Meet Eight Members From HBO Max's 'Legendary'
Story by Mikelle Street / Face Filter by Twysted Miyake-Mugler and Mingus NewJul 09, 2020
This article is a sponsored collaboration between HBO and PAPER
We're seeing 10's all around! In celebration of its finale episode, meet eight members from the cast of HBO Max's Legendary, below, and watch season one online. Prepare for all the looks, beauty and performance — you're about to be fed. Sponsored by HBO Max.
On Legendary, the House of Ninja stands out from all the rest of the competitors (and what most think of when they envision the ballroom scene) as it is the only group comprised exclusively of cisgender women. It's something that judge Amazon Leiomy points out in the first episode. And, it's a fact that falls squarely within what the house's founding mother Willi Ninja initially intended.
"My house is mixed," Ninja said of the house he founded in 1984 in a clip from the 2006 ballroom documentary, How Do I Look. This came after his initial declaration in 1990's Paris Is Burning that he hoped to "make the real Paris burn" and take the dance form around the world. "It's straight, it's gay, it's multiracial and the reason is if we want to be accepted we have to accept everybody else." Enter Chise Ninja.
Chise's first exposure to voguing came through a YouTube video. In 2009 she found a clip of members from the House of Ninja voguing in a mall as a part of a fashion show. While she didn't really understand what was going on as she didn't speak English at the time, she knew one thing: she wanted to learn.
"I pointed at the screen and knew I wanted to join the house," she says. "I told my mom that I wanted to go to NYC and meet them." So she did. In 2011 and in 2012 she flew to the States to take classes from Javier and Benny Ninja, going on a tour to devour as much as she could about the dance form. She fell within a history of dancers like Koppi Mizrahi who had done the same, and began to learn from Danielle Polanco, who was a daughter of Willi's and is an accomplished professional performer. A fateful 2012 performance at Urban Renewal, a freestyle dance competition, sealed her fate and through it, she became a part of the house.
The understanding about the history and full context of ballroom came later. In Japan, as well as in many other Asian countries, voguing first popped up because of Madonna's 1990 song of the same name. In Japan specifically, Asience, a dance troupe, helped to reignite interest in 2006. But as a result of this origin story, voguing was being explored and interacted with as mostly a dance genre.
"The difference in the Japanese scene than other countries is we still don't have many [openly] LGBT people," Chise says. "It was straight dancers who made it popular here. Recently, LGBT Japanese dancers have been doing more jazz funk or pole dancing instead of voguing." In Tokyo the scene is slowly getting bigger with performers often traveling through other Asian territories like Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Thailand and Korea.
But this sort of distance meant that to really perfect her craft, Chise finds it important to routinely come to the source. "It's really important [to travel] if you are not from Black or [brown] culture," she says, and she's done that many times before battling all over the world. "You have to really feel it; ballroom is really about all five senses, so you have to learn that."
Her showing on Legendary, where she was utilized as a major tool by the House of Ninja and routinely called out and complimented by the judges, showed the fruits of that labor.
"Leiomy told us 'Willi Ninja would be proud of you girls,'" Chise says. "Those words are very special to me."
When Gravity Balmain discovered voguing, they were looking for a change in their life.
"I was in high school and about to go off to college, and I was really envisioning college as this time where I was going to reinvent myself and I think ballroom came on my radar at the same time." Gravity says. That introduction came by way of seeing a voguing clip on YouTube in 2015, right before going off to college at the University of California Los Angeles. Five years later, Gravity has become known online for their simple, bite-sized voguing tutorials for those who hope to learn the art form, and on television as one of the members representing the House of Balmain on HBO Max's Legendary.
"I noticed there was a hole in the market in regards to content around learning to vogue," Gravity says of their start making videos. "There were a few one-minute tutorials, and a few other things but there was a lot of really bad misinformation out there, whether it was people talking about 'death drops' or people who had never taken a class that were trying to teach. I thought, even though I was still newer to this than a lot of other people who've been doing it I feel comfortable enough in what I can do that I can transmit the lessons that have been taught to me, and make sure that people have access to good quality information."
