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?