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

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008

Page 4 of 5

After the interview, Starr walked out to Nikki's car, full of the certainty other kids her age would have after a killer college visitation. "This is something I'm definitely willing to dedicate my time to and give my all to," Starr told her, adding that she'd call the other houses and decline their offers. "So do you think we're definitely in, Nikki?"

Back on BART, Starr and Jasmine plopped down facing each other. Starr copied Jasmine in raising her arm and snapping, drilling the House of Richmond cheer Nikki had taught them: "R to the I to the C to the H. I'm rich, bitch! I'm rich, bitch!"

Starr's cell phone rang and she whipped it up to her ear. "Oh yes, girl, I'm a Richmond now."

At the ball, the nine-judge panel of house parents was selected from the crowd to sit behind two tables onstage, reigning above the runway like royalty to be entertained. Wearing all black with a bejeweled eagle on the back of his shirt, MC Jack Mizrahi hit his two talking points — there's media in the room, so behave yourselves; and an AIDS prevention message. "The HIV and AIDS pandemic is not over. 46 percent of us tonight are HIV positive and infected," he says. "Until there's a motherfuckin' cure, practice. Safe. Sex. Give me a hell, yeah!"

"Hell, yeah!" the crowd repeated.

After asking for a moment of silence for those in the ball scene who had passed, Kool-Aid Mizrahi yelled, "Let's start the motherfuckin' ball!"

First up: virgin vogue, Starr's category, with a cash prize of $25. The contestants must first show their moves and "get their 10s" from every judge, meaning they're deemed acceptable to continue to the "battle zone." There, two dancers face off on the runway, with one eliminated each round until the last one standing is declared winner. Yet if even one judge eliminates, or "chops," contestants when they first audition, they don't even get to compete.

That's exactly what was happening to the voguers before Starr. The runway was starting to look like a kill line at a meat factory, the dancers chopped before they could traverse its length with their fledgling moves. Winners of a virgin category must compete at the next ball against the voguers who have been doing it for years, so it's a judge's duty to chop anyone who hasn't reached that level — the message being, "Child, go home and work some more."

The costumes of the virgin voguers, many of them 007s pledging a house, skewed more toward thrift than glam — sweatpants or hoodies decorated with a couple of condoms for the HIV prevention theme. The flashiest contestant, an Oakland boy with a mohawk glued to his head and a white tutu jutting out from his hips, was sprayed with Silly String from a judge while he was still lying down in a dip. Kool-Aid yelled his disapproval of the gesture into the mike: "If you're gonna chop someone with the Silly String, fine. But don't disrespect anyone!"

Starr was up, her jaw set with the determination of a boxer entering the ring. She started her moves down on the floor before strutting up the steps and moving down the runway, getting in a good two or three back dips before the judges dismissed her with a shot of Silly String. Chopped. Kool-Aid didn't contest it, instead resting his hand on Starr's shoulder and saying her hair looked like she'd taken a dunk in the pool.

Starr gave a laugh like she was in on the joke, then pooched her lips into a showy pout and padded down the runway, hips out front and feet flopping out under her, returning to Nikki and Angel.

Some say the "productive critique" from peers of the ball scene is better than being judged daily for your identity in the outside world. But in the outside world, Starr has honed her defenses. If Kool-Aid were some kook in Harvey Milk Plaza, Starr could have socked him in the lip; if someone laid a hand on her like that in Union Square, he probably would have gotten pepper-sprayed with the dented can she keeps ever-ready in her purse. In the outside world, Starr says, "there's a way around everything" — rules are to be bent and subverted, group homes escaped, identity tweaked — and the stinging words would have bounced off her. But here, Starr respects the ballroom hierarchy as if it were a religion, and for all her later shit-talking about "shady" judging, while on the runway, Starr accepted her elders kicking her off, even insulting her on the way out.

The sole voguer in the category who didn't get chopped was named the default winner, and the competition moved on.

Starr certainly wasn't the only one dissed that night, or "thrown shade," in ballroom parlance. At one point, Kool-Aid smacked a towering femme queen on her ample rump hanging out of a stripper dress, yelling, "What's not real about her? What's not real about her?" ("Real," as applied to transgender women in the ball world, means passing as a biological woman. The category has supporters who find it validating, and detractors who say it is insulting and out of date.) Later, a runway walker in a natty gold 19th-century-inspired outfit blew white powder in the face of a competitor as he sashayed past him. Kool-Aid denounced the show of unsportsmanlike shade — apparently only he gets to hurl the insults — and said he hoped the kid would show at the next ball, because "when it's my turn to get to the runway, I'm gonna get you!" The gold-clad guy nodded his head fiercely back as he descended the steps, in the "Bring it!" manner usually associated with basketball players being pulled away from a fight.

But the relative peace didn't last. During the voguing competition, as the time passed 1 a.m. with $500 on the table, a Flintstones-styled character in a leopard smock — whom people would later identify as Enyce Chanel up from Los Angeles, who knew he was about to lose — grabbed the wig of his competitor, a 17-year-old Oakland 007 butch queen called Maliyha Brown, who was dressed up like the Jetsons' maid. He yanked her hairpiece around a couple times in an apparent attempt to snatch it off, but, since it was bonded on by some heavy-duty glue, instead ripped Brown down with it.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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