Lena Waithe talks about Paris Is Burning's Pepper Labeija and the impact of ballroom culture on her work in TV and film, and pop songwriter Justin Tranter credits John Waters muse Divine's work in film, music, and other appearances with helping shape their understanding of gender.

By Shana Naomi Krochmal
June 22, 2020 at 06:00 AM EDT
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Miramax; Everett Collection

As part of our ongoing celebration of Pride Month, EW continues its special four-episode audio series, Untold Stories: Pride Edition, hosted by Tre'vell Anderson, with an episode dedicated to ballroom culture and the very queer art of drag.

Before RuPaul's Drag Race, before Pose, there was the landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which gave audiences their first look at the ballroom community. The film, which is currently available via Criterion Collection and streaming via Apple TV, also introduced the world to such icons as Willi Ninja, Dorian Corey, and Pepper Labeija.

Untold Stories producer Carly Usdin spoke with writer, actor, and producer Lena Waithe about the legendary Labeija and how they impacted her own work in TV and film. "There are gay and queer icons that go beyond Lorraine Hansberry, that go beyond James Baldwin, that go beyond these people who I love and obviously worship," Waithe says. "I hope I'm encouraging people to go revisit Paris is Burning, because those are our heroes as well. Those are also icons, and we have to treat them as such. And we have to say their names too, because they are such a wonderful example of what black joy looks like, what queerness can be."

For hit pop songwriter Justin Tranter, a quarantine deep dive into the work of Divine yielded results far beyond the actor-singer's best-known work in John Waters' original Hairspray film. Divine, who also released music and made appearances on mainstream late-night TV in the 1980s, inspired Tranter's on- and off-stage gender presentation. "I'm not trans, I'm gender nonconforming," Tranter says. "[But] I never realized how much Divine had influenced the way I performed, the way I spoke, the way I wrote lyrics. So many of the bold, insane lyrics in Divine's music that were just so vulgar. But there was a smile with the vulgarity and there was a glamor — Divine's own version of glamor... It's an amalgamation of punk and camp and dance music altogether performed by a very proudly plus-sized drag queen."

Plus, Out magazine digital director Mikelle Street breaks down the history of ballroom and drag. "Ballroom has had this long history — we don't know how far it goes back, but we know it goes back to at least the 1920s of queer people, white and black, queer people dressing up as if they're going to a formal ball or gala and going to these balls," Street says. (Read more of Street's history of the evolution of ballroom and drag.)

In each episode of the podcast, we're talking to some of our favorite LGBTQ entertainers about the queer legends, icons, and contemporaries who have inspired their own work and art. In episode 1, we took a deep dive into the history of theater: actor and singer Tituss Burgess talked about the iconic Stephen Sondheim and how Sondheim helped him come out. Plus, actor Matt Bomer shared a moving tribute to activist and playwright Larry Kramer.

Listen to Untold Stories below or on Apple Podcasts, and be sure to subscribe to hear our upcoming episodes every Monday.

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