When HBO announced the casting line-up of their new show Legendary, a nine-episode series that turns ballroom into a televised competition, they likely expected kudos. Uplifting a marginalized community, showing diversity, you know, all of the stuff that people want to see. But what they were met with was almost universal backlash for choosing Jameela Jamil, a woman who many do not know to be queer or trans, and who seemingly has no connection to ballroom, as its face. So, instead of address those criticisms they changed the show — or at least the way they were talking about it — and needlessly threw journalists under the bus in the process.
According to a release to members of the press by HBO on Tuesday, “HBO Max announced today that actress, activist and host Jameela Jamil will MC and judge Legendary, the 9-episode unscripted voguing competition series from Scout Productions.” The release goes on to list Leiomy Maldonado, and others as part of a judging table, with “commentary by Dashaun Wesley” and DJ MikeQ as the DJ. HBO Max’s communications team then tweeted the news, also stipulating that Jamil would pose as “MC and judge.” The HBO Max account signal-boosted it, and press like Deadline and Out covered in-kind.
This all feels like minutiae but it’s important to go back through how this was all established as fact. Jamil initially tweeted a link to the Deadline story. “I’m *so* excited to be a tiny part of bringing ballroom further into the mainstream where it belongs,” she wrote in a now deleted post. She would tweet and delete multiple tweets throughout the day about the ensuing scandal. “I’m here to celebrate some of the coolest, most talented people on the planet who deserve center stage. I’m honoured to join these brilliant artists.” But, in the 12 hours since, Jamil has condemned Deadline, revising the narrative in real time.
“Hello!,” she wrote in a tweet that included a screenshot of Out’s coverage. “Deadline says I am the MC of this show! I am not. I am just one of the judges. The brilliant Dashaun Wesley is.” Except … that’s not what a press release still live on HBO’s press room at the time of publishing states. So what changed?
In the time between Jamil being the host and MC and her just changing to a judge — at one point Indya Moore tweeted that they spoke with Jamil and was told that Leiomy was a host, though that can’t be substantiated elsewhere — the activist and actress was universally criticized. People wanted to know why a seemingly cisgender heterosexual woman was the face of a creation of queer people of color. Someone who wasn’t a part of the culture.
Longtime members of the ballroom community posted tweets questioning the choice, like Trace Lysette, who has been a mother in the scene for almost a decade. First she was a mother in the house of Mizrahi, rising to overall mother, and now she is a founding mother in the house of Gorgeous Gucci.
“I interviewed for this gig,” Lysette wrote to Twitter. “It’s kind of [mindblowing] when [people] with no connection to our culture gets the gig. This is not shade towards Jameela, I love all that she stands for. If anything I question the decision makers.” Jamil responded to the tweet, saying that Lysette was mistaken and that she auditioned to be a mother, not a judge.
“We weren’t up for the same thing,” she wrote. Lysette, who has appeared in Hustlers, Pose and more, pushed back asserting that she was up for the same job.
Amiyah Scott also stepped into the fray, also having emerged from the house of Mizrahi, and crossed over to the mainstream with shows like Star.
“I [started] walking balls when I was 16,” she wrote to Twitter. “I transitioned FROM THE BALLROOM SCENE to network television and you mean to tell me TV shows based around the scene are being created and I’m not even considered to be involved? K.”
The reality is that sometimes people get things wrong — that’s a part of being human. And once you fess up to that, and speak your truth, we can all move on and get to the good stuff. But that is distinctly not what happened here.
In almost all of her tweets reworking the framing of Legendary, Jameela Jamil has expressly tagged Deadline, accusing them and other journalists (i.e.. me) of “messing up” the reporting, or making a mistake. That is something we all know to be patently untrue. For her to do that for an audience of her one million Twitter followers is frankly insidious. Jamil never should have been announced as a host, or MC of Legendary, this we all know. It’s honestly iff-y whether she should be on the permanent panel or not — why not go the RuPaul’s Drag Race route and select permanent judges who are of this culture, or close to it, and bring in celebrities for guest slot. But the reality is she was announced, and she was rolled out by HBO themselves. Trying to deny that in favor of some sort of "purer narrative," that absolves Jamil and HBO of wrongdoing and instead questions the credibility of journalists that are literally doing their jobs — particularly when she’s been tweeting and deleting contradictory posts all day about the issue — is the sort of gaslighting that she purports herself, as an activist, to be against.