Despite what Madonna would have us believe in the '90s, voguing is about way more than striking a pose like a movie star. It requires serious physicality, even more these days than it did when Paris Is Burning exposed New York City's burgeoning LGBTQ ballroom subculture to the masses in 1991. And while ballroom is still probably associated most with New York, in L.A., it ain't Maddy who’s bumping booties beside the boldest boy toys on the runway — it’s Isla Cheadle.
Cheadle, who is also one half of the dance-pop duo Purple Crush with her husband, Jared Selter, helms Banjee Ball, a monthly night of competitive voguing, dancing and catwalk strutting, which returns to Los Globos in Silver Lake this Sunday night.
“I started Banjee Ball before I even started voguing," says Cheadle, who vogues and hosts Banjee Ball under the name Isla Chanel. "My friends and I in the downtown queer community would often form dance circles at the club and try to have our own Paris Is Burning moments. I thought, L.A. needs to have a space for this. [Drag queen] Miss Barbie Q was our first commentator, and then she introduced me to the ballroom community, which is how I met Enyce, my ‘vogue dad’ and Banjee Ball's commentator.”
Cheadle quickly found the creativity, competition and expression of the scene addictive, especially once she started traveling to out-of-state balls and winning vogue trophies. “For me, the biggest ‘aha’ moment was the realization that, unlike the music industry, which is very dog-eat-dog, ballroom celebrates community,” she says. “Because the culture was born out of the black and Latino LGBTQ community, an incredibly oppressed and marginalized group, the family house structure and survival tools gained are the building blocks of ballroom.”
The competition and drama are sometimes outrageous and catty, but "as the culture grows, it continues to get more and more inclusive,” she notes. “For example, there is now a women's category. Ten years ago that wasn't the case.”
She is not the only straight woman who has gravitated to the gay clubs, but few are as immersed. It was a natural progression for Cheadle. She and her husband have been recording and performing under the name Purple Crush for well over a decade, coming up in the pre-EDM "blog house" era in the early 2000s, and touring heavily off of web and social media support. Toward the end of that decade, when “pop music, à la Gaga, Kesha, etc., started usurping the sound and images of the culture,” they decided to move from New York to L.A. and attempt to ride that wave as producers. It hasn't been without challenges.
Purple Crush were involved in a lawsuit over music they produced for Lady Gaga's Born This Way album back in 2011, and while they settled that one, they still struggle financially and creatively, as most indie music acts do. But it hasn’t stopped them from making art. At the beginning of this year they released an EP and short dance film called a "Vogue Opera," which they still plan to stage in a theater one day. Next year they promise a new album, as well as an EP they've produced for Enyce, the commentator for Banjee Ball.
“Our next challenge is how to re-emerge as music artists with a new sound after having been consumed by the ballroom community for three years,” she explains. “How to make the two identities meet.”
Clearly, the gay community has always and will always play a big role in Cheadle's life and art. “After our experiences in the New York underground, it was like we ran for cover into the queer community in L.A.,” Cheadle says. “Back in New York, our circles were diverse, and often young queer kids would gravitate toward us. This was back in the ‘no homo’ days, before society really started embracing the queer fight. The fact that I would yell back at all the hateration and slander must have made Purple Crush seem like a safe space. But then after a while it turned out we needed a safe space, too.”
L.A. has been their safe space for six years now. But it hasn’t made Cheadle herself immune to misogyny in the music industry. “I’ve dealt with some horrible treatment in the underground, and constant harassment on the internet where I was told I had AIDS or was crazy,” she recalls, adding that before Trump made pussy-grabbing an international headline, she literally had hers "grabbed after a performance by a prominent Parisian DJ/promoter and magazine owner who was going to do a feature on Purple Crush. That article never happened.”
Cheadle says that Madonna’s recent speech about sexism, at Billboard's Women in Music night, really hit home, too. Though there’s no denying that the pop icon used vogue culture for her own popularity and financial gain back in the day (as did FKA Twigs more recently, Cheadle notes), she feels that ultimately, Madonna served the art form in a positive way.
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“Ballroom today relies heavily on the international community, and you just can’t deny that Madonna taking the Xtravaganzas on tour all over the world in the early '90s is the reason the culture spread,” she says.
Thanks to supporters like Cheadle, ballroom continues not only to survive but to reach new audiences. “This year I was able to take Banjee Ball to an educational level. We were hired by some colleges to bring the ballroom/Banjee community to their campuses, teach workshops and hold practice balls,” she says excitedly. “I recently teamed up with the city of West Hollywood to do the same at Plummer Park, and we called it Baby Banjee. I hope to expand this aspect of our brand next year so we can continue to help build the next generation of ballroom.”
Banjee Ball: A Vogue-Acalypse happens Sunday, Dec. 18, at Los Globos. More info.
More from Lina Lecaro:
The Cure Played Four Encores at the Hollywood Bowl and We Still Didn't Want It to End
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Jane Wiedlin Looks Back on 38 Years of Go-Go's