Stamford, Conn. isn't exactly the capital of gay culture. Yet, it’s where veterans of voguing and duckwalk dilettantes gathered one rain-drenched March night (before coronavirus lockdowns, of course) for Legendary, HBO Max’s ballroom competition show. You’d never know that inside such a seemingly blasé red-bricked building would be Master of Ceremonies Dashaun Wesley decked out in a skin-tight bedazzled Green Lantern catsuit, ready to emcee one of the most dramatic and theatrical balls thrown on the show thus far.
Rob Eric, the show’s executive producer who previously helped revamp Queer Eye for a more modern audience, could’ve looked for studios just an hour’s train ride away in New York City, where the queer counter-culture that is ball rose to prominence in 1920s Harlem. But the team couldn’t pass up the large capacity (and the low rent) of this made-over Stamford arena — which also, appropriately, connects the main stage and wardrobe buildings with a catwalk. “We had this 120,000-square-foot facility, and we’re [still] stepping on each other,” Eric mentions as he passes through "the Shade Room" lounge area. “We use every bit of the space.”
There is something to be said about a symbol of white, heteronormative America (a corporate office building) being taken over by Black and Brown trans men and women, and all the other shades of the LGBTQ community. Legendary, after all, attempts to give this performance style, which has influenced all manner of music and art in the past few decades, a stage in mainstream entertainment.
“Finally seeing what we worked so hard for, finally seeing the struggle and why this was created in the first place being honored and being put on a bigger platform, it's just inspiring for myself,” Jack Mizrahi, a ballroom legend in his own right and co-executive producer on Legendary, says backstage. “We're limitless. We literally wear our capes every single day and now we're just soaring over the buildings. We're really flying now.”
The capes in episode 7, featuring a superhero-themed “Capes and Tights” ball, are literal. Over the past six episodes, eight Houses — some bearing names of ballroom greats — have been competing in a series of battles: voguing, posing, floor performances, dips, duckwalks, you name it. Now only four Houses remain in this quest for the $100,000 grand prize and "legendary House status": House of Gucci, House of Lanvin, House of Balmain, and House of Escada. Keeping with the comic-book theme of the night, any truly good adversary doesn’t remain gone for long. So, this week, the “heroes” battled against “villains," a.k.a. previously eliminated contestants. “When you walk in ball, you always have a wish list: What would I be able to do if I had a budget?” Mizrahi muses. “How would I be able to bring it if I didn't have to worry about how much my hair costs?” This event, he says, is “ballroom on super-speed.”
Every hero comes with a super power and an origin story. For House of Balmain's Gravity, who came from a white middle-class household before finding his place in the world of ball, that power would be arms. He may be quiet, but his whirlwind contortionist vogue moves leave even rapper Megan Thee Stallion, one judge on the show, gagging to have them featured in her music videos. For Legendary’s Mother of the House of Lanvin, Eyricka, who shares her story of being incarcerated as a trans woman, her ability is face. When those cheekbones arrive on stage, they usually come accompanied by “10s across the board.” Then there’s House of Escada’s “secret weapon,” Shyanne. Behind her unparalleled catwalk skills are memories of being kicked out of house and home when she came out of the closet at a young age.
In translating the ball scene for a show like Legendary, Misrahi recognizes “we still have kids who are plagued with all the issues we were plagued with before," as glimpsed through some of these personal stories. Across the decades and especially through the AIDS epidemic, ball culture became a safe haven for shunned and homeless LGBTQ youth, who were taken in by House Mothers and House Fathers. Balls are their community events — performances that initially mimicked martial arts movements and model poses from the pages of Vogue magazine. “No matter how big that we get," says Mizrahi, who started in ball 30 years ago, "we’re always going to have to be a community.”
With casting, Jane Mun says it was important for her and fellow showrunner Josh Greenberg to pick Houses "that were hungry to showcase their talent and to show ballroom to the world." It began with the House parents. All the Mothers and Fathers from the world of ball were interviewed and chosen by the producers to represent their Houses on the show. From there, it was up to them to recruit four members each, making eight Houses of five.
“Originally the Houses were all gonna be from the same chapter. So, we'd have the L.A. Lanvins or the Boston Escadas,” Greenberg explains. “Because we limited [the House] to five people, they really needed to be able to walk lots of different categories. We started to talk to the House parents and, all of a sudden, the Houses started to become more inter-city.” Dolores Ninja, a member of the L.A. chapter of the House of Ninja, founded by legendary voguer Willi Ninja in 1984, picked her teammates from ball communities all over the world. King James West, who founded House of West in 2018, chose “a lot of voguers,” Greenberg points out, only to realize later on how many other categories competitors needed to walk.
