Strike a Pose…

Roy Ward

Strike A Pose

Here at Vada, we like to entertain, but we also like to educate. So take a pew and let me teach you a few new words, and maybe even teach you how to ‘read’…

The name of this magazine, Vada, means “to see” in Polari, a form of cant slang favoured by (amongst others) the gay subculture in the UK up to the early twentieth century. From Polari we get words we use regularly even today: “naff”, “mince”, “fruit”, and – most pertinent for this article – “drag”.

A lot of Polari has fallen out of usage nowadays, but as the fabulously-named field of “lavender linguistics” tells us, many LGBT communities still have their own unique linguistic practices – watch but a single episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

What is “throwing shade”? Does it mean the same as “reading”? What on earth is “realness”? Where did these phrases even come from? For answers, you need look no further than Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Set in the somewhat alien world of New York City ballroom culture, the film gives us a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1980s for a certain section of the LGBT community – predominantly young African-American and Latino people.


The film follows a variety of colourful individuals as they discuss, explain and take part in a “Ball” – an elaborately-structured and highly organised competition where competitors “walk” to compete in certain categories. These might be “Executive Realness”, with people dressing in three-piece suits and toting briefcases to look as convincing as possible as a successful businessman; or drag categories such as “Femme Queen Realness”, for the most “perfectly feminine” drag performers.

Many of those who walk at the Balls we see in the film are members of, and compete as representatives of, “houses” – essentially LGBT street gangs made up of drag queens and most often headed up by a “Mother” (usually an older, established drag queen or trans woman). We meet a variety of these house Mothers in the film – the fabulous Pepper LaBeija of the House of LaBeija; Angie Xtravaganza of the House of Xtravanganza, visibly ill from AIDS-related complications; and Dorian Corey, who has the best story of them all. But more about that later.

This is the film that brought voguing out of the ballroom and into the public eye – sorry Madonna stans, but your veiny-armed and gap-toothed idol is but a footnote in vogueing history. For a true vogue idol, look no further than Willi Ninja of the House of Ninja. Words alone can’t hope to do justice to how spectacular it is to see voguing done by the experts – watch the movie and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree. Move along, Ciccone.

Paris is Burning is as exhilaratingly hilarious to watch as it is simultaneously tragic, and no better figure represents this dichotomy than Venus Xtravangza. Venus was a trans woman who lived in and around the ballroom scene we see depicted in the film, who became a sex worker to save up the necessary money for her surgery.  One of the best scenes in the film (in terms of learning new words, learning new insults and just being plain funny) sees Venus “reading”, or “throwing shade”. This is summed up by Dorian Corey as “the real art form of insult”, and anybody who’s ever been at the receiving end of the razor-sharp tongue of a drag queen in a gay bar will know EXACTLY what this is. Reading is fundamental. The library is open.

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Towards the end of the film, however, Venus’s “Mother” Angie reveals that Venus’s body was found stuffed under a bed in a New York hotel room in 1988, four days after her death – she had been strangled. “But that’s part of life,” Angie remarks, “as far as being a transsexual in New York City and surviving.”

Earlier I did promise to reveal more about Dorian Corey’s amazing story. All you need to know is:

1)      When Dorian died, a mummified body was found in her closet.

2)      You can read an article all about it right here.

As a slice of LGBT cultural history, Paris is Burning provides an unparalleled look into a part of the subculture which remains a mystery to many people, even today. I’ve hopefully taught you a few new words, so now it’s up to you to track down a copy of the film and test out your new vocabulary. And don’t forget your reading glasses…

About Roy Ward

When Roy was 7 a girl tied him to a tree and tried to set him on fire. He now lives in Leeds with his boyfriend. These facts may be connected. Vada's Deputy Editor, he loves pop culture in all its forms, plus feminism; drag queens and Nigella Lawson. Find him on Twitter @badlydrawnroy.