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.”
Porter: Being an out gay actor of color, I was excited when I heard that Pose was about the ball culture. I’m 48 years old and I came to New York when I was 19. I’ve been in the culture.
Mizrahi: When I first heard about the show, I thought, “Somebody has to call me.” Not to be cocky, but if you’re having a conversation about ballroom, for the last 25 years I’ve been the most involved person pushing forward for the community. I knew I would be helping Ryan Murphy, and I did receive the call.
Porter: They said, “If you can do an impersonation of the [ballroom] MC, Ryan will create something for you.” We’ve all been doing an impersonation of the MC for the last 30 years. That’s my life! The whole culture and vernacular came into the mainstream through Paris Is Burning. The reason Madonna had choreography, the reason Beyoncé has a career, comes from that ball culture.
Mizrahi: I knew Billy’s ferocity and passion would make him great in this role. As the commentator at the ball, he’s the mother, the father — you’re going to listen to him.
Porter: On set it’s like a regular ball: You have to do what I say. For the first time in film and television, for me, somebody’s not saying, “Tone it down.” They’re like, “Give me all of it!”
Mizrahi: What I love about Billy’s portrayal is that you will see and hear a gumbo of commentators. The air and opulent fashion of Junior LaBeija; the diction of Kenny Chanel; the wit and acid tongue of Kenny Felder Ebony; the raspy and unapologetic voice of Stewart Revlon; the charm of Ric Christian Bazaar; the charisma of Selvin MC Debra — all supercharged by Jack Mizrahi.
Billy: Ryan in his infinite wisdom and brilliance understood the only way this will get to the mass market is if I [referring to Murphy] put my name on it. Because I have that much power. “I know motherfuckers will come after me because I’m a white man trying to blah-blah-blah.” But the greatest leaders understand how to surround themselves. He called Jack, called this community, and said, “Tell me what I’m supposed to do so I can make this a thing.” And he’s turning 100 percent of his profits back to the community. So shut the fuck up and let us do this.
Jack: And we’re not just being placated. Not only did they reach out, but they listen to us on set. If I see something on set that’s not correct, I would tell a director and they would try to fix it. The energy is what they’re capturing, which is hard to do, but when you see it in your living room, it’s almost like you’re there with us way back then. This is an opportunity now for all of us who are part of it to create other projects and build other levels. To sit here now and know we have the largest trans cast ever, it’s an honor.
Billy: I’m so happy FX has stepped up. It takes people in positions of power to step up and do the right thing. I think this has the potential to have a profound impact on the culture like Will & Grace did. When you start to see these worlds on television, it normalizes them. The more normalized we become, the less policy will be able to get passed to mute and disenfranchise us. Something is shifting; something is changing in the dynamic of how we tell stories and who gets to be authentic.
Jack: With ballroom, some people’s perception is that we’re the bottom feeders of the gay community. But in actuality, we’re the ones pushing all the style and vernacular up – it’s seeping up and you guys are taking it and leaving us down here. [With Pose,] we stay on the floor no longer. We’re rising to the top and posing for you.