A Little Bit of Herstory Repeating
Like anything that’s been deeply embedded in popular culture, the significance of Paris Is Burning can be taken for granted. With the 1991 doc, director Jennie Livingston placed the focus on the stories and lives of queer people of color and trans people. As visibility is crucial to the development of identity and community, the film may have been entertaining to white, straight audiences, but for queer people of color it was nothing short of revelatory.
Thanks to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Paris Is Burning has continued to influence a new generation (often unbeknownst to them) while further contributing to the film’s embrace cum appropriation by the mainstream.
As a result, “shade” and “reading” have been worn away into self-parodying cliché, voguing has been exported to the farthest reaches of the planet, and the stars of the film—forgotten in life—live on as folk heroes in countless memes, gifs, T-shirts, and even the occasional musical.
The Obama as Willi Ninja gif that duckwalked onto the internet after his decisive 2012 victory over Mitt Romney. Suffice to say, no one did that for the new guy.
Now to be clear, Paris Is Burning didn’t invent reading or shade or voguing or ballroom culture, it simply brought it to a larger audience, which rightfully devoured it. It’s still as enthralling and rapturous and disarmingly truthful as it was 25 years ago, and its critiques of race, class, gender, capitalism, and the dogged pursuit of the American Dream are still relevant—especially with the current administration’s determination to return to the ‘80s by way of the ‘50s.
Ah, there's our future commander in chief (middle, smug).
So whether you can quote Dorian Corey verbatim or you’re barely familiar with the House that Willi Ninja built, this viewing guide will give you a deeper understanding, love, and enjoyment of Paris Is Burning.
Dorian Corey (c. 1937 - 1993) - the one-woman Greek chorus, offering important definitions and incisive insight throughout
Pepper LaBeija (1948 - 2003) - Mother of the House of LaBeija, in which new York City is wrapped up in being
Venus Xtravaganza (1965 - 1988) - little girl lost, you just can't take it, she [spoiler alert] perishes by the film’s coda
Angie Xtravaganza (1964 - 1993) - Mother of the Year as well as the House of Xtravaganza
Willi Ninja (1961 - 2006) - Master Voguer, mother of the House of Ninja, the invisible assassins
Junior LaBeija - the Emcee, tosses the dice, steals the rice, still kickin'
Paris Dupree (1950 - 2011) - the Paris that’s burning, mother of the House of Dupree, at whose ball much of the action takes place
Octavia Saint Laurent (1964 - 2009) - supermodel of the world, the Virginia Slims girl
Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza - their own special creations, free as the wind that is blowing out on this beach
Freddie Pendavis - smart-mouth, stunt queen, Roy Rogers burglar, will walk when she's ready
Kim Pendavis (d. 1992 or 1993) - brings it to you every ball
House - 1.) family for a lot of children that don’t have families; a group of human beings in a mutual bond; 2.) a gay street gang
Reading - the real art form of insult
Shade - comes from reading; ex: “I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly."
Legendary - the goal; an Oscar
Voguing - throwing shade in dance form; name and poses originated from Vogue magazine
Realness - to be able to blend
Mopping - stealing
Clear the floor! Clear the floor! It's time to walk.
- Upcoming Pretty Girl 1986 - “They’re showing up for the press...Back up and give them air!”
- High Fashion Winter Sportswear - "The Poconos vs. The Catskills"
- Luscious Body - “A body that says, ‘Come up and see me some time, Big Boy.’”
- Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness - “School. Elementary. High school. College. Not here."
- Town and Country - “Exclusively. Done.”
- Executive Realness - “You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive—if I had the opportunity I could be one ‘cause I can look like one. That is like a fulfillment.”
- High Fashion Model Parisienne - “Shanté, shanté. Shanté, shanté, shanté, shanté.”
- Butch Queen First Time in Drags at a Ball
- High Fashion Evening Wear - “C’mon now, it is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time...No lady is sure at night.”
- Banji - “Looking like the boy who probably robbed you a few minutes before coming to Paris’ ball.”
10 Greatest Quotes
1. "I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. 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. 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." - Dorian Corey
5. "New York City is wrapped up in being LaBeija."- Pepper LaBeija
6. "We’re not going to be shady, just fierce.” - Junior LaBeija
7. "Get into it. Get into both of them." - Unknown emcee
8. “Everybody who’s young has a hope and a dream. And I don’t think that it’s been any different in the history of the world.” - Eileen Ford
Top 10 Songs
Paris Is Burning also has an amazing soundtrack, featuring classic disco and house tracks that were popular in the ballroom scene. (All of these are, where possible, the extended dance mixes, which is the only way to listen to anything.)
