Quarantine during the pandemic has been a particularly harsh time on families across the world. While traditional, biological families gripe about the constant ever-presence of living, eating, and breathing next to their biological kin, the support that chosen families in the ballroom scene give to each other has taken on a different nature precisely because of that lack of intimate space. Ballroom houses have historically offered a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color to support each other on and off of the runway. That support can be emotional, financial, and spiritual. Preparation and competition in the ballroom scene usually offers space for houses to convene and to support each other. With the shutdown these past two years, these spaces of support were stifled and had to find a way to shift online and in virtual spaces. In this beautiful photo series from acclaimed portrait photographer, Victoria Stevens, the House of Xtravaganza opens up about their experiences during the pandemic and what it means to be a chosen family in the face of this unique political and social period of crisis.
This piece includes interviews with select members of the House of Xtravaganza, including Mother Gisele and Father Jose. As a participant in this photoshoot and a proud member of the House of Xtravaganza, I witnessed a beautiful coming together the day of our photoshoot. Safely and securely, I witnessed my chosen family share a much-needed communal space that made getting through 2020 and 2021 that much easier. It is a pleasure to explore this question of chosen family and community during the pandemic in this piece.
Ballroom houses have historically offered a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color to support each other on and off of the runway.
I am a Black trans-masculine writer, whose life’s work resides in the ballroom community. In 2019, I wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on a debate in the community regarding the “Realness” category and its relationship to SCOTUS hearings on LGBTQ+ rights, and I more recently worked as a Contributing Writer at The New York Times on an article and video on how the ballroom community has responded to COVID and participated in Black Lives Matter protests around the country. I made history in 2019 as the first transgender man to win a performance category at New York City’s biggest ball, The Latex Ball.”I worked as a writer and Co-Executive Producer on HBOMax’s competition reality show about the ballroom community called, Legendary and I am currently writing a book on the history and evolution of the ballroom scene in New York City. I am happy to include this piece as a way to document the history and evolution of this unique and creative community.
MOTHER GISELE XTRAVAGANZA: “LOVING, TRUSTING, GROWING”
- Category: Face, Runway, Realness
- Years of membership: 20 years
How do you see being a mother and a family?
“Family means trust to me, number one. And if I don’t trust you, you’re not family. Whoever it is, family is built on trust. At the end of the day, everybody is family and you can only give so much of your soul to people, and you try so hard. I have tried to help a lot of people, so being there for people is very important. But, also being there for yourself is also important. I’ve learned that myself the hard way.”
What has it been like to be a mother during the pandemic?
“Being a mother is everything to me, because I get to have an experience that I have all these children that I really adore… I have all of these amazing kids. Being a mother and being there for them is very gratifying. A family means trust to me and most everyone I have around me, I trust.”
“It’s affected me in so many ways. I didn’t realize how attached I was to everyone until the pandemic came and I was like, “Wow,” I went through a real emotional stage. It just affected me a lot. This has been a very difficult time for me… My relationship with all the kids has grown because they’ve been there for each other, they have been there for me. Being family is being together for each other, being able to trust each other, being able to love each other, and being able to forgive each other and grow also.”
What did you have in mind when picking the new members of the house? What does it take for someone to be Xtravaganza?
“There’s an energy that it takes to be Xtravaganza. First of all, I love beauty and I love art and I love talent. And those kids are extremely talented. Like, I see talent… That’s one of the things I look for — a spark. And also a passion for the house. When I came in, we were passionate — extremely passionate about the house and we still are.”
MAXIMO XTRAVAGANZA: “XTRAVAGANZA POWAH”
- Category: New way, runway, butchqueen vogue fem
- Years of membership: 2 years
What is chosen family to you?
“If anything, I found this second family, this chosen family where I felt supported and inspired and able to help and exchange information and knowledge and learn about this community, this lifestyle that I have been wanting to be part of for years.”
“Chosen family to me is being able to lean on people and being able to ask for help. Helping your brothers and sisters. It’s just a consistent support system that is non-transactional… It’s just this sense of love and support that we’ll be here for each other when we might not have anybody else.”
How has it been like for you during the pandemic?