Within the scene, as voguing classes have become more commonplace over the past 15 years, there have been ongoing conversations about who should and should not teach voguing. Some have contended that only those who have been stamped a legend or an icon — titles within the community that connote not only expertise in the genre, but also a consistent dedication to the scene of generally 10 or more years — should be allowed to teach. Others have felt differently. Gravity, who took their first "transformative" class with Icon Javier Ninja in May 2016, thought deeply about this before posting content.
"I really didn't start posting my videos until I started winning categories and getting [of the years,]" they say, referring to awards that regional and local ballroom scenes give out to recognize performers annually. "I really waited until ballroom was recognizing me for my talent." When that began to happen they started posting short, snackable content breaking down simple voguing steps for those who might not have access to teachers locally — sometimes this was as easy as a catwalk, or different figure-8 variations for floor performance. While they encourage all their followers to find experts locally, their catalogue is available for those whom that is not available.
On Legendary, alongside the members of the House of Balmain, Gravity has clawed their way to the semifinals. Along the way they've shown themself as one of the show's top technicians, with an emphasis on hands and arms control. They are an undoubted silent secret weapon of the team. But outside of the show, they are unafraid of admitting that their accolades may be about more than just their talent.
"To be 100 percent honest, my whiteness has been a part of my success," Gravity, who is signed to a talent agency and has appeared in projects like Nikita Dragun's Dragun Beauty ad campaign, says. "I think the reality of being white in ballroom is that you are allowing people to interact with vogue and ballroom without interacting with Blackness. Unfortunately, there's a lot of people who that appeals to either subconsciously or consciously so for me as someone who is aware of that it's about using this platform to elevate and uplift the voices of Black people and people who vogue and also to try to educate and correct an audience that may otherwise not be interacting with ballroom at all. There is a delicate balance." That work uplifting voices is, in ways, also giving back to a community that gave to the performer.
Voguing is not only a dance form. Gravity initially joined the House of Blahnik in December 2016, later defecting along with Jamari and a number of other West Coast-based Blahniks to become the West Coast chapter of the House of Balmain, which debuted in October 2018. But in their time of being in the scene and walking events, they've been able to also explore themselves and their gender expression, in the age-old exercise that vogue was initially intended for.
"Ballroom allows me to express the fullness of my identity in a way I haven't felt elsewhere, especially with regards to gender nonconformity," they say. "I generally identify as gender nonconforming, and I think ballroom has been the biggest vehicle for me to express that and find that. Ballroom is one of those unique spaces that gender nonconformity is not only not punished, but sometimes its explicitly approved or even applauded. That has been healing for me and important in helping me develop in that way."
Ballroom's ideas surrounding "chosen families" and houses are a bit more complex today than many outside the scene believe. Though at one time your house mother or father were likely your queer parents who took you in when your biological families rejected you, over time they became something else. Often, they became global teams to compete in balls with; they became complicated organizational structures wherein members could network and learn from one another; and they became sites of education for those queer and trans youth whose biological families were accepting, but just didn't have the tools or knowledge to provide advice for specific queer experiences. Take Legendary's Gorgeous Jarrell Gucci's story.
"I never dealt with the turmoil that most people face with their family because of their sexuality," Jarrell says. "My mom was very open and I came out to her at 17. Her name is Sonia and my she is a lesbian. I never remember my mom being with men; I've always had two moms." So while he didn't get into the scene for acceptance, finding his first gay mother in Alize (then Labeija) — in the community gender does not matter in terms of mother and father — did provide him with something he needed. Namely, someone who could help him with the specifics of life (and dating) as a gay man.
"It meant a lot to me because he was able to teach me things that my biological mother couldn't," Jarrell explains. "He taught me about safe sex, how to meet guys, and how to conduct myself when I'm around other gays." He also taught Jarrell to drive, took him to his first Pride, and helped him get ready for prom. And in 2004, he took him to his first ball, where Jarrell saw instant success.
The first time Jarrell graced the floor in 2004, he walked the category of pretty boy realness. Within it, contestants have to skirt the line of being "pretty" but also extremely masculine, passing as heterosexual men. Jarrell won the category, beating a legend and instantly making a name for himself. Shortly thereafter he joined Alize in the House of LaBeija, kicking off his ballroom career.
