As anyone who has seen Jennie Livingston’s cult-hit 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, knows, a population of young LGBTQ African-Americans and Latinos turned their struggles into vibrant art through ballroom culture in the 1980s. Queer and transgender youth would dress up at late-night Manhattan “balls” as everything they were not allowed to become in real life (sometimes, but not necessarily, in drag) and flaunt their looks, with judges crowning a winner based on the most convincing performance.
Today, ballroom influence permeates pop culture, from Beyoncé’s and Madonna’s use of voguing to popular slang (“throwing shade,” “you better work!”). Enter TV auteur Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) and his new FX series, Pose, centered on this subculture and boasting TV’s largest-ever cast of transgender performers in starring roles. Perhaps anticipating critiques from within the underground community, Murphy -- who has been celebrated for shining a light on the marginalized, but criticized for sometimes appearing to sensationalize their lives -- turned to scene fixture Jack Mizrahi as an on-set consultant, and to Tony Award-winning actor Billy Porter, who lived through the era, to play the show’s acid-tongued ballroom MC/commentator Pray Tell.
Speaking to Billboard over a lively lunch, Porter and Mizrahi held court on everything from Beyoncé’s debt to ballroom to why anyone throwing shade at Murphy should “shut the fuck up.”