As drag's foremost mother-in-heels, RuPaul has long paid tribute to the art form's roots, as outlined by director Jennie Livingston in her landmark documentary Paris Is Burning. But, the medium's history stretches well beyond the scope of Livingston's camera, too, and EW's Untold Stories: Pride Edition podcast features an appreciative discussion about modern drag's pioneering foremothers of the ballroom scene.
Series producer Carly Usdin and Out magazine digital director Mikelle Street spearhead the conversation on episode 2 of the podcast (below), with Street paying tribute to the trans women and queer queens of color at the center of Paris Is Burning — particularly the legend Paris Dupree, whom many credit with pioneering the art of voguing on the New York City ball scene.
"So, Paris Is Burning, the film, is named for 'Paris Is Burning,' the series of balls that were started by Paris Dupree. And so, Paris Dupree, the legend goes that in the mid-'70s she was at a club in the West Village, and people were dancing, and she pulled an issue of Vogue out of her purse and pointed to a page and struck that pose on the beat and flipped the page. And thus, the idea of voguing began," Street speculates. "And so, that, again, started.... that origin story has it starting in the West Village. But the thing was, it was that it was not cultivated there. It was cultivated and matured and it became a phenom in the balls of Harlem. And so, what I like to think is more likely what happened is that it's a combination of the two."
Street also recalls classic figures in the drag community, like Flawless Sabrina, Divine, and Pepper and Crystal LaBeija, who helped shape the legendary House of LaBeija into a performative staple in the ball community, before drag and the ballroom scene adapted amid the rise of digital platforms like premium television and YouTube.
"We have Drag Race, but we also have Dragnificent and [other projects]," Street observes of the evolution. "And you have queens like Ginger Minj who are trying to break new ground in Hollywood, and not even break new ground, but also retread and continue the successes of Divine and RuPaul. You also have the ballroom scene which originated within drag, but broke off. And so, there is a common mistake of people still continuing to call ballroom houses drag houses and drag ball events. And though that is where it started, it's no longer there at all. Drag performers are in the vast minority, and that's for a variety of things, one of which is that butch queens came in and they weren't doing drag, they weren't here to do drag. And then also that there's like of the people that we knew to be drag queens at first, we now know that they actually weren't drag queens. They were women of trans experience that just we hadn't figured out the verbiage for what that was. We have a better understanding of gender now."
Listen to Usdin and Street discuss drag and ballroom in full above.