The Good Place star Jameela Jamil, the center of the controversy, hopes to move on to focus on the heart of the ballroom and voguing competition.

By Nick Romano
May 21, 2020 at 07:46 PM EDT
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Zach Dilgard/HBO Max

February was supposed to be an exciting moment for the producers of Legendary, HBO Max's upcoming reality competition series showcasing the world of ballroom and voguing. Instead, they found themselves embroiled in controversy.

A press release emerged at the time to name The Good Place's Jameela Jamil as emcee, a role typically filled by a veteran of this queer counterculture that rose in black and brown LGBTQ communities in '20s Harlem as a refuge for shunned youth. The creatives promise that it was just a clerical error. Jamil went on to clarify that she is actually one of the celebrity judges, alongside hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion, ballroom icon Leiomy Maldonado, and stylist Law Roach. Dashaun Wesley, a mainstay of the ball scene, will emcee. But the fierce response from the ball community left lingering questions and concerns, specifically whether this show would be as authentic as it claimed to be or just another attempt to appropriate a marginalized culture for the mainstream.

"I'm not that person that goes crazy about it because my job as a producer is to make sure that I can prove everything wrong in the end," says Rob Eric, an executive producer on Legendary along with David Collins. Eric and Collins are the guys behind both iterations of Queer Eye, and while strolling a Connecticut studio space in early March, Eric mentions a similar experience he faced in the past with backlash.

"When we announced [the Queer Eye reboot] was coming out, a certain publication put out 'Here Are the 5 Things Queer Eye Needs to Do to Be Relevant Again,' and number five was 'Don't Come Back,'" he recalls. "Then we came out and the show was a hit, and that reviewer wrote the most beautiful piece apologizing for that article and responding to the show. I'm glad that they said that because it pushes us as producers to say, 'Now my job is to make sure that you're wrong.' What came out of the beginning of [Legendary], it's slowly starting to unwind. There was a mistake here, and that's why."

Legendary recruits eight "mothers" and "fathers" from famed ballroom Houses around the world, including chapters of the House of Ninja and the House of LaBeija. Each assembles their own House of five to then compete across nine themed balls — from a Western kiki to a superhero extravaganza. There are challenges within those balls that focus on posing, voguing, body, and specific arm and hand performances, just like any ball you might find pumping in New York City — except there's a grand cash prize of $100,000.

Criticism of the show continued to balloon beyond just fears of appropriation. Various celebrities chimed in to voice concern, including Hustlers actress Trace Lysette, who said she was interviewed for the show but didn't get the gig. On top of that, Lysette tweeted that "a ballroom elder who will remain nameless is still fighting for a producing credit for putting the structure of the show together," including "categories." Lysette declined to comment further for this story.

"David and I wanted to make sure this entire world didn't go the way of a reality show, that it went the way of an authentic ball as best as we could," Eric says. "A marginalized community created this world, yet it's been everywhere from Madonna's 'Vogue' to Malcolm McLaren's 'Deep in Vogue' to Rihanna's tours," he adds. "This world should not be underground anymore. It should be seen, but it should be seen in a way that represents where it came from."

Jane Mun and Josh Greenberg, the two showrunners, understand why people are hesitant to embrace something like Legendary. "Gaining the trust of the participants was a real big thing," Greenberg admits. "They didn't want to be exploited or presented in a way where you're pointing fingers. It was really about gaining the trust of the community, that they would know we're making a show that was as authentic as possible and not rubbernecking."

Their secret, it seems, is Jack Mizrahi, who previously worked with Janet Mock and Ryan Murphy on FX's Pose. The very mention of his name on set sends the live audience into flurries of cheers and snaps. A legend of ball for the past 30 years, Mizrahi not only hypes up the crowd every night before filming each episode, but as a co-executive producer he helped craft the structure of the show. Could this be the "veteran" Lysette mentioned? Her rep did not comment.

"I'm the senior ballroom aficionado here," Mizrahi says with pride backstage at the eighth episode, just before the party gets started. "Finally seeing what we worked so hard for, finally seeing the struggle and why this was created in the first place being put on a bigger platform, it's just inspiring for myself. We're limitless."

Zach Dilgard/HBO Max

Many have argued that ball culture shouldn't need celebrity judges like Jamil or Megan Thee Stallion to make a show like Legendary more palatable for a mainstream audience. Jamil also came out as queer in February as the backlash grew, which only seemed to inflame the situation and led to her brief hiatus from social media. Sitting next to Wesley near wardrobe, the actress politely declines to speak further about herself in the context of the backlash and instead focuses on "the kids," the ballroom competitors whom Wesley says "are breaking their necks day by day, week by week, just trying to be on that stage. This is their time."

"I don't mean that in a pissy way," Jamil clarifies. "We went there, we did that, it was all in my f—ing face. I should never have been centered in that. It was just a f—up on a press release, and we've moved on." She does say that her involvement with Legendary came about to help get the show off the ground at HBO Max. "Dashaun was already signed on as an emcee for years… two years," she says. "For whatever f—ing reason, the world was behind and the show was not getting sold, even though it had all these incredible people attached to it from the beginning. Leiomy I'm pretty sure was, and so was Dashaun."

Greenberg separately mentions that Legendary was set up at another network and wasn't moving forward. By the time he and Mun came aboard, their job was figuring out "what the HBO Max version of the show was."

Zach Dilgard/HBO Max

Jamil says the producers "came to me in December and explained that they needed to get the show off the ground, and I jumped at the opportunity to work with these amazing people, to help be the kind of window in for outsiders into this incredible community. So that's my role here, to be the bridge, I guess, from the people outside the community inside. I'm honored that they would let them in." Worth noting, however, is that HBO Max had already sent out a press release in September 2019 that announced its 10-episode order of Legendary.

"It was really important for us to have an emcee commentator like Dashaun, who does that for a living, and to have a Leiomy, who is an icon in the world of ballroom," Mun says. "For us, it was having that balance of having it rooted in ballroom but yet [having] recognizable faces that are outside [the community] because we're also bringing ballroom to, hopefully, the masses. I think the goal that HBO Max had was, 'We would love to show ballroom to a 14-year-old boy or girl in Michigan or Boise, Idaho, who would never be exposed to [ballroom], to identify with it."

The Legendary ball will begin on HBO Max when the platform launches May 27.

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