After the death of Angie Xtravaganza in 1993, Jesse Green wrote this piece for the New York Times about the impact of “Paris Is Burning" on the people whose lives it chronicled. Thanks to Matthew Hill for the link.
House of Xtravaganza
Though she was only 27, Angie had been a mother more than a dozen times. Not in the usual way; she was biologically male. “But a mother is one who raises a child, not one who borns it," Hector pointed out. And as mother of the House of Xtravaganza, Angie had taken many rejected, wayward, even homeless children under her wing; she had fed them, observed their birthdays, taught them all about “walking the balls." Competing in categories like High-Fashion Eveningwear and Alexis vs. Krystle, Angie was legendary, a Queen among queens, achieving in fantasy what the world had denied her in reality.
Drag balls, the product of a poor, gay and mostly nonwhite culture, had been held in Harlem since the 1920’s. But it wasn’t until Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary, “Paris Is Burning," was released in 1991 that anyone outside that world knew much about them. By then it was almost too late. For Angie Xtravaganza, such fame as she achieved in the two years following the film’s release could not be savored: the AIDS-related liver disease that eventually killed her was already destroying her hard-won femininity. “She had spots all over, like a Dalmatian," Hector said. “And she had to stop taking the hormones that made her look soft, because they’re what really ate her up." In later pictures, you can see the masculine lines of her face re-emerging despite the high collars and makeup.
But it wasn’t just Angie. Before filming was even completed in 1989, her “main daughter," Venus, a frail transsexual who in the movie dreamed of marriage and a home “in the Peekskills," was found strangled under a bed in a hotel. Since then, Kim Pendavis, filmed sewing his costumes, has died of a heart attack though he was only in his 20’s. Of nine featured players, five are gone or going.
Paris is no longer burning. It has burned. And not only because of the casualties. No one needs to go to a ball to see drag anymore: Dame Edna Everage has television specials, Ru Paul mugs on the covers of magazines, fashion shows feature drag acts on the runway. No one needs to go to a ball to see voguing either, not since Madonna gobbled it up, appropriating two Xtravaganzas in the process. Once mainstream America began to copy a subculture that was copying it, the subculture itself was no longer of interest to a wider audience, and whatever new opportunites existed for the principals dried up. After one show last year at the jazz club Sweetwaters, Octavia St. Laurent, for instance, returned to dancing behind glass at the Show Palace. And the balls, which had moved downtown in their moment of fame, have mostly moved back to Harlem.
The film’s critical and financial success should therefore not be taken for the success of its subjects. “The truth is, though I didn’t get rich, I am now a film maker," said Ms. Livingston, 31. “And that’s something I wasn’t before. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to get money. But I am educated and I am white so I have the ability to write those grants and push my little body through whatever door I need to get it through."
And drag queens can’t. “If they wanted to make a film about themselves, they would not be able," said Ms. Livingston, who grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Yale University. “I wish that weren’t so, but that’s the way society is structured." In fact, other than Willi Ninja, the movie’s star dancer, who has stitched together a career including choreography, fashion and music, the characters Ms. Livingston presented remain, at best, where they were when filmed.
Angie Xtravaganza’s memorial made that all too plain. A shrine had been set up in the back of the room: flowers, photographs and, on a pedestal, a pair of Angie’s favorite earrings. Behind them stood a huge funeral wreath, a giant X of blood-red carnations that seemed to stand for more than Xtravanganza. Almost unnoticed was a simple basket of white and purple lilies. “To all who loved Angie," the florist’s card read. It was from Ms. Livingston and her co-producer, Barry Swimar, who were in England to raise money for new projects, including a satirical drama about the way movies depict violence against women.
Perhaps it was just as well they couldn’t attend. There is a lot of anger in the ball world about “Paris Is Burning." Some of it concerns what a few critics have called exploitation: making the lives of poor black and Latino people into a commodity for white consumption. “The complaint is somewhat unfounded," Ms. Livingston said, “as it was largely a gay audience, which included blacks and Latinos, that made the movie successful."
"Anyway," Ms. Livingston continued, “I don’t believe you have to be one thing to make a film about it. I’m white, yes, but I’m an openly queer, female director, and I can’t think of anything more out of the mainstream. I’m sorry, but I do not think I have the same relationship to the ruling class as a straight man."
