For an art form whose very name evokes faddish glamour, voguing has aged flawlessly—no bags, no lines, lovely. Born out of the New York house-ball scene of the 1970s and ’80s, it was ushered into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s by Malcolm McLaren, Madonna, and Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary Paris Is Burning. And yet, voguing continues to strut its way through the culture, its often uncredited influence felt further afield than even during the subculture’s breakthrough moment.
There’s certainly voguing all over the small screen, from Drag Race and Ryan Murphy’s Pose, his ode to ’80s New York ball culture, to Netflix’s Dancing Queen, from the RuPaul protégée Alyssa Edwards, and My House, the new Viceland series that follows a group of vogue dancers and MCs. You’ll find its contortions and death drops in the moves of the singer and dancer FKA Twigs, who works with the vogue instructor Derek FKA Jamel Prodigy (the FKA, in his case, referring to “Forever Known As”), and in the performances of Beyoncé, whose hand motions, duckwalks, and ponytail flips owe more than a little to the legendary Leiomy Maldonado. Even the corporate world has embraced the ballroom: Maldonado, a trans woman and former member of the pioneering queer dance group Vogue Evolution, recently appeared in a Nike campaign. And new generations of rappers and white suburbanites, wittingly or not, dip into vogue culture every time they say “shade,” “reading,” or “werk.” Okurr?
At a time when a wider embrace of representation and identity drives the cultural dialogue, it’s perhaps not surprising that the ballroom icon Kia LaBeija, the 28-year-old current mother of the House of LaBeija and an emerging photographer, has made voguing central to her work as an artist. (For the uninitiated, performers compete under the banner of family-like groups of like-minded individuals, called houses, that are overseen by a de facto parent. The House of LaBeija, founded in 1972, was the first of its kind.) Just as voguing dancers tell a story through a series of poses gleaned from the pages of fashion magazines, in her cinematic self-portraits, Kia practically dances with the camera, her soundtrack the click of the auto timer. It’s a performative approach that Kia, a queer cis-gender woman of color (she is half African-American, half Filipino-American) who was born HIV-positive, uses to bring multiple personal narratives into focus.
“We are at a turning point in the history of representation,” says David Velasco, the editor in chief of Artforum, which featured one of Kia’s self-portraits on its January 2018 cover, “where people who were once the object of others’ gazes are taking control and making their own representations. Kia is at the forefront of that.” To Michael Roberson Maasai Maison-Margiela, an adjunct professor at the New School and Union Theological Seminary, who, as a former member of the houses of Ebony, Blahnik, Miyake-Mugler, Garçon, and Milan, teaches a course called Vogue’ology, Kia’s use of photography and voguing is her way of articulating “not only pain,” he says, “but what it means to be joyous and blissful in relationship to these intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and compromised health.”
In person, Kia, at five feet two, is more petite than she appears in her portraits. When we meet in New York in the early fall, she is wearing a ruffled off-the-shoulder black blouse, blue low-cut jeans that reveal a tiny, 24-inch waist, and gold-toe-capped black boots. Her eyes are played up with a little liquid eyeliner and generously mascaraed false eyelashes. “I came in my glam,” she explains, playfully flicking one of her hoop earrings, “because that’s how I was feeling; it’s not an everyday thing.” On this day, the glamour of the late ’80s is very much on Kia’s mind. The original self-portraits she took for this story, she explains, were inspired by her ongoing deep dive into the fashion magazines of that decade (“They just don’t pose like that anymore,” she laments), and by barely known, pre-Madonna instances of voguing in videos by Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, and Queen Latifah. “I am very interested in the relationship of women of color to voguing, and how short-changed they are. Everybody immediately thinks of Madonna, but they never think about anyone else who was already ahead of the game back then.”
Kia, who shows no signs of having been out late at a ball in Brooklyn the night before, says it’s not just women of color who are undervalued in ballroom culture. “Queer women don’t get as much praise as they should, especially if they present as more masculine,” she notes. “And while I wouldn’t say there’s a wholesale disrespect of cis-gender women by any means, sometimes there’s that whole ‘Oh, she’s a real fish’ attitude. I think it’s important for us, especially as cis-gender women, to feel proud of who we are in the ballroom, and also uplift our trans sisters and not feel like we have to be separated from them.”
Though she insists that the ballroom is “not an easy place; everything is either cute or not, 10s or chops,” referring to the yeas or nays given out by judges, you get the feeling that Kia is tough enough to handle any shade thrown at her. She was born Kia Michelle Denise Benbow, in 1990, to a musician father, who at one point played drums with Whitney Houston, and a stage-manager mother who died from AIDS-related illness when Kia was 14. (Her half-brother, whom she credits for her early interest in photography, is an actor who is best known for the ’90s TV show The Parent ’Hood.) Her early ambition to be a Broadway performer came to her naturally: She was raised in Manhattan Plaza, the subsidized apartment building in the Theater District where her neighbors included Chita Rivera, Alicia Keys, and Timothée Chalamet, whose mother was Kia’s first dance teacher. Samuel L. Jackson had once worked there briefly as a security guard. But living with HIV prompted great anxiety about the pain of needles, leading Kia to countless doctors and violent reactions to medication. At a school assembly in the seventh grade, when a visiting health educator she knew polled the students about their familiarity with AIDS, Kia decided to share her status. “Every time I think about it, I’m like, Wow, I can’t believe that I did that,” she says. “As soon as I did it, I just started crying because I was like, Oh, my God, what did I just do?”
Like many creative people, Kia now mines those painful experiences for her explorations of space, memory, and transcendence. “Kia’s self-portraiture marks passages of time in poignant ways,” says Alex Fialho, the programs director of Visual AIDS, an HIV/AIDS-awareness arts organization, which was the first to show Kia’s work. “Take a portrait like Eleven, shot in her doctor’s office, where she’s wearing her high-school prom dress. Kia talks about a time when there was uncertainty, even in her mind, of whether she was going to live long enough to be able to go to a prom. These life markers are really embedded in her pictures.” In Mourning Sickness, another image from her 2014 breakthrough series “24,” named for her age when she started it, she is prostrate on a bathroom floor, longing for her mother. In Kia and Mommy, she poses with a snapshot of the mother she never got to photograph. “Our culture is so much about our community embracing the hardships we face and making beautiful things out of it,” Kia says. “Voguing, like jazz, hip-hop, even rock ’n’ roll before it—all of these art forms were created out of struggle. In much the same way, I take moments that could be considered disabling and bring them into a positive light.”
Though she briefly stepped away from the ballroom life in 2016 to focus on her artistic career, Kia has returned to discover that it is more vibrant than ever—especially the younger so-called Kiki scene, which is often tied to community-based organizations for at-risk youth and where new, less gender-specific categories are opening up to the trans community. “Voguing feels accessible to so many people,” she says, noting the current gender revolution at play. “When I go to a ball, the performance category takes up the whole night, and you have what feels like a hundred people waiting to walk. Now there are so many opportunities. It’s a perfect moment.”