Revisiting 'Paris Is Burning': Sifting Through The Ashes

Paris Is Burning … a documentary I've seen countless times over the years, having watched it as recently as this past Thursday night at 2:00 A.M. to lull myself to sleep and then three times Monday night, to delve deeper for the sake of this post. It’s one of those documentary film experiences I still appreciate to this day for the candidness provided by its subjects and for introducing me to the intricacies of a subculture that often goes unaccredited for how it helped shape a lot of popular culture, music, and vernacular. It continued to leave me with lingering questions about Jennie Livingston’s approach to and motivation for culling the information during that moment in space and time; and more importantly, what happened to the subjects that shaped Livingston’s documentary and provided a quintessential work to be deconstructed by cinephiles, writers, and scholars alike, 22 years later.

While the rare inside look at the pageantry, pomp and circumstance of New York City’s underground ball culture during the 1990s is compelling in and of itself, - (ball legend Pepper Labeija had me hooked the moment she sauntered down the aisle of a ball, draped in a gold lamé costume at the beginning of the documentary as she confidently voices over to viewers, “I’m Pepper Labeija, the legendary mother of The House of Labeija…”) - I’m always struck by the personal narratives shared by the documentary’s subjects, profound even if the discourse is, at times, troubling and a bit melancholy.

When starry-eyed, beautiful, and ambitious transwoman Octavia Saint Laurent said, “I want to be somebody, well I am somebody, I just want to be a rich somebody…” 

or when seasoned (and somewhat jaded) veteran Dorian Corey opined, “I always had hopes of being a big star, but as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left your mark. You don’t have to bend the world; I think it’s better to just enjoy it, pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you…” 

I wondered if the wearied and desirous denizens of New York’s 90’s drag balls ever attained their goals.

I wanted to know more beyond the scope of Livingston’s documentary… where the patient and influential 'House Mother’ Angie Xtravaganza or Kim Pendavis and his protégé Freddie Pendavis, had landed after Paris had burned.

What had become of the 15-year-old kid who defiantly answered that he didn't have a mother or father, stating they were “gone” and that he was living with “a friend” when prodded about why he and his companion were out and about so late in the evening? Some of the answers surrounding the documentary and its subjects, I’d discover, are somber.

Jennie Livingston (an openly lesbian white woman who grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Yale) was given unprecedented access into the lives of a predominantly Black and Latino gay and transgender community comprised of poor and displaced gay and trans men and women, who grappled with gender-identity in an often exclusionary society, racism, and homelessness, and who found support, kinship, and camaraderie among one another when they were ostracized and ejected from their homes by their families.  Drag balls provided them escapism through interpretive performance art, where they’d often re-enact a quality of life (mostly affluent, privileged, and white) many of them yearned to live…

 “This is white America” narrates a ball participant. “Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this 'til the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority… to live and look as well as a white person is pictured as being in America. (...) We have had everything taken from us and yet we have all learned how to survive. That’s why in the ballroom circuit it is obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living or looking or dressing or speaking, you is a marvel.”
Ball culture seemingly provided validation, freedom of expression, and rewards many of the documentary’s subjects never found outside the confines of ball pageantry. “Balls to us is as close to reality as we’re going to get to all of that fame, and fortune, and stardom, and spotlights.” said another of the film’s subjects. More importantly, Paris Is Burning showcased voices from a segment of the LGBT community, often silenced, ignored, or not advocated for. 

When Jennie Livingston infiltrated and curated her piece on drag ball cultureParis is Burning became an instant hit (despite the apprehension of distributors) and many of the documentary’s main protagonists saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the success and fulfill some of their goals; but alas some were left feeling slighted and exploited by Livingston once the dust settled and accolades poured in... 
In a revealing 1993 New York Times article by Jesse Green, Jennie Livingston claimed she didn’t get rich from the success of the documentary and had no formal training in filmmaking before Paris Is Burning, but had still been able to eke out a living as a filmmaker. And that while retaining funding for other projects was still a challenge, it had become somewhat easier to navigate those challenges…

“(…) I am now a filmmaker. And that's something I wasn't before. It doesn't mean it's easy to get money. But I am educated and I am white so I have the ability to write those grants and push my little body through whatever door I need to get it through. And drag queens can't, if they wanted to make a film about themselves. I wish that weren't so, but that's the way society is structured."
… And what of the film’s colorful subjects who enthralled viewers and introduced the mainstream (and Madonna) to the origins of voguing, ushering in phrases like ‘shade’ and ‘reading’ into pop culture’s lexicon? Most of them have passed; their post-documentary lives are left to drift into obscurity, even while the film continues to be dissected and lauded by new audiences.

According to Green’s NYTimes article, “There is a lot of anger in the ball world about Paris Is Burning. Some of it concerns what a few critics have called exploitation: making the lives of poor black and Latino people into a commodity for white consumption.” An accusation Livingston vehemently refuted…
"I don't believe you have to be one thing to make a film about it. I'm white, yes, but I'm an openly queer, female director, and I can't think of anything more out of the mainstream. I'm sorry, but I do not think I have the same relationship to the ruling class as a straight man." 
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that statement’s willful disregard for the intersection of race and gender identity within the gay and transgender community of color and how Jennie places her privilege (as a white, cisgender woman) above the marginalization of the black and Latino GLBT community she profiled in her documentary… despite claims that she approached the project from an etic perspective and it not being wedded to race or color when the personal narratives in her film clearly dictate otherwise. Not to mention, amid many of Livingston’s refutations, she intimated how much “harder” than marginalized groups of color she supposedly has it as a white female who's lesbian.