A year later, Jarrell had moved from LaBeija to the house of Mizrah where he met his gay father Earl, and slowly began diversifying his categories. From pretty boy realness he added realness with a twist in 2007, then sex siren in 2010, a category he has walked ever since. In 2016 he was deemed Legendary by the scene for his impact on the sex siren category. But while he was making his name known on the floor, he was also being pushed up the internal ladder within Mizrahi.
By November 2018, Jarrell became the East Coast Father of the House of Mizrahi, after having started as the father of the Virginia chapter in 2010. This meant that in addition to mentoring and assisting his own queer children, he was on recurring conference calls with regional leaders helping to run the house and think strategically about ballroom as a competition.
"We plan who we want to walk certain balls and what heavy-hitters we can have attack certain categories to make sure that we come and are as impactful as possible," Jarrell says of that work, which approaches ballroom as a longterm sport. This also means developing house members on and off the floor — not only helping fine-tune themselves for competition but also getting involved with community service and giving back to their local areas. A schedule for the weekend of a big ball could entail everyone who's traveled to town gathering the night before in order to get a headcount of who's doing what, then attending the ball, possibly hosting a car wash, and then hosting a re-cap family dinner the following night.
But in October 2019, Jarrell got what was arguably his biggest promotion yet when the Gorgeous House of Gucci debuted at the Return of Porcelain ball put on by the House of Miyake-Mugler. It boasted four founders: Jack, Trace (known to many in pop culture as the actress Trace Lysette,) Kelly and Marlon. And it was headed by three overall parents: Lola Gucci as the overall mother, and Ira and Jarrell Gucci as overall fathers.
"We wanted to establish a new set of morals and values," Jarrell explains of the start. The lionshare of the house's members (including all of the leadership) had come from the House of Mizrahi after a particularly troubled year there. "Over the last six or seven years, ballroom has become so cumbersome and taxing to participate in so our main thing was to bring the fun back to ballroom."
While that fun is certainly there, so is the hard work. The house stands at more than 150 members, with even a European arm led by Kiddy Gucci, a world-renown DJ and music artist based in Paris. On HBO Max's Legendary, viewers watch a microcosm of this as Jarrell presides over a team of five Gucci representatives, who suffer through infighting causing one member to leave the show early on in the season. Still, Jarrell has guided the team through to the semifinals.
"Now I'm having to make sure that not only am I a star, but I'm breeding stars as well."
In ballroom, if you want people to know your name on the floor you have to make what the scene calls "a moment." You need those times where people can look back and go, "Do you remember that time when Starr Revlon came down the steps," or, "Have you seen that clip of Leiomy and the three Evisus?" Moments make your legacy, helping you to progress through titles like statement, star and legend. And there are few who know how to engineer a moment better than Miss Shalae Saint Laurent, who was one of two women of trans experience who functioned as house mothers within the debut season of HBO Max's Legendary.
"At the end of the day I won," Miss Shalae says of one of her latest moments. For it she put on a full production at the House of Miyake-Mugler's 2019 Return of Porcelain Ball. Competing for the historic $10,000 open-to-all face category, she brought on a team of four dancers that trained for seven days straight before the event, put them all in custom outfits, commissioned her own custom Marco Marco gown that included a series of four reveals and more. "It's no shade to anybody but it's been almost a year and still, when I meet someone that's never met me before at a ball, that's the first thing they bring up. I won." Her moment, selling her face and aura to the sounds of Sade's "Sweetest Taboo" moved even Rihanna who was on the night's judging panel. Sadly, it wasn't enough to win her the cash, regardless of the fact that she invested at least $7,000 of her own money into the performance, but it was a moment that will live on in ballroom — and viral — history.
Miss Shalae is no stranger to making these sorts of moments. Fiercely independent, she emancipated herself from her parents and moved out at 16. Having found ballroom a year before through her original gay father Ivanie (then Garcon), she found respite in the community that helped her figure out her life as she finished high school. By graduation, she had joined the House of Rodeo and set her sights on Los Angeles where she moved to.