But most of the anger centers on money. “I love the movie, I watch it more than often, and I don’t agree that it exploits us," said Pepper LaBeija, 44, whose braggadocio and fierce but fey style made him a standout in “Paris Is Burning." “But I feel betrayed. When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us. We didn’t read them, because we wanted the attention. We loved being filmed. Later, when she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars. But she told us that when the film came out we would be all right. There would be more coming.
"And that made me think I would have enough money for a car and a nice apartment and for my kids’ education. Because a number of years ago, to please my mother, I took a little break from being a 24-hour drag queen, and so I have a daughter, 15, and a son ready for college. But then the film came out and — nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing."
Miramax, which released the film, said that “Paris Is Burning" grossed slightly more than $4 million at theaters in the United States. This is not much compared to a Hollywood hit but is exceptional for a documentary that cost only $500,000, including $175,000 for music clearances, to make.
Ms. Livingston would not say how much money she made from the movie. “There was a rumor in the ball world — and this delights me — that I now have a house on Long Island next to Calvin and Kelly Klein," she said. “But the truth is I live about the same as I did, except that I used to be chronically about three months late in paying the rent, and now I’m more or less on time."
STILL, all but two of the movie’s surviving principals — Willi Ninja and Dorian Corey — hired lawyers to try to cash in on the film’s success. The largest claim came from Paris DuPree, who sought $40 million for unauthorized and fraudulent use of her services. Though she is never named on camera and appears for less than three of the movie’s 76 minutes, her 1986 ball, called Paris Is Burning, provided the title for the film and is extensively featured in it. But like all of the others, she had signed a release, and her lawyer dropped the matter.
"There’s no obligation, in a documentary, to pay your subjects," Ms. Livingston said. “The journalistic ethic says you should not pay them. On the other hand, these people are giving us their lives! How do you put a price on that?"
Somehow, she did. Ms. Livingston said that even before the threats of lawsuits, she had decided to pay about $55,000 to 13 performers, based on how long each appeared on screen. And in 1991, after the claims against her had been dropped, the money was distributed.
"I think Jennie has complied with the spirit and with the literal representations she made along the way," said Peggy Brady, a lawyer who represented Ms. Livingston’s production company. “Besides, in our society, we try to encourage the free exchange of information."
Pepper LaBeija was not appeased: “The $5,000 I got was hush money. We didn’t have no choice but to take it. And $1,500 went to my lawyer for doing nothing." He paused, and the musical, swaggering tone familiar from the film returned to his voice. “But at least it brought me international fame. I do love that. Walking down the street, people stop me all the time. Which was one of my dreams doing the drags in the first place.
"What hurts is that I’m famous but not rich. A California magazine said I had sued Miramax and won untold millions and was seen shopping with Diana Ross on Rodeo Drive in a Rolls. But I really just live in the Bronx with my mom. And I am so desperate to get out of here! It’s hard to be the mother of a house while you’re living with your own mother. Why couldn’t they give us $10,000 apiece?"
Ms. Livingston defended the size of the payments. “If they’d been actors in a dramatic film the size of ‘Paris Is Burning,’ they would have made a whole lot less," she said. Of course, if ‘Paris Is Burning’ had been a drama, Ms. Livingston might have earned a whole lot more. As it is, she said she had seen nothing beyond her guarantee. “If we get more money, in all likelihood we’ll distribute more money." Mr. Swimar said. But nothing is likely to smooth Pepper LaBeija’s feathers. If the best documentarian never fully captures her subjects, it’s also true that best subjects never fully accept being captured.
"Oh yes, to this day a lot of the girls hate Miss Jennie, but that’s just greed," said Dorian Corey, by all accounts the star of the movie. She is sitting in a makeshift dressing room at Sally’s II, a drag bar just west of Times Square on 43d Street, applying stage makeup over her street makeup — there’s not much difference — in preparation for her Thursday night show. “Junior LaBeija pitched a bitch in The Amsterdam News, saying he wanted $50,000 because he was the star of the movie. But the Bette Davis money just wasn’t there. I’ll tell you who is making out is those clever Miramaxes. But I didn’t do it for money anyway: I did it for fun. Always have."