It took about a year to assemble all the Houses of Legendary. “They were suspect,” Mun admits, “because I think they've been told by numerous outlets 'we want to do a show about you.' Nothing's every really manifested. They were always like, ‘Is it really happening?’” It became real when HBO Max green lit the show for 10 episodes in September 2019. By February, they announced Leiomy Maldonado, the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” with her signature “Leiomy Lolly” hair flip move, as a judge along with Megan Thee Stallion, The Good Place star Jameela Jamil, and stylist Law Roach. The fifth judges' spot is reserved for a guest. In episode 3, that was Pose star Dominique Jackson. For "Capes and Tights," it's model Winnie Harlow.
For Wesley, taking a breather before transforming into the sparkling emcee of the “Capes and Tights” ball, the experience finally feels real, too. He remembers back when, at age 16, he and Maldonado first crossed paths: they battled each other in a ball and they both got chopped. "Starting then was my scapegoat for learning who I was as an openly gay man at a young age who was confident and secure in what I wanted to do," Wesley says. "I would've never thought they would bring ballroom to the mainstream like this and for the world to be able to see and appreciate it and learn from," Maldonado remarks, speaking from her experience as a trans woman joining ball at the age of 15. "For me, that was epic that they would think of me. I just wanted to make sure that it was done properly and that it was being represented by the right people, and they did that."
As the beats from DJ MikeQ pumps through the studio, Mizrahi takes the stage to rev up the audience. Members from ball Houses in New York were bussed in to serve as the crowd, and the order of a production schedule can easily devolve into a party. That was Eric's goal, to throw "a bucket of acid" (the drugs, not the chemical) onto the ball scene and make it "as big as possible." But it, obviously, comes with challenges for a traditional competition show. Even the audience members start yelling across the room about what ballroom rules should be honored. The problem is, there are no real set-in-stone rules of ball, which the judges talk (and sometimes argue) about in real time on camera. In episode 2, Roach calls out how many of the chopped Houses of the "Three Blind Mice" category were the only ones to actually recognize the theme of the challenge. A discussion ensued and Wesley made the tie-breaker call: "a chop is a chop."
It's as though the show hones its own rules from episode to episode. Sydney Baloue, a trans writer/producer who won the voguing category at last year's Latex Ball in New York, describes writing for Legendary as a "very vigorous" process. "How do you fit [ball] into a 60-minute TV show?" he asks. "This has been our juggernaut that we've dealt with for the past couple of weeks. Not every episode is the same. We don't always have the same categories, sometimes you'll have a category where you have a single person walking and they'll represent their House, sometimes we'll have an all-House production. Even that structure comes from ballroom, but now you're seeing it on TV with even more money and costumes thrown at it."
By the time of the "Capes and Tights" ball, the producers had a firm grip on the steering wheel. Fourteen cameras — some attached to zip lines, others attached to cranes — zoom around the studio, trying to capture as much of the action, which often spills onto the judges' laps and off the stage. It's a Moneyball, which means there isn't the added pressure that comes with an elimination episode. Here, Houses are battling for cash prizes — two categories worth $5,000 each and one worth $10,000. That's in addition to the $100,000, which will be awarded to the last House standing in the finale. In other words, the party vibe feels much stronger this week.
With all the cameras rolling, there's still much that can be lost amidst the high-energy of the moment. Backstage, the walls of the competitors' wardrobe studio — where designer/stylist Johnny Wujek helps execute the visions of each House for every ball — are covered in hand ornaments, each positioned in a different style of voguing. Another wall, in a room Eric describes as if he turned "Downton Abbey into a nightclub," houses portraits of ballroom icons, such as Crystal LaBeija, a founder of the Royal House of LaBeija (another House once represented on Legendary before elimination). Eric also explains that there's an "afterparty" following each episode, where the audience then takes the stage off-camera to compete in their own ballroom categories for various prizes. It's another reminder of the real communities that started and continue to fuel this space.
Wesley sees Legendary as "an opportunity for us as a culture and community to be put in a place where we're not seen often."
"I say this with love," he continues. "For me, growing up, not being able to see a familiar face or not see someone who looks, acts, walks, talks like me, I've never seen that on television. The majority of the time if we did it was inside a box. So, now, we get to sit in a place with a platform where we get to be ourselves."
It's as Maldonado says on the show: "Ballroom is here."