In LA, she excelled pretty quickly both in and out of the ballroom scene by making her way working in hair and makeup. Within ballroom, this turned into walking the category of butch queen in drags face. The face category prizes not only bone structure, facial symmetry and skin clarity, but also showmanship and confidence. Prior to her transition, Miss Shalae made her name competing in drag as a female figure, processing femme queens. In the scene, processing is when one person competes against a line of opponents, defeating them in rapid succession rather than switching out to compete in rounds. Success making those moments in LA moved the young, fierce competitor to traveling for competition, hitting balls in Detroit, Atlanta and New York. Before long, she was ready for what she perceived as the next level: the House of Allure.
"Allure was the place where girls could go to a ball by themselves and shake it up," Miss Shalae says. Typically at balls, houses come in groups and chant their house names as members compete on the floor, as a sign of support. "There weren't a lot of Allures, so you really had to be independent and want this in order to make a name and excel. If you are that way you don't need a lot of cheerleaders." And she didn't. By 2009, she had become the West Coast mother of the house and shortly after took a break from the scene in order to start her transition.
Her re-introduction to the scene was yet another moment: she debuted in 2013 as Miss Shalae, the Overall Mother in the newly revamped House of Saint Laurent, and would go on to lead the house on Legendary.
"Right now, honestly, to be 100% truthful I'm so focused on creating my legacy and I'm moving really fast as a brand outside of ballroom — but it also includes ballroom," she says. "I know that what I'm doing is inspiring trans women and also the butch queens and other kids of my house." What she's doing, and has been doing for some time now, is creating moments in mainstream culture.
Miss Shalae has built herself as one of the most noted Beyoncé tribute artists in the world. In 2016 she went viral after teaming up with the trans art collective Glass Wig Group, to recreate Beyoncé's Lemonade featuring women of trans experience in a project titled Lemonade Served Bittersweet. They pulled that off within 16 hours. Beyoncé herself recognized Miss Shalae's dedication to the recreations at her headlining Coachella set in 2018. In a moment now immortalized in the Netflix documentary Homecoming, Bey points into the crowd.
"I see you," she says calling out Miss Shalae. "How did you do that so fast? She has on my outfit y'all." The incident happened on the second week's performance, and for it, Miss Shalae had hastily recreated the look Bey had worn for the first week. Just last month, attendees of the All Black Lives Matter March, which Miss Shalae helped to organize, did double takes as the performer showed up as Beyoncé and did a set. That event boasted a reported 25,000 people, and is simply a continuation of the activist bringing attention to the oppression of queer and trans folks.
So while the house's performance on Legendary wasn't ideal, being the second house eliminated, Miss Shalae isn't too bothered by it.
"I think it was an awesome opportunity for people to learn about this underground culture and also educate themselves on the Black and brown LGBTQ+ community," she says, brushing off the placement. The house was critiqued for not showing enough voguing during its tenure. "Honestly we went on the show to show the full scale of ballroom, not just voguing. We were hoping to inform people of our many facets whether it's face, fashion, runway, realness — all of those elements. Ballroom isn't just a voguing competition."
Packrat Lanvin's first chosen name in ballroom was Skittles 007. When she was first exploring the scene from about 2006 to 2009, sneaking out of her parents' Willingboro, New Jersey home to travel across the bridge and attend late night events at now-shuttered venues like The Breakfast Club, Shampoo and The Roxxy in Philadelphia, that's what she was going by. But the community's reception to her at the time, as a Black, cisgender, queer woman who was trying to vogue, was certainly memorable.
"It was not nice," Packrat, who is now not only a noted performer within ballroom but a professional dancer who, alongside her house, made the finals for HBO Max's Legendary series, and has previously performed with Pharrell, Khalid and more, says. "They were like, 'Bro get the fish off the floor.'" That early experience, getting booed and questioned at events that boasted hundreds of queer and trans people, left Packrat slightly dejected about her place in the scene. It led her to take a bit of a hiatus from competing while she relocated for school at Rutgers University where she double majored in dance and sociology, while double minoring in psychology and art.
"It was a different world back then; cisgender women didn't get as much life from the scene as they do now," she says after admitting that femme queens (the term the ballroom scene uses for women of trans experience) would confront her and ask why she was competing in voguing categories. "There were a lot less of us, especially in the Philly and New York City scene. Back then more of them were LGBTQ+, nowadays most of the cisgender women are straight. I have the most dominated category for cisgender straight women, which is crazy to me. I can really count on my hands the amount of [queer] cisgender females that I know in the scene. It's changed."