“It definitely saved me through this pandemic. My conversations with Gisele on the phone, daily, have really has helped me stay connected, feel a sense of love and community that I’m going through things as well with my mother. Also, connecting with Alvarez, my brother, and checking in.”
How did you think at the shoot?
“That was a really dope moment because for the first time with the new generation of Xtravaganza, this was our first moment of coming up together not necessarily for practice, but to kind of produce and show up as our fab selves. And seeing everyone in their element, dressed down being styled by Xtravaganza, getting in front of the camera and just shining, and seeing everyone’s individual expression and the star that everyone is and how beautiful and creative everyone is in the space was really inspiring for me to see. It was very much giving Xtravaganza powah in the studio!”
The future for Xtravaganza
In regards to his work in digital media (film, photography, and more): “I want to make sure that I’m adding to the Xtravaganza name and legacy and not just taking.”
LASTEPHY XTRAVAGANZA: “CHOOSING FAMILY AND FAMILY CHOOSING YOU”
- Category: Face or Runway
- Years of membership: 10+
How did you choose to be in the house?
“I have the rare experience of coming to the ball scene at a very young age. My mother was a young teen mom, a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. She gave birth to me at 15, and through her circumstances, she ended up in the streets really early. And so, she ended up finding a home in the house… Around 3, 4 years old, I was introduced to the ball scene.”
“My first time at a ball, my mother could not find a babysitter and she refused to not go to the ball and all these queens were all like, “No girl, you’re coming,” so she got me a little matching tux… and I handed out trophies at this legendary ball… The house became a family at a very young age. These were like uncles and aunts who were taking care of me when my mother was working her Bloomingdale’s shift!”
“I came to the house in a really unconventional way, and the House of Xtravaganza was always just there for me.”
What does family mean to you?
“My mother found herself choosing her family, ultimately. Family is huge. These were people and friends who were huge beacons of support to my mother, people who were there for her… It became more than a cousin or uncle or aunt. It was like, no, this extended family is showing up in ways that sometimes a blood family can’t show up and it really solidified the idea that you really can choose your family…”
How did you feel about the photoshoot?
“I think that we are capable of so much. Both from the younger members and from the older members. Everyone has so much to contribute. Everyone has their own lane. Everyone has a dope talent and skillset and so the photoshoot just showed that as a whole and we can make some cool shit.”
VALENTIN XTRAVAGANZA: “BRING IT TO THE DANCE FLOOR, PLEASE!”
- Category: Runway, Old Way Vogue, Runway
- Years of membership: 25+ years
How did you get to be in the house?
“There was a club called Traxx, right? This is the late ‘80s to ‘90s… And I was going there before, but then I was going there because there was a dance on Tuesday. And Tuesday was my rollerskating. It was right on 18th Street and the club was on 19th Street. The sound system and everything… I was like, “I love this!” And I was in my career with cutting hair and all that. I had to leave roller skating because you know if I fall. I was like forget it, I was like Gumby. I had a lot of energy. So, I went to Traxx, and little did I know, all the Xtravaganzas were there. And we were in that little corner. And even though I wasn’t Xtravaganza, everyone was telling me, “You’re a Ganza, you’re a Ganza. You’re always in that corner.” And I started battling. And we’re talking about ‘89, ‘90, or earlier. And then I started there. The music was incredible. And David Xtravaganza (David DePino), it was his club. He was the one who started that Tuesday night. And I was there and all the Xtravaganzas were there. And I wind up battling a couple of people. Vogue was an artform through there and that time. And there was a guy called Derrick and I was mesmerized! The art in voguing! The way he vogued — Beautiful! I said, let me give it a try. People would say, “Why do you go there? Why are you voguing?” And I’d say, “Look, I already did everything else, let me see if I can vogue! Vogue! Vogue!”
What do you see for the future of the house?
“They’re going to come out. They’re going to turn it out ‘cause now they’re younger. You know the voguing is way advanced now. Way, way advanced. We have very art dancers and probably singers too. They’re going to keep it going. Gisele is going to keep it going. Jose is going to keep it going. It’s not going to never stop. What you do is keep on going.”
