Ballroom culture has been steadily gaining the mainstream shine it was always destined for.
Recent shows like FX’s Pose and Vice’s docuseries My House have helped raise the profile of the underground scene where contestants walk, pose, and dance for accolades and prizes.
Now HBO Max is stepping onto the runway with its own entry Legendary.
Produced by the team behind Queer Eye, Legendary welcomes eight houses (aka teams) to compete for the largest grand prize in recorded ballroom history: $100,000. Over the course of each episode, houses are judged and eliminated based on how they interpret a specific ball’s theme and perform in individual categories like “face” or “hair vogueing.”
But exactly who’s doing the judging has raised some controversy.
The ballroom scene as we know it today was cultivated by black and brown queer and trans performers. Much like anything created by marginalized groups, there’s always justified tension when it seems as if people outside of that particular community are swooping in. So it was no surprise there was backlash online back in February when actor Jameela Jamil (The Good Place, The Misery Index) was announced as the lead judge on Legendary.
The show does indeed have ballroom icons attached to it, with vogueing phenom Leiomy Maldonado serving as one of the judges, dance instructor and actor Dashaun Wesley as the MC, and famed DJ MikeQ who heads up ballroom’s first record label Qween Beat in the DJ booth.
However, Jamil’s place as the lead judge alongside rapper Megan Thee Stallion understandably raised some eyebrows, especially when actor and actual house mother (aka, leader of a ballroom group) Trace Lysette let it ring that she interviewed for a spot on the show.
“It’s kind of kind [sic] blowing when [people] with no connection to our culture gets the gig,” Lysette wrote on Twitter. “This is not shade towards Jameela, I love all that she stands for. If anything I question the decision makers.”
Lol.. I interviewed for this gig. As the mother of a house for nearly a decade it’s kind of kind blowing when ppl with no connection to our culture gets the gig. This is not shade towards Jameela, I love all that she stands for. If anything I question the decision makers https://t.co/kJleDihn02
— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) February 4, 2020
One of those decision-makers was executive producer David Collins.
“It was interesting when the backlash moment happened. You’re like, wait a second—has anyone really looked at who Jameela is and what she brings to the table?” Collins says. “She is one of the largest LGBTQ allies out there. She’s in the trenches fighting the good fight. And she brought such beautiful insight [to Legendary] for the viewer who’s never been to a ball, who’s never seen a ball, who doesn’t understand a ball to learn alongside her. She ushers the audience into the ball.”
Amid the uproar, Jamil came out as queer and acknowledged that alone shouldn’t and doesn’t qualify her for something like ballroom.
“But I have privilege and power and a large following to bring to this show,” Jamil wrote on Twitter. “Sometimes it takes those with more power to help a show get off the ground so we can elevate marginalized stars that deserve the limelight and give them a chance.”
It’s a fair point, and it should also be said that celebrities outside of the ballroom scene have judged competitions in the past, including singer and reality star Tamar Braxton, TV personality Kelly Osbourne, and singer-songwriter Kelis—and some have even walked in competitions like singer Phyllis Hyman.
— Jameela Jamil ???? (@jameelajamil) February 5, 2020
“One thing that we love about the celebrities who are willing to participate is that they have some of the knowledge of the ballroom culture,” Wesley says. “Whether it’s them spectating or having a friend around the culture. Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh my God—they’re not a part of the culture. How can they sit on panels?’ when they actually have the education and the knowledge right then and there.”
Even though the judges obviously play a key role in the show, the true stars are the contestants. Legendary excels in spotlighting the distinctiveness each house brings to the competition, the behind-the-scenes artistry involved in ballroom, and how houses truly function as a family. The best moments in the show come from individual house members walking specific categories that play to their strengths and, of course, going toe-to-toe in the elimination round. It’s like rooting for your favorite player on your favorite team.
“That’s always been like a goal of ours: How do you capture that energy of actually being front row out of ball, watching the fashion, watching the dancing, and watching the creativity of ballroom culture?” says executive producer Rob Eric. “And that specifically is what we set out to do with this show is to capture that energy.”
For ballroom purists or general skeptics, Legendary may seem like HBO Max glomming onto something that’s “trendy.” Someone like Wesley, who’s been a part of the ballroom scene since he was 14, is fully aware of how a show like this could (and will) be interpreted.
But, in his eyes, having hosts like Jamil and Megan Thee Stallion on a platform like HBO Max is exactly what ballroom needs.
“We’re going to get a lot of backlash. People have no problem giving their comments and two cents,” he says. “I know people feel that the culture won’t be as original, but think about the opportunity that we have to reach those who may not know about this. We’ve been such an inspiration to everything, whether it’s our fashion or our dancing. There’s been so many people on the outside looking in. So it’s amazing to have these celebrities give their platforms and make sure that we get seen and we get pushed to a certain place.”