ONE: YOU BETTA WORK
I don’t really remember how I first discovered the American drag celebrity RuPaul, but I do remember she was always fabulous. At the height of her career, sometime around 1992, I was a young, closeted black twink, or bwink, I guess, and I felt an immense pressure to do what I could to hide my sexuality. So I pretended, failing miserably, to have no interest in drag queens, divas and the like. I couldn’t publicly like RuPaul for fear of outing myself, I rationalized. The thing is, if you were able to watch TV or hear a radio in the early to mid 90s, you knew about RuPaul. She was that famous.
What’s interesting about RuPaul and the specificity of her rise to fame in the early 1990s is that she popped up right around the corner from Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, a documentary about the New York voguing scene which dropped in 1990, and not that far from the publication of Gender Trouble, a seminal text on gender and performativity by Judith Butler, which was also published in 1990. The ’90s also saw the rise of the supermodel era — Naomi, Cindy, Christy, Linda. In many ways, then, RuPaul was a crystallisation of conversations about gender, drag, and fashion modeling that boiled particularly strong in the ’90s.
The RuPaul song everyone knew, from New York to Kentucky, was “Supermodel (You Better Work!),” an upbeat dance track from 1993 that peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year. In the video, RuPaul plays the role of an international supermodel. The whole thing feels like a fashion editorial, with footage of RuPaul posing for the camera and close ups of her putting on make up and getting ready to be seen, a double commentary on the aesthetic labor of the fashion model and the coming-into-being of the drag queen, both bodies that are transformed by the power of make up for a performance of some type, catwalk, nightclub lounge or otherwise.
“Work! Turn to the left. Work! Now turn to the right. Work! Sashay, shantay!,” RuPaul sings.
The overall message of “Supermodel (You Better Work!)” is to love yourself, accept who you are and let your inner colors shine, a powerful message geared for the mainstream yet coming from a celebrity female impersonator.
Whenever I’ve listened to “Supermodel” I’ve always been struck by the specific instructions to “work,” especially in a queer performance context. That’s why what interests me about “Supermodel (You Better Work!)” is twofold. On the one hand, I love taking the “o” out of the word “work” and replacing it with an “e,” what I have called elsewhere “work — with an e,” or the embodied, reclaimed labor, to use Joseph Roach’s term, of work you do because it is creative and because you love and want to do it, not because you have to.
“Work! Cover girl. Work it girl! Do a twirl. Do your thing on the runway,” RuPaul sings on the track.
“Work,” in a popular, queer of color context, is spelled in a number of ways: werk, worq, werq, worrrrrk, purposeful misspellings that I think actually do the job of tying queer aesthetic labor off as work you do because it’s exciting, creative and embodied, and also because it reflects some core aspect of yourself.
But I’m also curious about why so much popular queer performance, and black queer performance and music in particular, is so focused on “working,” as RuPaul evidences, taking up the allure of being fabulous, flawless, and working the catwalk.
A few years ago, when I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — before Williamsburg reached its Whole Foods-having, luxury condo apex — there was a tiny gay club I used to go to called Sugarland. Pizza joint by day, gay club at night. My friend Jeremy and I went there one weekend, not quite the opening weekend but in any case the venue had not been open all that long, and we watched this queer underground New York band The Ones perform a song called “Flawless.” We really loved it! “Just like perfection, absolutely flawless,” the trio sang over and over to a house-flavored beat. When we left the venue we had the song stuck in our heads, singing it at 3am all the way down Bedford Avenue, wondering how you could make a whole dance track focused only on feeling good, looking flawless.
Something interesting happens when the language of modeling and fashion is poached in that de Certeauian way from a purely commercial context, the world of the commercial fashion industry, and thrown into queer performance, where what the catwalk displays is not an item of clothing that can be purchased by an editor in multiple and then sold back to an audience, but queer creativity, personhood and imagination.