MARISOL XTRAVAGANZA: “THE FAB BLACK SHEEP”
- Category: Realness, body, sex siren
- Years of membership:
Why did you choose to be in the house?
“I’ve always wanted to be in the house, even pre-transition. That was one of the houses that stuck out to me. I actually found out about it through my trans mother, Nikkoletta, and one of my friends, Alexia. They told me about the house and I just saw all of these beautiful Hispanic and African-American trans women and at that time before my transition, I wasn’t aware of the possibilities that there are now or even back then for trans women to look the way that they do. So, I was enamored with the femqueens of the house and also the family aspect of it. And that being mainly one of the more Latin houses because the ballroom scene is both an African-American and Latin scene, but it’s a little bit more African-American than Latin, so that was a house that I thought I could connect and identify with more, being that at the time it was more a Latin house. And you know watching the movie Paris is Burning made me want to get into the house even more. Even pre-transition, I always wanted to be in the house. And seeing how ballroom houses were explained in documentaries and then actually going to balls and seeing how house members would treat one another, that made me want to join a family of my own”
Growing up, what did family mean to you?
“There were things that I never really experienced being an only child. I always more so felt like it was me and my mother. My grandmother on my mother’s side lived in California and then came to New York in the late 90s, so I got that feeling of family with her because she was always more affectionate with me and was a big part of raising me as well. And my aunt. I had those little matriarchs in my life, but when it came to like, brothers and sisters, I have a bunch of cousins, but I never experienced what it was like to actually to have someone in my life who felt like an actual sister or actual brother — someone to actually defend my honor. Because in my family I’ve always been and I still consider myself the black sheep — the FAB black sheep of the family, of course. That’s kind of how I look at it now because before I thought I was just like, a weirdo… Everybody loved me, but they didn’t know how to I guess, respond to me or who I was or my nature. So, that’s kind of what I looked for in the house and in the House of Xtravaganza, like we all identify with one another, we identify with one another with life stories and with maybe not being accepted or not having a good family background, even though, some people have. What I look for when it comes to chosen family is camaraderie, support, someone to be there for me in the sense of defending my honor or me defending theirs because I’m very big on like, if you’re my friend and somebody is talking about you in front of me, I’m definitely going to be the person to be like, “Don’t talk about my friend like that.” Or even if you’re there, I’m going to defend you… And that’s kind of what family means to me: just camaraderie, riding for one another, and support, and love and community. All those things that I didn’t experience growing up.”
How did you feel when we did the photoshoot?
“That day, I was happy just to be surrounded by everyone that day. Whenever I’m around everyone it just feels really good. It feels really, really good just to be surrounded by all of the faces of the house. I just look around and I see everyone and I’m like, my family is in the building. Like, the house is in the building. We’re here. Being able to just like, you know, it’s not like when you’re at a bar or a house party or something and you have to pick and choose who you speak to and wait for somebody you know to walk through the door to be like, “Hey ma. What’s up? How you been?” It’s like no, everybody who walks through the door. You’re having conversations on the side while everybody is doing their photoshoot. And everybody is just bigging up the person who is doing their photoshoot up. It just feels really good to just be surrounded by that energy of family and friendship. It was fun. That day was fun for me.”
- Years of membership: Since 2019
- Why did you choose to be in the house?
“So, I met Jose Xtravaganza in 2018, when I was at the BDC [Broadway Dance Center] training program and I took his voguing class and he was the substitute. I absolutely fell in love. That was when I was learning about ballroom culture and everything and I love it. So I kept in contact with Jose and we even hung out in Atlanta he told me about everything about Xtravaganza and just like what family means and Pose, which I was watching at the time. So that’s another, like just like a whole nother world that I was just like, “What is this?” This world, I didn’t even know about and it was everything that I loved like the fashion and music, the dancing is just the runway, it’s just so cool.”
“I just love the name Xtravaganza. Like, it’s a lot of letters. I have a long name, so I just think that I have to have a long name. So I thought, I thought it was a good house to be, and my mom also loves Madonna. And she already knew of Jose, but she never really knew about the house being so it’s cool.”
