If many of the ball kids have weathered oppression, part of the beauty of a ball is it doesn't show. The recent "Fusion of Time" ball looked like a cherry-picking from area high schools and colleges of the most beautiful and well-dressed young black men — and the majority of the scene is male, with smaller numbers of transgender women, lesbians, and even straight folks joining the scene — with a few Latinos and Asians sprinkled in. Few in the room were over 30. "Everything's gotta be on point," explains China Ultra-Omni, house mother of the Bay Area chapter of the House of Ultra-Omni, a feather ascot at his neck and a pink faux-fur tail hanging from his jeweled belt, displaying a white leather Yves Saint-Laurent sunglass case with no small amount of pride. "This is like casual for me."

While local houses and nonprofits have hosted a number of smaller balls, the Fusion of Time on January 26 marked a coming-out of sorts for the Bay Area on the national circuit. The $5,000 in prizes — donated by private sponsors — was the most cash ever offered on the West Coast, and lured competitors from New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. The event organizers from the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, known to the ball kids who practice there as the SMAAC Center, had hired legendaries Jack and Kool-Aid Mizrahi, two of the scene's best-known commentators, who bring cachet to wherever they land. This was their first time landing in the Bay Area.

But not all is glamorous at the ball, as the brawl in Atlanta in January attests. Before that, ballroom folks report that a security guard shot a butch queen in Detroit, and someone detonated tear gas at a ball in Washington, D.C. Some describe creative forms of sabotage by the competition: finding powdered glass in their foundation, glue squirted inside their shoes, or grease smeared on the soles. And then there's the stealing: With kids in their late teens and early 20s regularly flying to out-of-state balls, you can bet some airline tickets are bought thanks to credit-card fraud, many in the scene say.

A competitor dances in the “realness with a twist” category requiring voguers to “bring it like a Scottish gentleman wearing a kilt.”
Eartha Goodwin
A competitor dances in the “realness with a twist” category requiring voguers to “bring it like a Scottish gentleman wearing a kilt.”
Angel Infiniti (right) and a house supporter made a grand entrance in zoot suits.
Eartha Goodwin
Angel Infiniti (right) and a house supporter made a grand entrance in zoot suits.

Lifetime Achiever/Pioneer-Icon Kevin Ultra-Omni is one of the few surviving founders from the 1970s, after AIDS ravaged the community in the 1980s. He says the scene has lost some of its shimmer. He regularly posts on a ballroom message board declaring that today's ball kids are mentally ill. "I often wonder for my safety at a ball," he says over the phone from New Jersey. Many in the scene say people get heated in all competitions, and shrug off such rants about today's generation as the ballroom equivalent of saying back in their day, they walked to balls in two feet of snow without stilettos.

"The drama and the histrionics just comes with being young and queer in an urban setting," says New York–based Mizrahi member Roberts. There is "certainly nothing excessive about violence in the scene."

At least at the Fusion of Time ball, the chairs surrounding the house tables were plastic.

Three days before the ball, Starr needed a house. Showing up at the ball alone was a last resort: "Oh, it would bother me to hell," she said. "I just can't do it. To think that you went from mother of a house to 007 in a matter of a week's time span ... does not look good."

After an introduction on MySpace last fall to Overall Father Casanova DaVinci, who'd reopened the then-defunct House of DaVinci in Miami three years ago, Starr was anointed West Coast chapter mother. It was an unusual choice, given that mother status is most often reserved for those with years under their belts who can provide guidance, and Starr had competed in only one major ball. But for Starr, experience was relative. Occasionally, when she was mad at the behavior of her house children, she would claim she had legendary status for the authority effect.

Actually, the exact details of Starr's past are hard to pin down. Her account of growing up in the projects back in Richmond, Virginia, is blasted by a phone call to her mother, Leketia Christian, who says Starr grew up in a three-bedroom ranch house with Air Jordans and a PlayStation. "[Starr] had a warm and loving home," she says. "This kid had it made!"

Starr says her mother is the one stretching the truth: "My mom will say anything to make herself look good. ... I didn't want Jordans, I wanted Barbie dolls."

Despite Starr's meager experience, Father Casanova liked her drive. Starr saw the position as a way to start her ascent through the ballroom world. By early January, Starr had recruited four or five other DaVincis to the house, but just two weeks before the ball, things unraveled.

• On Sunday, when Starr challenged two members on whether they were dedicated enough to back up the DaVincis in any possible fights — the answer was no — Starr said it would be better if they went to the ball as 007s, and they agreed. "I will not be the weakling chapter," she said.

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