The catwalk is a performance space where individualized fabulousness gets performed for the public, where fabulousness is about creativity and self-assertion through the optics of style, not bald commerce or dividends. In the process of such public displays of style, fabulousness turns out to be very much about storytelling, a certain poetics of the self, and narrating that self through movement and posing on the catwalk. In the end, the catwalk is the space where queer aesthetic labor, or that “work with an e,” is put on display. The aesthetic of fabulousness on the queer runway is about using fashion and the body to imagine individual, small scale Muñozian utopias right here, right now, and in real time.
TWO: WALK FOR ME
As a closeted queer teenager in Ferguson, Missouri I secretly watched hours and hours of catwalk video footage on Fashion TV because I was fascinated by runway modeling as affect. I loved watching the models walk back and forth, back and forth, because even though what they were selling to the room was the garments themselves, what captivated me was the allure. I liked the fantasy, what they did on the stage, how they walked. And where reality television is concerned, shows about fashion models come and go, from America’s Next Top Model to The Face. Though ANTM did include catwalks at certain points throughout the show, they were never the main dish. ANTM focused primarily on how to take pictures or, to paraphrase the art critic Craig Owens, how to pose as though you were already a picture. It was not until Bravo’s Make Me A Supermodel dropped in 2008 that the runway walk was part of the weekly competition and elimination process, a show where you were judged both on your ability to take editorial pictures as well as on your runway walk.
Needless to say, Make Me A Supermodel was my preferred reality fashion show of the bunch!
When Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, worked the catwalks in the 1970s she transformed the room with her elegance. She was giving a fantasy. Through movement, makeup and accessories, models draw you into their world, and it’s this sense of imagination and otherworldliness that has always interested me about the performative possibilities of the runway.
But when catwalk performance is poached from the world of the commercial fashion industry and used creatively in a queer of color performance context, for instance, it takes on a new meaning. This new meaning has to do with doing fabulousness as self-worth, and it’s a sentiment that’s even embedded in much of queer dance music.
In Erikatoure Aviance’s 2011 single “My Pumps,” for instance, she sings about the love of fashion and being on catwalks, and the sound of the pumps hitting the pavement is a key sonic element embedded in the track. The sound is about walking. It’s about movement. But it’s also the beat. “You can’t bring me down – cause I’ve got the shoes!,” Erikatoure Aviance sings, but, where its key is: “Swish, swish, swish, swish, sway, bitch you can’t come for my runway,” the sentiment here being fabulousness is queer personhood, and the runway is the place where that personhood is performed.
When the language of the catwalk is poached from the world of fashion and launched in a queer of color performance context the revised meaning it takes on has to do with fabulousness as self-worth, where the runway is the parade ground where queer fabulousness is turned on, animated.
So yes, in my earliest twink days I was drawn to fashion catwalks as a space where you’re meant to see and be looked at, a moving display case of identity where the job is to tell a story (and sell garments) by simply walking straight ahead. If you think about it, walking is actually pretty boring, if uneventful. It’s something most of us do all the time, every day, for no other reason than to get from point A to point B. Think, then, what it means to aestheticize or to make performance out of a thing as seemingly mundane as a walk. But that’s just it: when elevated to performance, when put on a runway, when made a spectacle, walking begins to look a lot like dance.
One of my favorite dance-walks is from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” the 2003 single that to my eyes helped make her a household name. At the start of the video she pumps down a deserted industrial street, with a photo shoot vignette in the video aimed to position her as a model. The message is: I’m here, get into it — as powerful a message as any coming from a black woman performer working in a white dominated industry.
But it’s not just celebrities, fashion models and famous drag queens who get to elevate walking to the level of dance, because I also feel a personal connection to walking-as-dance-as-presence. When I go dancing one of my signature moves is walking around the room to the mood of the music like I’m on a catwalk, not at all an uncommon site if you’re at the club and there are some brown queens in the room. No matter how packed the club is I will still find some sliver of dance floor real estate, just a long enough corridor, and my friends and I will take turns walking to the music, working the room, going back and forth, back and forth, looking at each other, commenting on each other’s moves.
