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Gay and Transgender Divas Battle for Stardom in Bay Area's Ballroom Scene 

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008
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Lifetime Achiever/Pioneer-Icon Kevin Ultra-Omni is one of the few surviving founders from the 1970s, after AIDS ravaged the community in the 1980s. He says the scene has lost some of its shimmer. He regularly posts on a ballroom message board declaring that today's ball kids are mentally ill. "I often wonder for my safety at a ball," he says over the phone from New Jersey. Many in the scene say people get heated in all competitions, and shrug off such rants about today's generation as the ballroom equivalent of saying back in their day, they walked to balls in two feet of snow without stilettos.

"The drama and the histrionics just comes with being young and queer in an urban setting," says New York–based Mizrahi member Roberts. There is "certainly nothing excessive about violence in the scene."

At least at the Fusion of Time ball, the chairs surrounding the house tables were plastic.

Three days before the ball, Starr needed a house. Showing up at the ball alone was a last resort: "Oh, it would bother me to hell," she said. "I just can't do it. To think that you went from mother of a house to 007 in a matter of a week's time span ... does not look good."

After an introduction on MySpace last fall to Overall Father Casanova DaVinci, who'd reopened the then-defunct House of DaVinci in Miami three years ago, Starr was anointed West Coast chapter mother. It was an unusual choice, given that mother status is most often reserved for those with years under their belts who can provide guidance, and Starr had competed in only one major ball. But for Starr, experience was relative. Occasionally, when she was mad at the behavior of her house children, she would claim she had legendary status for the authority effect.

Actually, the exact details of Starr's past are hard to pin down. Her account of growing up in the projects back in Richmond, Virginia, is blasted by a phone call to her mother, Leketia Christian, who says Starr grew up in a three-bedroom ranch house with Air Jordans and a PlayStation. "[Starr] had a warm and loving home," she says. "This kid had it made!"

Starr says her mother is the one stretching the truth: "My mom will say anything to make herself look good. ... I didn't want Jordans, I wanted Barbie dolls."

Despite Starr's meager experience, Father Casanova liked her drive. Starr saw the position as a way to start her ascent through the ballroom world. By early January, Starr had recruited four or five other DaVincis to the house, but just two weeks before the ball, things unraveled.

• On Sunday, when Starr challenged two members on whether they were dedicated enough to back up the DaVincis in any possible fights — the answer was no — Starr said it would be better if they went to the ball as 007s, and they agreed. "I will not be the weakling chapter," she said.

• On Tuesday in Harvey Milk Plaza, Starr socked a friend of one of the ex–house members in the face after she claims he slammed transsexuals and disrespected New York.

• On Wednesday, two remaining members decided they weren't committed to attending the ball.

Starr herself had a change of heart: She'd rather be in a house dedicated to slaying on the runway, not to drama outside of it — and it seemed to her that Father Casanova, who brags about his house being "badass gangsta ... we have a type of swagger that would intimidate you," was more interested in the latter. So on Friday, she disbanded the chapter, and posted a message on the West Coast ballroom Yahoo! Group list to say she was now Star 007, looking to join a house.

With multiple offers from houses on Wednesday — the mood on her MySpace page changed to "ecstatic" — Starr and her friend Jasmine went to interview with the House of Richmond, a new Atlanta–based house started by breakoffs from the respected houses of Cavalli and Ultra-Omni. The meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Hayward apartment of Nikki Richmond, the new West Coast chapter mother. Around 9:30, Angel Richmond, the national house secretary who'd flown in from Atlanta for the ball, strode in looking every bit the role of a Gap model in a black peacoat over white T-shirt, jeans, and Timberland boots. Angel explained the house rules with the charisma of a suave recruiter and an affected lisp: No fighting with house members in public. Keep any sex work discreet. Do something productive outside of the ball scene. Starr was clearly impressed. "For this to be a very, very new house, all y'all have things really together," she said.

There was only one part of the interview left: Starr's voguing audition. With a beat playing on the CD player, Starr pulled out her arsenal of moves, constantly glancing over to Angel, whose eyes had narrowed in critique, his face betraying no emotion.

(Click to see a slideshow from the session.)

"Slow down," he commanded. "Just catwalk." Starr obliged.

"Duck walk." Starr walked in a squatting position, bobbing on her heels, flipping her wrist one way and the other.

"Can you do floor for me?" Starr sat and kicked her legs out, up, and around, and rolled over. After she was done, Angel delivered the verdict: "You need a lot of practice."

Starr laughed, allowing the critique. She sat down and asked Angel for more: "So what did you think, though?"

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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