"Got to Be Real" - Cheryl Lynn
"Love Is the Message" - MFSB
"Move Your Body" - Marshall Jefferson
"Love Hangover" - Diana Ross
"Let No Man Put Asunder" - First Choice
"Is It All Over My Face?" - Loose Joints
"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" - Eurythmics
"Deep in Vogue" - Malcolm McClaren
"I Am What I Am" - La Cage Aux Folles
"Who’s Zoomin' Who" - Aretha Franklin
- Someone reads or shades someone - 1 sip (or you'll be drunk 5 minutes in)
- Someone yells “WORK!” - 1 sip
- Someone says “Legendary” - 2 sips
- Dorian Corey sitting at her makeup table - 3 sips
- “Got to Be Real” plays - 1 sip for every 15 seconds it’s still on
- A clip of voguing - 1 shot
- Someone says something you thought came from RuPaul's Drag Race - 1 shot
- Someone says something profound about race, class or gender in America - down it
Other References in Pop Culture
“Vogue” - According to Wikipedia, "Madonna was inspired by vogue dancers and choreographers Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem "House Ball" community, the origin of the dance form, and they introduced 'Vogueing' to her at the Sound Factory club in New York City."
Music sampling or inspired by Paris Is Burning: “?”- C+C Music Factory, “Desirée” - Blood Orange, “Walk on By”- El Perro del Mar, “Fierce” - Azealia Banks, “Ima Read” - Zebra Fucking Katz, “Gone Fishing” - Roísín Murphy, "Looking Good, Feeling Gorgeous" - RuPaul, "Supermodel (You Better Work)" - RuPaul, "Purse First" - Bob the Drag Queen
Lee Daniels’s aborted musical TV drama: "And then I wrote something for Showtime, a musical version of Paris Is Burning....I wrote it and we never…it never…it was too deep, honey. It was too much for the children, honey. It was too much!" — Daniels
The Murder of Venus Xtravaganza 1988 - an immersive dinner theater show in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York that ran for about two months back in 2013. I went, and it was part murder mystery, part scavenger hunt, all fierce.
Dorian's Closet - premiering April 26 at Columbia, Maryland's Rep Stage, the new musical chronicles the rise and fall of Dorian Corey, while taking us on "a musical journey that explores just how far we will go to make our dreams a reality."
Further Reading and Viewing
Portrait of Jason (1967) / Jason and Shirley (2015) - probably the first time a black gay man was the subject of a film, Shirley Clarke's cinema vérité documentary and its beguiling star Jason Holliday paved the road for Paris to burn.
Filmmaker Stephen Winter directed something of a follow-up to Portrait of Jason with Jason and Shirley, imagining what life was like when the camera stopped rolling.
Tongues Untied (1989) - Filmmaker, poet, and activist Marlon Riggs explored black gay identity and the impact of AIDS with this experimental doc that benefited from the perspective of an artist chronicling his own community.
The Joan Rivers Show - an OTT appearance from Pepper, Dorian and the girls sporting daytime LQQKS on Rivers' daytime show.
"Is Paris Burning?" (1992) by bell hooks - a critique from the acclaimed author and activist addressing how the film "celebrates" whiteness without "interrogating" it.
"Paris Has Burned" (1993) by Jesse Greene for The NYT - assesses the effects of Paris Is Burning's success on its subjects while detailing Angie Xtravaganza's funeral and memorial.
"The Drag Queen Had a Mummy in Her Closet" (1994) by Jeannie Russell Kasindorf for New York Mag - As the title subtly suggests, this tells the story of the mummified corpse found in Dorian Corey's apartment after she passed. The mummy had been there for apparently 15 years and had either been an ex-lover of Corey's or a burglar who broke into the wrong apartment.
"The Slap of Love" (1995) by Michael Cunningham - sort of the spiritual follow-up to Paris Is Burning, Cunningham delves deeper into the ballroom scene, focusing especially on the life of Angie Xtravaganza.
Leave It on the Floor (2011) - This thrilling musical drama by director Sheldon Larry takes Paris Is Burning, moves it to Los Angeles ball scene, throws in some musical numbers, and leaves you gagging for more.
Kiki (2016) - Paris Is Burning's upcoming legendary child, Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö has and queer activist Twiggy Pucci Garçon's doc revisits the New York ballroom scene 25 years after Paris burned to find it changed but still going strong—and whereas Paris had an air of oppression about it, Kiki is ultimately uplifting.
GIFs: Les Fabian Brathwaite