Still, while the scene may have not wanted to see Packrat's performance, she was intent on learning and sharpening her skills, taking a class with Archie Ninja in 2010, and starting a viral campaign called Vogue Sundays on Vine. It was with this later project that Packrat rebranded herself, and after becoming an influential presence on that platform, the moniker stuck with even the likes of ballroom greats Javier Ninja, Dashaun Lanvin and Amazon Leiomy noticing.
After graduating in 2013 with $2,000 in her bank account, Packrat took a suitcase and relocated to Los Angeles with dreams of joining a modern dance company and becoming a hip hop choreographer. To make ends meet, she worked at a Target overnight — "they were the only people that would hire me; everyone else said I was either overqualified or underqualified for LA" — while going to auditions during the day. She kept in touch with Dashaun, who had taken an interest with her, and when he finally relocated to LA, began to train with him and his friends Lil Black and David Lanvin.
Eventually, Dashaun asked her to be his daughter, and years later, she joined his house. He's since played an integral role in her life as big brother, best friend and mentor, helping her to get signed to her talent agency and also going so far as to walk her to the first big audition she ended up booking with Under Armour Women.
Still, within the scene Packrat feels that her vogue sits in a weird place. "I feel like they favor the fairer skinned women and especially the international girls," she says. "I tell people it's the reality for Black women; these international women have the coin to travel across the world just to vogue. Sometimes I didn't have the coin to eat the next day, let alone pay to get into a function or travel across state to go to a function."
But it's not only these sort of systemic issues. "I'm a Black woman and my hair doesn't swing like the white girl hair or an international girl's hair, which is a very big awe factor for femme queens and cisgender women in ballroom," she continues. "It's a piece of your vogue; they say there's five elements, but for trans women and cis women there's six and the last is hairography." A 2019 Pride campaign from Equinox featuring the women of ballroom teaching the elements of vogue speaks directly to that point.
"It's a different type of journey for me as a Black cisgender woman because I have to fight the financial burden, I have to fight the color burden, I have to fight the hair, always having to have a look — branding myself with this look," Packrat says. "I am the only Black cisgender female in the entire house that walks performance."
On Legendary, in a particularly vulnerable moment, this all comes to a head. While there are pressures to conform within performance, there's also body standards that Packrat has never felt she lived up to.
"Growing up I was teased a lot because of my skin color — a lot of people preferred the light-skinned girls," she says. "My parents always tell me I was pretty, but I was never the girls that people picked out to date — it was always my light-skinned friends." In episode four, contestants compete in the body character, going up against one another in a head-to-head to show who has the best physique and the most confidence. Jamari Balmain and Jarrell Gucci seemed to be the most obvious winners, but Packrat's body is ultimately affirmed on the show. She bagged a $5,000 cash prize and a touching, heartfelt moment with Megan Thee Stallion over body image. This was a course correction of the time that she walked body at an actual ball and received the "fiercest chop" of her life.
But outside of the show, Packrat is seeing major success, helping to reinvigorate the LA ballroom scene by putting on events with her group The Shady Gang, as well as booking jobs like a multitude of Pride festivals, DragCon performances and an appearance with Leikeli47. She's also worked with Madonna, whose hit "Vogue" is how many first found out about the dance form.
"People always look at Madonna because she had the 'Vogue' song and I'm actually one of the few voguers that actually got to vogue with her," she says. "So that's a big milestone in my career because I feel like I got to be a part of history."
Shydachamp "Shy" Ebony got into ballroom because of the spotlight and he's not ashamed to admit that. "At the time I was just living for the attention," he says of joining a house after attending his first kiki ball in 2012. "I was living for the fact that they were living for me." And now, he's found fans living for his four episode stint on HBO Max's ballroom competition show Legendary.
Shy found his way to that initial function after beginning to explore the LGBTQ+ community in 2011, when his grandmother and a neighbor took him to Pride in Manhattan to watch the festivities. There, Shy was struck by how comfortable all the queer and trans attendees were — walking in the streets, hand-in-hand — which was a stark difference from his conservative upbringing. As a result, he began to consider exploring his own sexuality more and a year later went down to the West Village to explore Pride alone. He left with a boyfriend.