In an essay titled "Is Paris Burning?" bell hooks wrote a more nuanced critique of Livingston’s approach to highlighting the drag ball culture (which Livingston apparently found “deeply disturbing”) and took her to task for not acknowledging intersectionality, for merely skimming the race and class issues her subjects were plagued by; which prompted them to often steal, sacrifice, or spend what few resources they had, to be able to come as close to emulating the white ideal, as possible, to gain status in the ballroom competitions. hooks also took issue with Jennie Livingston’s failure to question white privilege and imperialism, other than to juxtapose it against ball re-enactments of ‘Opulence’ and conspicuous consumption…

hooks writes, “Within the world of the black gay drag ball culture she depicts, the idea of woman-ness and femininity is totally personified by whiteness. What viewers witness is not black men longing to impersonate or even become “real” black women but their obsession with an idealized fetishized vision of femininity that is white. Called out in the film by Dorian Gray, who names it by saying no black drag queen of his day wanted to be Lena Horne, he makes it clear that the femininity most sought after, most adored, was that perceived to be the exclusive property of white womanhood.”

“(…) Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as a white/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” from Paris Is Burning, it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives” and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a standpoint and perspective specific to Livingston.”

 In a 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Livingston challenged hooks’s critique by commenting,
“I am aware that there is a long history of whites exploiting African-American culture just as there is of men exploiting women's work. But we live in a multicultural environment and can't help but be influenced by each other. This is certainly not an authoritative statement about blacks or Latins but a film about a gay subculture which does not 'belong' exclusively to any one group any more than African-American culture does." 
Here's my issue with Livingston's statement... While some things aren't (literally) as cut-and-dry as being black or white, commodifying a trend started by poor people of color, or appropriating another group's culture for financial or personal gain, is problematic. Particularly when it's done for mainstream consumption without consideration or proper attribution to the group it originated from, and credited to Madonna "other". The fact that Livingston was rattled by bell hooks' critique is indicative of the sense of entitlement she was probably feeling after the film's release... especially after it (surprisingly) appealed to critics and viewers, and voguing/ball culture gained momentum in popular culture. 

Accusations of the documentary’s exploitative nature and Livingston's willful ignorance notwithstanding, she framed and presented an interesting work and its social impact still endures, as evidenced here and here.

And to finally answer the burning question as to the whereabouts of the documentary's main subjects…

Willie Ninja was able to parlay his appearance into success as a choreographer, runway modeling/tutelage, and music video cameos. He succumbed to AIDS-related heart failure at the age of 45.

Pepper LaBeija was also featured in the art documentary, “How Do I Look” (released in 2006) but reportedly suffered from diabetes and died of a heart attack at the age of 53, in 2003. He was the last of the Harlem underground ball trailblazers and Paris Is Burning subjects, to pass.

Drag legend Dorian Corey died in 1993 of AIDS-related complications. In an interesting and bizarre development, friends happened upon the mummified remains of a man named Robert Worley amongst Corey’s belongings while cleaning out his apartment. Worley had been shot in the head. It was never determined who shot Worley or why.

Transwoman and daydreamer Octavia St. Laurent suffered from AIDS and died from cancer in 2009. She was able to carve out a career abroad as a singer in piano bars. In an interesting aside, before moving overseas, Octavia collaborated with a Hartford, CT musician named Greg Field on original material that never came to fruition, due to Octavia expatriating.

Beloved 'House Mother' and ball legend Angie Xtravaganza, died of AIDS-related complications mere weeks before featuring prominently in Green’s 1993 “Paris Is Burned” New York Times piece. The House of Xtravaganza is still an active part of New York’s ball scene, as is Angie’s legacy.

One of the more compelling and troubled participants in Paris Is Burning was Angie’s close protégé and wayward mentee, Venus Xtravaganza. A pre-op transwoman who expressed her desire to be a “spoiled, rich white girl” because she felt it’d grant her access to an easier life, Venus often earned a living as a prostitute and recounted a dangerous encounter with a trans-phobic client who flew into a rage when he discovered Venus wasn’t a cissexual woman. Fearing for her life, Venus fled through a window. The encounter served as the catalyst for Venus quitting prostitution and advertising her services as an openly transwoman escort. In a tragic turn of events (that was referenced towards the end of the documentary), Venus was found strangled and stuffed under a hotel bed in 1988, where her body remained for 4 days before being discovered by a hotel patron. Her mentor, Angie Xtravaganza, had to identify her remains. Venus’s rendition of “reading” was perhaps one of the more memorable and fun scenes in Livingston’s documentary. 

Kim Pendavis, a trans-man and once-prolific member of the House of Pendavis, died of heart failure in ’92 or ’93. I couldn’t find any more detailed information on Kim, following his appearance in the documentary. Kim’s mentee Freddie Pendavis is, presumably, still alive. I found this video of an appearance he did, dated October 2012.  In one Paris is Burning scene, Freddie gleefully bragged about the numerous dine-and-ditch meals he enjoyed at Roy Rogers.