It’s not something I’ve ever seen happen in a straight club, or that I have seen straight people do. But if you’re at a club and there are enough queens in the room, especially black or brown queens, you’ll see someone walking around, feeling flawless — walking as dance.
To really punch up this connection I’m making between the catwalk, fabulousness, queerness and browness, I’m reminded of a viral YouTube video about Soul Train posted nearly two years ago by Darell Hunt. Soul Train, for its turn, was a successful televised variety show where black and brown folks danced down the soul train line, really a catwalk, to funk, disco, R&B, gospel and hip hop. In Hunt’s video, a must see, he dubs hilarious, sassy commentary about each dancer’s performance as they worked the Soul Train catwalk. While the performers are actually dancing and not really walking, they still use the language of the runway, the catwalk, to display their uniqueness, their style and their creativity.
The clip is centered around his positive reactions to the dancers as they hit the Soul Train line. “Yesssss,” he says. “Ow!” These terms are micro affirmations of black gesture and creativity, highlighting that fabulousness is a quality that when performed elicits a response from an audience. It does this by creating awe or astonishment in the viewer. As the dancers here pump down that catwalk, yaaas, they combine fashion and dance to really stake out a claim for a fabulous self. The dance moves themselves are about individuality, personality and creativity.
The Soul Train line was already a space where fabulous dancers of color worked a look and their dance moves on the catwalk, an early example of the catwalk as a parade ground for identity, creativity and personhood. But what I love about this video and about his commentary in particular is the way he uses the specificity of black queer language to infuse the already queer space of the Soul Train line with even more black queerness. “Come On, Pumps!,” he says, and if you visit his website you can even buy the tote bag.
At the end of the video he offers his own theory of fabulousness when he says, “You can’t out do black people.”
Part of the allure of poaching the language of the fashion model and throwing it into a queer performance context is the humorous ridiculousness of aestheticizing something so mundane as a walk. It’s not that it is funny, comical, or a joke, say in the sense of high camp, but that it is about doing something creative, framing, an everyday action. Nowhere is this more clear than in New York performer Paul Alexander’s — one of the singers in The One’s — track “Walk For Me,” an ode to the voguing scene. “I want you to take to the catwalk, darling,” Alexander chants, “you sure look gorgeous! Walk for body, walk for face. Walk it and snatch first place. Walk for me.”
It isn’t that the lyrics themselves are that funny, but what is amusing is that while he chants Kim Aviance stands next to him, dressed in full regalia, and as he says “Walk for me” she turns her body and on comes the treadmill/ There she is, walking in place, dressed in a full look, on the treadmill, as performance, as a catwalk. In this performance not only has a walk been turned into dance, into performance, but a treadmill, a machine meant to whip (or “torture”) bodies into shape, becomes fabulous. The high glam has to do with whether or not she can stay on the treadmill, looking fabulous, without falling and ruining the fantasy.
THREE: THE RUNWAY WORKSHOP
On YouTube there are countless tutorials and compilation videos, many of them produced by top fashion magazines, that offer the secrets of the catwalk or that otherwise highlight fabulous (or fierce) catwalk performances. But I’m interested in what happens when the language of the fashion runway, model walking and all the rest mixes with queer performance culture.
Much of the queer allure of the catwalk has to do with its connection to the ballroom scene, evidenced especially well in “Tens,” a 2014 Jennifer Lopez track about the vogue runway.”Eating the runway, serving the runway, marching the runway, eat that runway, walk,” she sings. “The whole idea,” Grandfather of the House of Ninja Archie Burnett said at the Berlin Voguing Out Festival in 2014, “is I’m fierce and I know it” Bringing this trope of fabulous, fierce walking into a queer lifeworld shows the extent to which performing fabulousness in the vogue ball is ultimately about the value of self-authorship.