Through the new relationship, Shy got introduced to the community. It started with visits to the Bronx Community Center where he got to meet the likes of Jonovia Lanvin and Gia Love, eventually falling in love with his newfound friends. Months later, sitting at his first ball which was a kiki event — the kiki scene is a subgenre of ballroom, typically reserved for the youngest members of the community — Shy got asked to join two houses, first the kiki House of Unbothered, and secondly the mainstream House of Ebony. All of this, without ever gracing the floor.
"I think that Mike saw me and saw himself in me," Shy says of Mike Milan (then Ebony), who asked him to join the house. "He's legendary for schoolboy realness, and we're both short and dark-skinned; I think he saw something in me." And see something he did, Mike put a backpack on Shy and helped him debut at his first ball in New Jersey at The Globe shortly thereafter. Shy's success in the category, which is about male figures (including butch queens — which are gay men — and trans men) appearing to be cisgender, heterosexual schoolboys, was instant. And so was the additional attention.
But by 2014, Shy wanted to try something new. "I didn't like vogue at first," he says of performance. "I came from street dances like the Harlem Shake. Those were really masculine so I was like, 'I can't do that, is he really bending his wrist? That's not a thing for me.'"
Those mental barriers came from childhood experiences. In a particularly traumatizing incident, Shy was secretly trying on a skirt in his room one day when his aunt found him. She told his father, who later grabbed him and threatened to cut off his genitals with a pair of pliers.
"Ever since that day I held myself back from expressing that I wanted to be gay," Shy says. So in a way, realness had been a category he'd been living since then. But after being introduced to ballroom, and watching everyone around him vogue, he decided that it was just another dance form to master.
"I never really studied the twisters," Shy says, referring to the category of realness with a twist. In it, performers who typically walk realness which is seen as a bastion of masculinity, "twist" and begin to vogue, which is widely viewed as feminine. "I used to watch the fem queens: Leiomy, Daesja [LaPerla,] Meeka [Prodigy,] Ashley [Icon]," he says, referring to a number of icons, all of whom are dramatic performers. "Even some of the new girls like Jasmine [Prodigy] and Tamiyah . Then I got into the [butch queen vogue fems] like Pretty [St. Laurent] and Dashaun."
He continues, saying he "didn't want to be soft," referring to another style of performance. "I used to be like, 'I want to come from the ceiling!'" Dramatic performance has a long bloodline that traces back to Ashley Icon, who is widely considered the mother of the style. Within the style is Daesja LaPerla who has famously climbed over a second-floor balcony to drop down into the competition, multiple times. Other performers like Ginger Mizrahi have climbed into the rafters of a club mid-performance before dropping back down into a dip. While Shy hasn't quite recreated that particular stunt, he has quickly become one of the leading realness with a twist performers voguing today, adding to a legacy of powerhouse performers from the house of Ebony that include the late Kassandra Ebony as well as Sinia Alaia (formerly Ebony.) Sadly, Legendary viewers didn't get to see this.
"The show made me step out of my comfort zone a lot of times," Shy says, referencing the fact that he was often asked to walk categories he had never competed in before. "Watching the show after [we went home,] they are starting to show individual categories and people actual voguing in solo categories. I feel like they sent us home right when we would have started dominating."
But the community has ultimately been beneficial for Shy. Among other things, it has given him a multitude of male role models to step in to space that needed to be filled once his father cut him off for living his life as a gay man.
"It really hurt me, It still hurts," Shy says of the relationship. "But I was lucky to find three individuals that really loved me for who I am and that were great father figures — they all gave me great advice. One is Dexter Ebony, rest in peace. Then there's Uncle Mike , that's my godfather [and a house leader], and the third one is Champ. He's a St. Laurent on the show and definitely one of my role models. I feel like I am the epitome of Champ when it comes to ballroom. I'm literally his junior."
