“Touch this skin darling. Touch this skin honey, touch all of this skin! You just can’t take it,” says Venus Xtravaganza. “You’re just an overgrown orangutan!”
“Paris Is Burning,” the 1990 documentary directed by Jennie Livingston follows the ballroom culture in New York City and the African American, Latino and Transgender communities. With a vivid representation of gender bending, drag, and the art of vogue, it remains as one of the most legendary and revered documentaries in gay culture that continues to stand the test of time 23 years later.
On Monday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in Ballroom A of the Student Center, Eastern Michigan University will be serving legendary realness by screening the film in celebration of OUTober. Larry La Fountain, Associate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, will be introducing the film and will lead a discussion afterward.
“Paris Is Burning” was voted No. 2 in a 2012 PBS poll for the “25 Greatest Documentaries of All Time,” and won several awards including the Audience Award Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 1990, and Outstanding Film (Documentary) at the GLAAD Media Awards in 1992.
Notable individuals in the documentary, a majority of whom who have passed away since its debuted, include the Godfather of Vogue Willi Ninja, the mother of the House of Ninja; (a house is a surrogate gay family similar to fashion houses like the House of Chanel). Ninja, who died of AIDS in 2006 at age 45, was a muse for singer Madonna and featured in Malcolm McLaren’s in “Deep In Vogue.” His style of voguing was innovative and ninja-like with fluid yet contorted movement.
Pepper LaBeija, a drag queen and voguer who became the mother of the House of LaBeija after the death of her house mother Crystal LaBeija in the 1970s. Dorian Corey, the legendary drag performer who proclaims to be the “Lena Horne of drag” and steals the show with giving the definition of gay culture terms like reading and throwing shade, which is the art of insulting.
“Shade comes from reading. Reading came first,” Corey said.
Then there’s Venus Xtravaganza, the youngest daughter in the House of Xtravaganza and the most popular amongst fans for her energy and story of living as a transgender woman leaves an impression. The young Italian beauty has been quoted numerously on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and in music “Dance (Theme for the House of Diabolique)” and “Looking Good and Feeling Gorgeous” by RuPaul. It only shows how much her influence is still prominent to this very day.
“I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl,” Xtravaganza said in the film. “They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don’t have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don’t have to have that as a problem.”
The cast appeared on the Joan Rivers Show in promotion of the film and garnered attention in the media at the time. Voguers Jose and Luis Camacho Xtravaganza captured the attention of singer Madonna, who recruited the two in her videos “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” and as dancers on the Blonde Ambition Tour that was featured in her documentary “Truth or Dare.”
The film is captivating, and what make it so besides the characters are the endless quotes you’ll be reciting like a madman.
Junior LaBeija: “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. Opulence! You own everything, everything is yours!”
Pepper LaBeija: “New York is wrapped up in being ‘LaBeija.”
Freddy Pendavis: “Please, I wouldn’t be caught dead in that house.”
Paris Dupree: “You there, with the cigarette. You’re giving me a banjee effect. This is banjee.”
EMU student Ricci Cole has never seen the film but it eager to see what all the hype is about, and the showcase of Transgender individuals like Venus and Angie Xtravaganza.
“I want to see the film because I’ve heard nothing but good things about it,” said Cole. “It was well done and captured a part Queer history like no other documentary has done and include aspects of the Trans community.”
“Paris Is Burning” reigns supreme because it has soul that has not only brought this art form of vogue to worldwide recognition, immortalizing members but has broken barriers. It shines a light on the ethnicity in gay culture that isn’t always brought to attention.
“Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name,” said Dorian Corey during the film. “Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot a arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”