Curious about the queer performance dynamics of the runway in a vogue ball context, during the summer of 2014 I went to the Berlin Voguing Out Festival where I participated in a series of pre-ball runway workshops at Motion*s, a dance studio in Kreuzberg that is also ground zero for a number of Berlin-based voguing workshops. This particular workshop was led by Archie Burnett, a legend in the global ball scene who travels internationally offering similar classes. There were only about 15 people in the class I was in. Some wore heels, others went for more comfortable shoes, and I was upset that I didn’t think to bring my own pumps to class. There were six guys and the rest girls. The point of this particular workshop, as with all the others, was to give people the essentials of the runway category.
We began by walking like our normal selves from one end of the room towards the mirror of the dance studio. This was the most important task, Burnett told us, because even though a model walk doesn’t seem natural, it should feel natural. He didn’t want any of us to walk the way we thought models were supposed to walk. From there Burnett prompted us to move like we were in a hurry to meet our friend for a drink, and we did this back and forth for a few minutes. Then we were told to walk like we were on our way to a hot date, altogether different kind of walk, one with seduction built in. Each of these walks has a different purpose, all inspired by a specific theatrical impulse or set up, and he was mainly encouraging us to think about the way we move inside our own bodies. At all times he told us not to walk the way we think models are supposed to walk. This was his way of allowing everyone to tap into their own creativity.
As we went through the exercises in the dance studio that’s when I realized there was an empowering aspect of the runway workshop, even if you weren’t competing in the ball. It was all about selling yourself as an object of creative energy. “Don’t walk to the music,” he’d say. “Walk to the attitude. You’re worth it!” he screamed over and over as we walked towards the studio mirror, and just the fact that he said “you’re worth it!” actually made you feel worth it. This is ultimately, I think, what the runway is about within a queer performance context. It’s not about asking for value nor is it about asking for permission. On the catwalk, fabulousness is a stern declaration of creativity, self-worth and possibility. It is happening now. It is happening in real time. And it is happening on the catwalk.
After the group exercise of catwalking towards the dance studio mirror with various scenarios, at the end of the class we did a mini runway show where each of us walked alone to music as a way of showing off what we learned. This time our only prompt was to find something about ourselves and sell it to the room. It could have been a piece of clothing we already had on or either one of our defining features. I’d never been more nervous than I was then. One girl piled her long hair into a ponytail and held it at the top of her head. The experience was cathartic in a lot of ways because the act of walking down the runway ushered in the confidence that comes with working with what you’ve got. Coming away from the runway seminar taught me how much voguing and runway work are about small scale utopias and a demand for self-authorship. Embracing a poetics of the self has a much more pronounced impact when you live in a world that consistently devalues your queer, brown sense of worth.
In the fashion industry as on the vogue ball floor, the catwalk is always about selling it, whatever you’re selling, and making an audience believe the fantasy. The act of selling something on a catwalk is a metaphor for performance itself, but it’s not just about bringing something to the table. It’s about how you yourself can put something new and interesting on the table itself. That’s for sure what the Soul Train line was about. You didn’t want to dance down the catwalk like the person who went just before you. What would be the point of that? So the issue becomes, what of yourself can you bring creatively that hasn’t been seen before? Fabulousness, then, is about the confidence of approaching the table but then putting something on it. Through spectacular performance and make-believe it is possible to gain confidence, express yourself creatively and imagine your own utopian version of the world in real time.
In his work on utopia José Muñoz wrote that a queer utopia is something from the future, something that’s not here, now, but that is coming. Performance is the space where queer utopias are enacted, and the stage is the actual platform where utopian visions can be realized. To my mind, the catwalk is precisely the utopian space where queer personhood, personality, creativity and innovation can be claimed. Instead of selling clothes and garments to magazine editors and tastemakers, what you’re actually putting up for show is your sense of self worth, your ideas and creativity. This sense of peacocking, of parading yourself around, is an important aspect for all kinds of brown and queer performance practices, because brown and queer people are constantly told that we are not good enough, that we don’t get to sit at the table, that we don’t have rights, that our votes don’t matter, that our lifestyles are invalid. On the catwalk, poached as it is from the system of fashion and launched into a performance context, we get to shout, for all to hear, that we may be brown, and we may be queer. But we are here, we are creative, and we are fabulous.