you queued up Paris Is Burning on your Netflix lately?

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  1. One of my favorite documentaries!! Thanks!

    Posted by: WayneMPLS | Apr 12, 2014 2:00:21 PM

  2. Stop mixing gay and trans!

    Posted by: litper | Apr 12, 2014 2:00:35 PM

  3. YES!

    My first job was working in a local mom-and-pop videostore in Toronto when I was 15 years old. As a closeted gay kid, this meant I could "secretly" get my Queer Education via VHS - before I was at a point where I felt confident enough to just rent a gay film, or take a gay book out of the library. This film blew me away as a teen, and it's one I continue to show my younger friends.

    What I took from the film when I was 15/16 years old was the sheer defiant strength and resilience of these people. Inspiring, empowering.
    "If they can do that, and be this, and scream it out loud, surely I can, too" And a few years later, I did.

    werk and SERVE

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 12, 2014 2:03:41 PM

  4. I didn't know "ball culture" ;) was a thing and I've been gay since before Paris is Burning was a thing. Lord when I went to see that movie in Savannah Ga with my girlfriend Muffy Pontuna, there weren't many people in the theater for that one. Of course, that was back in 1990 and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil hadn't even been thought of yet. We enjoyed the movie. Finally a movie whose entire theme wasn't based on aids. I loved voguing. That was back when Chocolate Thunder was living in Savannah for a brief time before heading back up to Atlanta then later to Jacksonville. Wonder how she doing these days!

    Posted by: Michael H | Apr 12, 2014 2:05:48 PM

  5. @LittleKiwi stop your nasty trans propaganda!

    Posted by: litper | Apr 12, 2014 2:35:31 PM

  6. Okay, LITPER:
    You do realize that Jenny Livingston made Paris is Burning in the late 1980s, right?

    So your bitching about identity politics is some 25 year too late,

    Have a seat already.

    Posted by: Jerry | Apr 12, 2014 2:51:43 PM

  7. Okay, LITPER:
    You do realize that Jenny Livingston made Paris is Burning in the late 1980s, right?

    So your bitching about identity politics is some 25 year too late,

    Have a seat already.

    Posted by: Jerry | Apr 12, 2014 2:51:43 PM

  8. Jerry - he's a trolling coward who is angry that the types of people his s**t family hated, and taught him to hate, lead better, happier, free-er and more open and joyous love-filled lives.

    it's like when he uses his other aliases to scream about "effeminate gay men" - do you know who hates effeminate gay men? gay men raised by bigoted people, that's who.

    at some point these sad anonymous trolls need to stop being upset that other people are loved and embraced for being the type of people the trolls had to "not be" to be almost-sorta-but-not-really "tolerated" by the people they were raised by.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 12, 2014 3:03:09 PM

  9. There's no such thing as effeminate gay men, only trans activists who worship heterosexuality and can't accept love between men.

    Posted by: litper | Apr 12, 2014 3:27:56 PM


    Posted by: Shannon | Apr 12, 2014 4:01:58 PM

  11. I thought the film was boring then and I haven't changed my mind. The people struck me as unlikable in so many ways. I don't believe most of them were gay Thus they wee irrelevant to my interests.
    On the other hand, the feature film LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR was more engaging and entertaining. the actors and their characters seemed to have some real talents.

    Posted by: gregorybrown | Apr 12, 2014 4:47:44 PM

  12. We can thank Madonna for bringing this to everyone's attention. She didn't invent it, but she made it popular, and a lot of people who probably would never have gotten any attention did thanks to her... like her dancers in the Blond Ambition tour, who will be forever on celluloid thanks to the film Truth or Dare.

    Posted by: graphicjack | Apr 12, 2014 4:57:52 PM

  13. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Posted by: UFFDA | Apr 12, 2014 5:13:23 PM

  14. I love this film -- so many great scenes, like the one where Venus Xtravaganza explains that straight women married to straight men also perform sex acts to get the material things that they want -- blows the whole "morally superior" act of the heteronormatives right out of the water. (It's also exactly what Karl Marx was talking about when he called marriage legalized prostitution, but I don't know if Venus had read much Marx...)

    Posted by: kit | Apr 12, 2014 5:27:14 PM

  15. i saw PIB when it was in the theaters all those years ago, and i should view it again because i recall being saddened by it. i kept thinking of that old adage " no matter where you go, there you are". i've felt in the past like moving to a new city, starting over etc, but understanding that whatever problems or unhappiness i have will follow and changing physical location won't solve anything because it's all internal, no external change will solve my problems. thats the feeling i remember getting from PIB; that many of these people were desperately unhappy and running away from themselves. instead of changing cities they try to change in other ways, but no matter where you go, there you are. so now that i'm older and hopefully wiser, i'll watch it again and see if i have a different perspective. it may be that my youthful opinion was more of a projection of what was going on with me that what was going on onscreen.

    Posted by: ian | Apr 12, 2014 5:52:12 PM

  16. Umm, I love PIB and can quote from it extensively, but it's not exactly "honoring drag roots." It's honoring one stage of drag, which has been going on for thousands of years. Modern day, there were drag clubs in the 40s and 50s. There was also a tiny little drag-related thing called Stonewall.

    That said, I still shed a tear for Pepper Labeija and that beautiful coat his mother burned.

    @Ian: I agree with you and don't. Moving can help a lot. It's not a solution, and I want to move now but am wondering about the motivations. But I know I'm damn happy I moved 15 years ago, and I'd never move back. There's always something to learn and new ways to grow and experience life, and a change in location can be a major impetus for that.

    Posted by: Paul R | Apr 12, 2014 6:03:52 PM

  17. The film is a masterpiece for more reasons than I can possibly name. Easily the most important documentary of its kind since Jean Rouch's "Les Maitre Fous"

    The key moment comes when, after having been inside the balls for quite a spell, Jennie cuts to people on the street in New York, thereby showing WE'RE ALL IN DRAG!!!

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Apr 12, 2014 6:14:06 PM

  18. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Je9MaUcP05s

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Apr 12, 2014 6:15:04 PM

  19. Wait, David---you didn't cue the Ru Paul quote as well?

    Posted by: Paul R | Apr 12, 2014 7:24:55 PM

  20. Another great installment in the Gay Iconography series. Bonus points for profiling the forward thinking gay men who helped to put lesbian, gay, bi and trans civil rights on the national stage. Bravo!

    Posted by: NotSafeForWork | Apr 12, 2014 7:46:38 PM

  21. Saw it in the theatre all those years ago. RIP Willi Ninja.

    Posted by: greenfuzz | Apr 12, 2014 9:15:19 PM

  22. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...gay culture is soooo lame, the only thing that's fun is irritating the believers.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Apr 13, 2014 1:06:12 AM

  23. One of the best documentaries ever. I saw this with some friends when it was first released. The audience was very mixed, gay and straight. When it was over, it received standing applause. It was moving and funny and fun and dramatic all at the same time and a telling commentary on not only the lives of trans people but on the racism and discrimination that existed (and still exists) within the gay community as well as society at large. If you ever get the chance, see this film.

    Oh, and @UFFDA, go f*ck yourself.

    Posted by: jamal49 | Apr 13, 2014 3:59:58 PM

  24. GREGORYBROWN, it's a documentary, sweetie.

    Posted by: sugarrhill | Apr 13, 2014 4:37:35 PM

  25. Drag Ball Culture in Harlem went all the way back to the late 19th Century. What "Paris is Burning" brought to light was a new generation of marvelously inventive people.
    Madge had NOTHING to do with this. She's a feeb as always.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Apr 13, 2014 7:44:45 PM

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