"It can give combo." That's the phrase that almost 200,000 followers on Instagram know Destiny West by. In a video clip posted to the platform in December 2018 that has since gone massively vial, the dancer and comedian appears as our SuperBitch gay superhero, flipping and spinning in a pair of over-the-knee, high-heeled boots, declaring that he is taking no shit from men or women in the new year. And it all came because of a boy.
"I made that video because a boy I was dealing with had played me," Destiny laughs. At the time he had been uploading other comedy skits, many times in drag. "It was me telling people to not take no shit from nobody they might be dealing with." That inspiration turned into a phenomenon with Lee Daniels reaching out hoping to turn the character into an onscreen television, and West being cast in a recent PSA. But this summer on HBO Max's Legendary, the performer got to introduce fans to another side: Destiny West, the voguer.
As a dancer, Legendary Kassandra Ebony has been a longtime inspiration for Destiny. Having initially discovered him on YouTube, Destiny watched Kassandra for years before ever attending a ball.
"I was so mesmerized by how he moved and his antics and the feeling in his performance," Destiny says of Kassandra, who was known as a fearless battlecat, willing to go dip for dip on the floor with some of the scene's biggest names. "I could always feel it." Kassandra was a dynamic dancer, pushing the vogue fem dramatic category forward in his own way, before passing unexpectedly in December 2018. Destiny has picked up that baton.
At 16, Destiny competed in the virgin vogue category after finding out about a local kiki ball in Maryland. Given that the category is specifically for those who had never won a voguing category before, and that the kiki scene is for those just getting their start, it was perfect. So, armed with Kassandra's clips, Destiny went to make his debut.
"When I tell you I just went out there and tried to do my due diligence," West says. "I took off!" After beating two competitors, he took home grand prize. At a second kiki ball where West also made a moment, an older gentleman came up to him and asked if he wanted to join a house in the main scene. The next day, he was at a house meeting for the House of Balmain.
"I've always been acrobatic," West says of his signature flips and spins that he's integrated into his performance. "Ever since I was young I used to flip around and I got really good at it as I got older. I found a way to stand out from other people in the scene by adding my acrobatic stunts in." To anyone tracking the trajectory of vogue, this was a bit of a natural progression.
Ashley Icon was the mother of the style (with Mystery Dior being widely considered the father) and innovator of the signature "Mackaella" dip, incorrectly called a "death drop" by some. But many have come after her like Niambi Prodigy and Daesja LaPerla who was known for, among other things, coming off balconies; Alloura and Yolanda Jourdan-Zion were also a part of the bloodline, integrating extreme antics, hairwhips and more; Pony Jourdan-Zion was as well, keeping the baton going for butch queens and injecting his technical dance ability; then there's Amazon Leiomy, who originated the 360 dip; and many others like Dashaun Lanvin and Baby Hurricane West, who have jumped off stages, executed multiple uncountable spins, climbed up into rafters and included a slew of awe-inspiring techniques. Kassandra bundled all of this up into his compact frame and put his own flavor on it, incorporating various other styles of dance. Destiny — along with other Legendary stars like Makayla Lanvin — added perfectly executed flips and other acrobatics to distinguish himself. (This history is mostly an oral one and as such, is sometimes disputed on the details by various members of the scene.)
Each time there has been a push forward, there have been dissenters decrying the additions as disrespectful to the form. Destiny, Makayla and other new generation performers like them have been no different.
"I did receive a lot of positive feedback, but the critiques were harsh," Destiny admits. "They would tell me I needed to stop flipping and that I needed to work on my elements. I thought there was some truth, but they also could be hating. I wanted to work on my elements, but keep the flips — those were mine." So after joining the House of Balmain in 2017, he started working with Shaheer, who was then also a member of the house, on perfecting and integrating the five elements of vogue fem performance: Hand performance, floor performance, catwalks, duck walk, as well as dips and spins. By the time he ideated SuperBitch he had won over quite a fan base within ballroom.
"Ballroom was one of the first groups to support me," Destiny says. "Before the ballroom scene, no one really had faith in me or believed in me. Their support really pushed me to be better."
Destiny eventually left the House of Balmain for the House of Khan, where he had initially wanted to be as that's where his friends were. When a large part of that house left alongside Legendary King James to start the House of West in 2018, Destiny also transitioned. Now, he's a part of one of the strongest vogue femme performance lineups within the scene: Buffy, King James, Baby Hurricane, Pusscee, the list goes on. They are some of the most dynamic voguers within ballroom, regardless of the fact that the house was the first to be voted off Legendary.
