early 30 years ago, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning chronicled the ballroom scene in New York City, a queer subculture comprising a competition structure and queer ersatz family units known as “houses.” The film is considered a crucial snapshot of the LGBTQ+ community during the HIV/AIDS crisis: It captures a moment in recent history when racism, homophobia, and transphobia were rife, while simultaneously celebrating the joy and purpose that people of color and trans women in particular were able to find by walking in ball categories.
It also helped to popularize a vernacular that had its roots in black and Latinx culture; slang that is now being broadcast to a global audience thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race. On the eve of its cinematic re-release, three drag performers talk about the impact Paris Is Burning has had on them, and the film’s lasting legacy.
Paris Is Burning’s restoration cut returns to New York theaters today for a two-week run and a nationwide rollout to follow. It’s also available to stream on Netflix.
Pixie is a Latinx drag queen from New York City. She presents the queer quiz show Hosting on the gay dating app Scruff, and performs in the drag fairytale revue Distorted Diznee on selected Fridays at Laurie Beechman Theatre.
I started doing drag technically in 2005. I remember the date because it was the drag show fundraiser back in my first year at university. But I didn’t start doing drag professionally in New York until 2011. I think the first time I saw Paris Is Burning was on YouTube around 2008. I went to a musical theatre school, so for me drag at that point was just another element of performing. I didn’t really start doing my homework, as many drag queens should, until I saw Paris Is Burning — it lit that fire in me, to learn about the history of drag in depth.
I think what the film mostly did was surprise me with just how much of our culture and the lingo had come from a specific area in gay culture: the ballroom scene. There are so many words we use now, like ‘werk’ or ‘legendary’ or ‘shade,’ that have been around a long time, and it’s only now that the general public are finding out about them. People may think it all comes from Drag Race, but no, no, no, you have to go back. Drag Race makes its references to Paris Is Burning clear now, but I think back in the beginning of the show, that was less clear. Now that the show is on VH1, maybe they’re trying to be more educational, to teach the children.
I think Paris Is Burning gave the queer community hope that no matter what happens in their lives, no matter what is going on around them, they can be not only successful, but find people who care and who do accept them completely. That’s why I love how much the documentary focuses on the houses, the drag families: because whatever happens with your biological family, there’s still someone out there who loves you, and who you get to love. Overall, that felt like hope to me.
Amrou is an Iraqi non-binary artist who lives in London. They celebrate their Middle-Eastern heritage and Muslim faith through their drag persona, Glamrou La Denim.
I started doing drag at 19 when I was at university and didn’t have to worry about my parents catching me. My drag has really changed and evolved over the years; in drag, I love to do what white people often do to me as a person of color—I love to gaslight white people. Through comedy and song, I love creating sets that force white people to construct their own privileges and behavior, as well as to represent Queer POC people in all our glory, uplifting images of the Middle East that have often been erased by colonialism.
I saw Paris Is Burning for the first time at university, and felt a great resonance with it, especially in the way it explores the relationship between the underground ballroom scene with mainstream pop culture; the way that a lot of realness categories seem to fetishize heteronormativity. I think this is a relationship queer people spend ages investigating, this desire both to belong to the institution that rejected us, and also to rebel against it. You see that a lot in the documentary—people trying to emulate straight culture whilst also running away from it. I think I am always negotiating this balance as a POC drag performer, using (often-white) mainstream pop cultural songs and images to investigate them as well as manipulating them for queer purposes. I love taking well-known songs and subverting them. My favorite was turning So Emotional into a duet between me and Allah.
Paris Is Burning obviously brought great visibility, leading to the creation of Ryan Murphy’s Pose. I do love Pose, but I also find it a bit too glossy, and I’ve heard from friends in New York that it has caused a lot of conflict within the sub-cultural ballroom community in New York, because some people have gained visibility and capital, and others have not. So whilst it has garnered attention to the incredible subculture, I’m worried it’s getting commodified and fractured. Those ballrooms weren’t just cultural activities, they were spaces of safety against the violence outside.
I think what the film showcases most of all is the need for queer, trans, and intersex people of color to have their own spaces. The LGBT community is dominated by white, cisgender gay men, and as a gender non-conforming person of color, I feel a lot of anxiety in most gay spaces, including Pride, which can often be racist and transphobic. I think the film teaches that QTIPOC+ need their own, self-governing spaces for their own cultures to thrive, without white people stealing from us and ripping up the fabric of our spaces.
Cleo is an entertainer from Chicago. After doing drag for seven years, Cleo went full-time as a professional drag queen in 2018.
The first time I saw Paris Is Burning was with my good friend Lena Waithe. We rented it on VHS from this local video store (remember those??) and we brought it back to my place and it was like we had found the Holy Grail of Gaydom. The movie possessed everything we baby queers in Chicago wished we had in the early 2000s, and it allowed us to feel like we were a part of something.
The film was a history lesson about our ancestors: the people who paved a way for us, the people who created and embodied styles and language that we still uphold today. And with Drag Race being such a cultural phenomenon right now, a lot of people who love it and watch it don’t realize that many of the references that the show makes come from Paris Is Burning.
I think it’s important for people to know the source of our culture and to know our lineage. The people who lived through an epidemic (while many did not) and still managed to find beauty and joy among so much pain.
Feature photo of Venus Xtravaganza, Brooklyn ball, Eveningwear, 1986(©)Jennie Livingston; Homepage group photo, 1991 Courtesy of Janus Films