She dabbed white greasepaint on her eyelids. “You see I was in show business for years, so when my 15 minutes finally came, it was gravy. And what I got from the publicity tour you couldn’t buy. They paid the hotels and limos. I didn’t even buy cigs; I just signed. I got to be a star! In Boston, the black children were coming up to me with tears in their eyes! It did whet my appetite, and I hoped that crazy little Jennie would have done a sequel, because once you do something big, you want to do it again. But what I got was plenty, and the rest is just bitter onions."
The room in which Dorian would emcee her “Drag Doll Review" was dim and dingy, encrusted with the detritus of many louche incarnations: amorous murals, go-go lights, mirror balls, boudoir lamps. Drag queens of every size and style huddled around the bar, trying to stir up business from average-looking men in dull business attire. From “Paris Is Burning" it might not be evident that this is part of the drag world, too; yet more than one of the movie’s leads can often be found here, looking for customers.
"Welcome to Sally’s II," said Dorian drily. “The original, just down the block, burned down." She narrowed her eyes. “And when this one burns, we’ll move on up the way."
At 55 — “Put me down as 27 and say it’s a two-for-one sale, honey," — Dorian comes from a different age of drag than most of the others in “Paris Is Burning." “These children, it’s a new world now. Most of them make their money turning tricks. It’s that or starve! I myself" — she pulled off her red shift and shimmied into a sequined floor-length magenta dress with rhinestone spaghetti straps — “am lucky to have avoided all that. I’m an old farm girl, from Buffalo, and when you’ve had that healthy beginning, you don’t go the same way."
Dorian slipped into a pair of gold pumps, then poured jewelry from a bag onto the Formica counter. “And today it’s so risky, with the almighty shadow opening the door." She arched one enormous eyebrow in deference to AIDS. “Even I have to the worry. I’ve had such a torrid past. So now I’m a VCR queen, if you know what I’m saying. You don’t have to give a VCR breakfast."
She examined some delicate fake pearl earrings, then rejected them in favor of a pair with four-inch dangling rhinestone strands, which kept falling off. “I’m not trying to look real," she said, getting out the glue. And, true enough, with her platinum wig and elaborate eyes, she looked like a cross between Tina Turner and Barbara Cartland, albeit with stubble in the cleavage of her silicone-enhanced breasts.
"I love all that madness," Dorian said. “Ru Paul, Lypsinka, Liz Smith. But I tell the children to think very serious, and if it’s at all possible avoid the drag life," Dorian said. “It’s a heartache life. If you do pursue it, make sure you get your education, some kind of skill. I always supported myself with my sewing. But the oldest profession is still the easiest, though there’s nothing so pitiful as a 50-year-old prostitute. It’s a one-way street with a very bad end."
But her advice seemed to go as unheeded as her show at Sally’s. Opening with “It’s Today" from “Mame," she had to signal the sound man to turn up the volume in hopes of commandeering attention. Occasionally, when one the patrons did take notice, he would approach Dorian in midsong and stuff some dollar bills down the front of her dress. Dorian didn’t even blink.
She got a better response at Angie’s memorial. It had been a painful afternoon, but when Dorian walked toward the shrine in her fur hat, sunglasses, rain jacket and purse, she was greeted with a huge round of applause. She was, after all, another legendary mother. “It’s O.K., children," she drawled, “because Angie’s got something now that we’ve lost: a little beauty, a little peace. And it’s gonna be hotter and better up there."
Drag is variously explained as destruction of the male within or the female without. For Dorian and for many of Angie’s other mourners, drag is not a means of destruction but of rescue — a little beauty, however perverse and rococo. This is the achievement that Ms. Livingston indelibly recorded: the victory of imagination over poverty. But the victory is Pyrrhic at best. The movie’s title may come from the name of Paris DuPree’s ball, by which she meant only that the competition would be hot, but the phrase itself has a darker history. “Paris brennt?" ("Is Paris burning?") Hitler asked , wondering whether the city had fallen. And though Paris, France survived, the Paris of Ms. Livingston’s movie — and all it depicted — may not.
The mirror ball kept spinning at the Sound Factory Bar. It wasn’t until after 3 o’clock that everyone who wanted to speak had spoken. The crowd went quiet. A man asked everyone to hold hands in a circle. “Remember," he said. “We are all legends."