"It's an honor to be in a house with so many other performance people because, for one, if you can't sit at this table you're not really that girl," Destiny says of being alongside these other top names. "This is a performance house. So for me to be a part of that really shows that my performance is unique and different. If you are in the House of West for performance, [James] had to see something in you because he doesn't just let anybody in — it's an exclusive set."
London Escada made Jazzul Escada want to vogue. Though he had been intrigued watching Vogue Evolution on America's Best Dance Crew in 2009, there was something in London's performance specifically that he wanted for himself.
"I was just like that person right there is so good, I need to do exactly what he does" Jazzul says of watching his gay mother — and house mother on the HBO Max show Legendary — perform for the first time in 2017. "Ever since then I've wanted to vogue like him. London is really masculine and feminine at the same time and I wanted to be like that." So, Jazzul researched and found out that London had an upcoming voguing class. There, the pair hit it off and London asked him if he wanted to meet the other members in New England's chapter of the House of Escada with intentions on becoming a member. He absolutely did.
"I grew up in a Hispanic household," Jazzul says. "To be precise, a Dominican, Hispanc household. To be even more precise, a Dominican, Hispanic, Evangelical household. So being gay, and wanting to be not as masculine as my family wanted wasn't acceptable."
What Jazzul's family wanted was a pretty traditional, heterosexual blueprint: Play sports, grow up, marry some beautiful girl, have kids, be "this very, super masculine Dominican guy." It wasn't a vision that the performer had for himself while he was finding an interest in his sister's Easy Bake Oven and drawing on her dolls. What he envisioned was something more akin to what he saw in London — a fusion of both sides.
"Growing up, the way society is you're either feminine or you're masculine," Jazzul explains. "With me I know that I'm not 100% either. I don't know if I understand it or not, but I saw that London is just who he is all the time. There's things people think he's super feminine about and things that people think he's super masculine about and I just wanted that."
That said, having had this expectation of masculinity indelibly shaped Jazzul, and as a no doubt partial result, the House of Escada suggested him to walk the category of realness. In December 2017, he made his debut on the floor walking thug realness, arguably the most masculine appearing of the realness categories. And though he wasn't exactly sure what was happening, he took home grand prize for his showing. Over time, he transitioned into executive realness, a category which awards appearing as a straight-backed, heterosexual business mogul. And while he enjoyed the wins, they weren't enough; Jazzul had come to ballroom to explore his identity and presentation like many had before him. He hoped to embrace the feminine.
"I told [London] that I didn't want to just do realness," he says. "I wanted to do what he did, I wanted to vogue. He was just like, 'Well, there's realness with a twist baby."
As the newest ballroom participant cast on Legendary, Jazzul's growth as a voguer has been for all to see. Week after week the judges, alongside London and the rest of his team, have encouraged him and pushed him to refine his performance. This led to putting in extra practice sessions to fine tune moves. That sort of determination, alongside the passion the Escadas have shown onscreen as a family, have put the group through to the finals.
"Leiomy gave me this very, very, constructive criticism and I took it," Jazzul says of the Legendary judge. "She's basically one of the reasons I wanted to start dancing in general, when I saw her on Vogue Evolution. So to see her now was this full circle moment and like, if she sees it for me, that's all I needed."
The result has not only moved him closer to how he truly feels about himself, but has also imbued him with more confidence.
"I've always been a nervous person, but ballroom has brought me and is still bringing me out of my shell," Jazzul says. "Sometimes I have social anxiety just being in front of a lot of people, but this helps me in just getting comfortable. My house inspires me and tells me everything is going to be fine. That's just not something I had growing up."
But now its not just his house that's being a support; with Legendary there's come a legion of online international fans (many in Brazil) that have named themselves the "Cubs." They make fan cams and thirst over every social media post.
"Honestly I'm realizing a lot even after the show," Jazzul says. "A lot of them are loving the masculine side of me, but they are loving the feminine side as well. That's what I want — I'm a mix of both. This is just me being me and telling them they can be themselves too."