I love voguing and practicing the art form ever since I moved to New York. I’ve been, like, obviously practicing it like, crazy, because people in Arkansas don’t even know. Voguing is like, it drives me crazy that people don’t know, but it is such a small community and it’s inspiring that I’m in it. I’m in it and I’m living in it so beautifully, I really am. I’m inspired by everybody who’s in the house and they motivate me to be the better me and yeah, I’m excited.”
NIKKI XTRAVAGANZA: “FAMILY WITHIN FAMILY”
- Category: Sex siren, Perfect Tens, Body, Face, Runway,
- Years of membership: 18 years
How has family been there for you in this time?
“I have my daughters and my son. My daughter came through. I got really sick with COVID last April and I didn’t know what was going to happen because it was new. Nobody really knew anything. I just kept thinking it was going to get worse. I was just deteriorating in bed for three weeks. My daughter came over. She brought me tea and ginger and lemon. Medication and Tylenol, like everything. She helped me get better, my daughter Melissa. I appreciate her for that.”
“My kids are kids I saw potential in and I raised them, I mentored them. I have one son that’s an actor, Ricky. I have one son, he’s a flight attendant. I have one daughter, she’s a designer, she’s doing bartending, she’s a makeup artist. I have a lot of awesome kids over years.”
“For me, my trans mom was Octavia St. Laurent. She was royalty to the ballroom community. She taught me just everything I am today. She is everything I am today. I learned a lot from her. I lived with her. I was mentored by her. She taught me every single thing from makeup to hair to fashion to attitude to personality. Everything! I breathe her. So, I never disrespected her.”
FATHER JOSE XTRAVAGANZA
What do you see being a father of the house and what does family mean to you?
“Family was instilled in all of us, you know what I’m saying? Whether chosen or are legitimate families, you know, those that have the luxury of of of both, you know, we’re able to share so much, and it came with the times where all we had was each other and so therefore being the father is just so heartfelt when I think about the legacy of the house. It kind of just makes me so proud and a little emotional and I wish that these kids (members of the house who passed) were still here to see the progression of the family because that’s all they ever wanted was for us to be a family unit and to be the brother and sister to each other.”
What does it mean to be Xtravaganza?
“It means life. It’s a way of life. It’s a growing thing. I mean not by numbers necessarily, but the growth of us as brothers and sisters and as family and that means everything to me. I will forever be this. It’s not just for the moment because, you know if there was no Ballroom Community, Xtravaganza has to live on. That’s what it means to me.”
Any last words?
“During these times I think it’s important for us to know that we have to be there for each other and for family. It’s important more than anything. You have to keep everyone you love close to you because it can all be gone in a minute and you have to hold onto that. It’s a time for everyone to come together to be there for each other.”
What does it mean to be Xtravaganza?
“For me, Xtravaganza has always been about exuding excellence and forging a new path. That is the legacy I feel I have inherited from Jose and Gisele. They are both exemplary icons in their own right and they inspire me every day. As a trans man who vogues in the scene – a rarity in the community, it is so affirming to have their support and love as I make new strides for myself and for others.”
What does it mean to be family during pandemic?
“These have been trying times, but to know that family is a phone call away and that they have your back is something I’m super grateful for. We’ve had so many moments during the pandemic where we’ve come together and when I’ve gained some new insight from my parents or brothers and sisters. In a time of darkness, it is very meaningful to know that in a corner of the world I can be seen.”♦
Sydney Baloue is a TV writer, ballroom historian, dancer and journalist. Sydney was a Co-Executive Producer and writer on HBOMax’s show, LEGENDARY. He worked as a writer on HBO’s THE VANISHING HALF under Jeremy O. Harris and Aziza Barnes. He currently is a staff writer on TOM SWIFT at the CW. Sydney is a proud member of the House of Xtravaganza and in 2019, he made history as the first transgender man to win a voguing category at the biggest ball in New York City, The Latex Ball. He is currently writing a book on New York City’s ballroom history.
Victoria Stevens is a photographer based in NY & LA. She can be found shooting portraits for Vanity Fair, W Magazine, NYMag and other publications around the world. Her passion for activism and world travel have influenced her personal projects, and she’s often found shooting reportage-style work or directing docu-narrative shorts.