The second installment of FX awards season breakout Pose jumps from the ’80s to 1990, the year New York’s LGBTQ ballroom scene was illuminated by the dazzling glare of Madonna‘s “Vogue.” According to co-creator Steven Canals, the pop icon’s intense fascination with the art of voguing and its originators injected a crucial dose of optimism into a community that was facing increased marginalization as the HIV/AIDS crisis worsened in the U.S.
“We introduce Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ in the premiere and I think the presence of the song is really woven throughout season two. If we’re looking at the history of ballroom and specifically that moment in time, what Madonna did was bring ballroom to the mainstream,” Canals tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She introduced the world to this community who, up until that point in time, had been a subculture.”
“Vogue” — inspired by the pioneering dance moves of ballroom leaders and their underground celebrations of self-expression — was a massive hit. Reaching No. 1 in more than 30 countries not long after its March 1990 release, the song soon became inescapable. Madonna’s decision to include real-life ballroom luminaries in its accompanying music video — and, later, a world tour — seemed to signal greater opportunities for trans and queer people of color.
Writer, producer and director Janet Mock says that she was interested in exploring the commentary surrounding ballroom’s sudden exposure. “What do these people think about the mainstreaming of something that had just been incubating for years in secret? A lot of the ballroom community felt they were stars,” she says, adding that the Pose team conferred with in-house consultant and ballroom king Jose Xtravaganza, one of the lucky few chosen to be part of Madonna’s “Vogue” era. “They felt like they had been preparing for years for their closeups. This finally felt like their time.”
Indeed, Tuesday’s season two premiere (airing at 10 p.m. on FX) sees Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca thinking of ways to make the most of the moment. “Madonna is shining a bright spotlight on us,” she says at one point, and later declares, “We are on the cusp of a revolution.” Galvanized, Blanca — the founder and mother of the House of Evangelista — encourages her kids Angel (Indya Moore) and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to seriously pursue their respective passions for modeling and dance.
“‘Vogue’ is affecting Blanca in a big way. The dynamic is changing. She’s seeing something really big happening,” Rodriguez says of her character, who maintains a positive outlook despite advancing health struggles. “There’s a huge light that’s being shed on the community in a way that hasn’t been shed before. She’s very optimistic — and very happy that the world is seeing her and her community in a new way. And she wants her children to take advantage.”
But not every character is invigorated by Madonna’s ubiquitous presence inside the ballroom. Awards season staple and newly minted style icon Billy Porter says that Pray Tell — the exuberant emcee and fashion designer he portrays — is decidedly apathetic. “He’s not excited and I don’t think he quite understands why. Maybe it’s because he’s older,” says the veteran actor. “He has trepidation about what it actually means below the surface. He’s cautiously optimistic at best.”
Though Madonna, now 60, has been a visible ally and vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community since the very start of her career — and became one of the first notable names in entertainment to speak openly about the HIV/AIDS epidemic — critics have accused her of cultural appropriation and even argue that she erased voguing’s original context as a creation of queer people of color. (Only white folks are mentioned in “Vogue’s” spoken tally of fashionable Hollywood figures.)
“With ‘Vogue,’ Madonna showed us appreciation but I don’t think she understood how we could take the next step for the community,” says Angelica Ross, who plays ballroom spitfire Candy Ferocity. “She included people from the community like the Xtravaganzas, and she did change lives. But I feel like there were maybe missed opportunities and that Madonna could have done more. It was a fleeting moment in pop culture and I wish she had worked with the ballroom community to make it last longer.”
Still, it should be noted that the superstar’s latest music video for “Dark Ballet” — from her forthcoming 14th studio album, Madame X — features the black, queer and openly HIV-positive rapper Mykki Blanco playing Joan of Arc and challenging gender norms. At this year’s GLAAD Media Awards in New York, Blanco thanked the Advocate for Change honoree for making him feel “so very welcome” in the music industry.
Below, the cast and creators of Pose — several of whom have roots in the ballroom community, or are ballroom-adjacent — share more of their feelings about Madonna’s “Vogue,” its impact on their lives and in their work.
Steven Canals, co-creator
My experience in New York in 1990 was very specific to my upbringing. I was only 10 years old in 1990, but at that point we were still in the midst of the crack epidemic and it was a bleak period in the city’s history. I certainly carry around the weight of a lot of that. However, there were also really bright moments and I think “Vogue,” for example, was one of those moments. I still vividly remember my father coming home with the vinyl of the single, because he loves Madonna.
And he was like, “Hey, I just got this new record. Let’s listen to it.” And we all just loved it. And then finally seeing the video, I think on MTV, I was so struck by what was happening. I didn’t even fully understand and appreciate ballroom at that time, of course, and specifically what they were doing. But I think that’s part of the reason why now, all these years later, this story and this show is so critically important for me.
Madonna, along with Paris Is Burning, really gave the ballroom community a spotlight. She added a vibrancy to the community because, all of a sudden, all eyes are on them and folks are watching. I would argue that that’s what Madonna represents to ballroom — possibility. Because what ultimately happened in real-life on the heels of Madonna’s “Vogue” is that she brought Jose Xtravaganza — who plays one of our judges and is one of our consultants on Pose — along on the Blonde Ambition Tour with her, along with Luis Xtravaganza.
For many people in the community, they felt like, “Wow, this huge pop star is aware of our community and is embracing us. What then are the possibilities — not only for our future, but for everyone else involved? Who else is paying attention to what we’re doing and what else does that mean in terms of our aspirations and our goals?”
In one of our episodes, the ballroom is really packed with all these people who have never been to a ball before. They’re interested because of Madonna and “Vogue.” So here they are and then a couple episodes later, everyone is gone. And that’s not Madonna’s fault. That’s the responsibility of the individuals who decided not to show up that next week. That’s one of the things that we want the audience to think about and to wrestle with — in this question of appropriation or appreciation, how do you contribute to it?
