Paris is 'Still' Burning

5.22.2011

By Steven Thrasher

More than 20 years after the film was released, the Bronx's drag ball scene continues to thrive as a home for queer culture in an otherwise hostile world.

The thinnest member of this class is more than six feet tall -- a boy, now dressing as a girl, who appears to have begun taking hormones. The largest is a boy with a sweet face who looks like a young Biggie Smalls. There is at least one 'real' girl among them, a quiet Latina who seems to speak only through her heartfelt dancing.

'Why are you here?' Pony asks them. 'Biggie' raises his hand. 'I'm here because I want this more than anything,' he says, his eyes twinkling.

Pony gets them up on their feet and working in groups. In silhouette against a floor-length window, they look like a living, breathing Kara Walker installation. He exhorts them to 'show up' in their dancing, and to translate that to other areas of life.

One of the few people straddling both the real and kiki ballroom scenes is a runway model named Twiggy, who walks 'butch queen European runway' for the House of Garcon. She works at the Bronx Pride Center (officially under given name Ryan White) as an HIV peer health educator. Twiggy/Ryan fuses the two in teaching the center's runway class and producing their kiki balls.

Kiki is largely for kids from New York City. For most people from other places, the entry point to the city's ballroom scene is Paris Is Burning.

'Seeing that movie was like, oh my God!' says Trace Mizrahi, a transgender woman who walks balls in the 'realness,' 'femme queen face,' and 'sex siren' categories. She describes seeing the film (as a boy who'd do drag in Ohio) and feeling 'like a seed had been planted. There were girls, beautiful girls, who'd been born boys.'

Trace moved to New York and got a job at Bloomingdale's MAC cosmetics counter. Then male, he walked his first ball, 'realness,' at the Roxy, and remembers thinking, 'I'm being celebrated for something I was always put down for. I turned a negative into a positive.'
Despite being the odd white person around, Trace fit well into the scene. 'I'd thought I was gay, but really I was a different gender.' Ballroom helped her on that journey. Trace started dressing as a girl at work and buying hormones on the street.

'I worked at MAC and escorted to pay for the hormones and surgery,' she says, eventually escorting full-time. 'Then I went and got my pussy,' which she says was not cheap. 'My vagina alone cost $15,000.' Her transition complete, she 'graduated' from escorting to stripping.

If it's shocking that Trace survived everything she went through, it's an outright miracle VaNity Xtravaganza is still among the living.

'I always knew I was a girl,' she says, even though she was born with a penis. 'When I was 11, I was on 42nd Street, and my gay mother, Carmen Xtravaganza, found me on the street and said 'You are too beautiful to be a boy.' '
VaNity says Carmen injected her, right then and there, with her first shot of hormones.

Far from being scared, VaNity says she liked it. It was the first step on her long road towards becoming a transsexual porn star and one of the most glamorous members of the House of Xtravaganza.

It was not an easy journey. Many years later, 'I had an operation, and they castrated me,' she says, 'but I woke up in the middle of it and I told them to stop. They'd cut a hole and I told them to sew it up.' She felt she was done.

'I never got fake tits, either,' she says, eyeing her ample cleavage. 'What I've got naturally is enough.'

 

VIEW THE SLIDESHOW FOR MORE IMAGES FROM KEVIN AMATO'S BALLROOM SHOOT.

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