Janet Mock, writer, producer and director
Watching Madonna’s Truth or Dare doc so was pivotal for me. I remember watching that in high school and just being enamored by, of course, the superstar but also her unapologetic embrace of what they would call sexual deviancy at the time. I was so captured by her openness to sexuality, gender identity and, obviously, the world of voguing. But, at that point, I did not know it was linked to ballroom at all. All I knew was the coolness of it. I was enamored by it but didn’t know the roots.
Now, after doing the research, I can’t help but think of Hector Xtravaganza. He was part of “Vogue” and was also a consultant on our show. He passed away last year before season two began production, but I know he would love what we’re doing because we’re characterizing things that were not being captured on camera at the time. Madonna gave the community this huge platform. But the question was, “Are you going to protect it? Are you going to keep it small?”
Or, “Do you allow it to grow and allow your people to lead that space to go onto bigger aspirations?” So, no longer are you performing fame. No longer are you performing wealth. You’re actually attaining that. You’re becoming fame, you’re becoming wealth. You’re attaining grander things that were once only seen as make-believe or fantasy. It’s complex but compelling. Hector would love to see that play out onscreen.
Our Lady J, writer and producer
Madonna has been a champion for the LGBTQ community for so long, and she was one of the first celebrities to really stand by people living with HIV/AIDS and to say that these are human beings who need to be treated like human beings in a time that was really hostile towards people living with HIV/AIDS. I remember watching the Girlie Show World Tour on a bootleg VHS, and I will never forget how she dedicated a song to a friend of hers who she had lost to HIV/AIDS. That was really my first queer iconic moment. She’s been really special for me in encouraging my own voice to be unapologetically who I am. I’m happy her presence is felt in season two.
Mj Rodriguez (Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista)
In my opinion, Madonna hasn’t appropriated the culture of the ballroom scene. She is the one who incorporated people like Jose Xtravaganza. He is still very prominent in the ballroom community today. I think “Vogue” was a beautiful homage to our culture and a great attempt to put us on the map.
It just so happens that it didn’t get us to where it needed to because of other factors. Madonna couldn’t erase transphobia and homophobia completely, but I really do think she tried her best to champion our community. She’s been a game-changer for us and there is a lot of love there. Let’s really define appropriating: stealing, taking and not paying homage or giving credit. Madonna gave our culture credit by having people like Jose in the video for “Vogue.” There’s some people who just don’t do that. They’ll take it from us and play it off like they invented it. That’s the most important thing. Don’t take from us unless you want to involve us.
Billy Porter (Pray Tell)
Madonna was one of the ones that really appreciated our community. And her appreciation for us really did create a conversation. I lived through it, I was there and it really did help. Nothing is perfect, but we are still talking about Madonna and “Vogue.” It really did matter. I still know all the words!
But I have to admit that as a singer, like as a real singer, my fandom was centered around Whitney Houston. It wasn’t that I wasn’t into it. I understood it, but I just preferred people who could sing-sing, with a voice. What I loved about Madonna was her business sense. What I loved about Madonna was her irreverence. What I loved about her was her allyship. It was real and really meant something for our community. So, while I wasn’t necessarily a fan who would buy the records or go to the concerts, “Vogue” was actually the one song that I liked. And I ended up liking many of her songs later on. But I just wasn’t a fan like that.
Still, that moment was fun because it was joyful. It helped in the quest, for those of us who were living through the plague of HIV/AIDS, to experience joy. That’s how we did it. We did it through music and we did it on the dancefloor very often. So, this was one of those songs that allowed for us to just feel and practice joy.
Indya Moore (Angel Evangelista)
Madonna was, is and has been an incredibly powerful influence over the world. Anything that she touches turns to gold, especially in 1990. I think she did so much work to advocate for us. Madonna was celebrating a culture that she thought was beautiful. I don’t think she was exploiting the ballroom community. She’s done so much for us over the years. She’s a wonderful gal. She’s befriended so many people from the community. The ballroom culture and everything that it’s about is everything that Madonna values — beauty, individuality and, most importantly, the freedom to express yourself.
Angelica Ross (Candy Ferocity)
I didn’t really know the impact “Vogue” had on the community until actually speaking with folks from the ballroom scene. It’s also this very nostalgic experience being on Pose and having someone like Jose Xtravaganza on the judges’ panel. He was one of the main featured people in Madonna’s “Vogue” video and he still looks so young and so beautiful.
It really transports you back to that time. It also makes you feel a little sad. I love that we’ve reached this moment, where those who have been in the ballroom community for so long are finally feeling the love and getting the full spectrum of spotlight that should have been shined on them when “Vogue” first came out. But, also, what’s bittersweet is folks like Hector Xtravaganza, who we lost last year, is not here to continue on with this legacy. It was great to have him a part of season one. It’s hard to face the very real fact that we don’t all get to make it to the party, to the ball.
Dominique Jackson (Elektra Abundance)
When I first came into ballroom, it was all about “Vogue.” It was like Madonna just took our culture and put it out there for the world to see. Now I’m an icon in the ballroom community and “Vogue” helped me with the confidence to get there. Watching the video allowed me to see that, yes, there was something different about me, but I could still make it. It showed the world that LGBTQ people were not only worthy but very talented.
Hector Xtravaganza was my house father. And Hector, who I consider my dad, would tell you that Madonna appreciated and loved us. She saw something, she took it and made it global. Hector worked with Madonna, taught with her, experienced a new life because of her. Many people in my community were able to be a part of it. It opened doors for so many people. You just have to understand that when doors are opened, it’s up to you whether you want to go in and sit down — or go in and cause a ruckus.
Pose airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 p.m. ET.
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.