HBO Max’s announcement of their new voguing competition show didn’t exactly go as planned.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that HBO Max is set to produce Legendary, a voguing/ballroom competition show.
According to the press release, the competition is, “highlighting modern-day ball culture, divas battle on teams called ‘Houses’ in fashion and dance challenges including vogueing for the chance to snatch the legendary trophy and win a cash prize,” with Jameela Jamil set to star as the show’s Master of Ceremonies.
Following the announcement, Jameela wrote in a now-deleted set of tweets,
“I’m *so* excited to be a tiny part of bringing ballroom further into the mainstream where it belongs. I’m here to celebrate some of the coolest, most talented people on the planet who deserve center stage. I’m honored to join these brilliant artists.”
But Jameela’s excitement would soon come to an end as countless members of the LGBTQ community took to social media to question why Jameela, a woman with no connection to ball culture, was given such a prominent role in the competition.
Legendary ball figures like Transparent actress Trace Lysette took to Twitter to express her frustration with HBO for hiring Jameela. She wrote,
“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”
As the backlash continued to pour in, Jameela started to backtrack on exactly what role she was playing on the show. She went from being excited to be the MC, to all of a sudden claiming that both HBO and news outlets were reporting misinformation about her role and that she wasn’t the MC after all. She, along with Megan Thee Stallion, Law Roach and Leiomy Maldonado will be judges on the show. She tweeted,
“Reading an inaccurate press release about our new show yesterday was upsetting, and it triggered a lot of incorrect news articles about it. To be very clear, it’s @DashaunWesley who has worked on this show for 2 years is (and always has been) the MC of #Legendary.”
Since then, Jameela has written a lengthy Twitter post coming out as queer. She wrote,
“This is why I never came out as queer… I kept it low because I was scared of the pain of being accused of performative bandwagon jumping.”
She then added,
“I know that my being queer doesn’t qualify me as ballroom. But I have privilege and power and a large following to bring to this show… 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 given them a chance.”
In the same post, Jameela said that “this is not how [she] wanted to come out” and that she will be leaving Twitter for a while.
The response to Jameela coming out has been pretty welcoming and positive. But there are many who believe that Jameela’s queerness doesn’t change the fact that she still isn’t in the position to judge a show about ballroom. (She even said herself she isn’t qualified for it).
If she genuinely believes that, then she needs to step down as a judge. Because even though she’s part of the LGBTQ community, she’s not part of the ballroom community. It’s important to understand that the two aren’t interchangeable.
Ball culture was (and still is) an underground phenomenon that started in the 1920s within the black and Latinx community. Participants formed “Houses,” which allowed them to have chosen families after many of them were rejected and left homeless by their birth families. Ballroom not only gave marginalized drag queens, gay men, and transwomen a safe haven but a place to shine. It was their space and their space only.
Later, in the 19060s-1980s, voguing began in the Harlem ball scene. And then, of course, it was only a matter of time before cis-het people came to take it for themselves (ahem, Madonna).
And that’s the problem here. There is a long history of people stealing aspects of black queer culture for themselves — and rarely, if ever, do they give proper credit. By casting people like Jameela Jamil and Megan Thee Stallion to be regular judges on the show, HBO is setting themselves up to do exactly that.
It’s unclear how deep the show will delve into the history of ball culture and voguing, but what is clear is that Jameela will profit off of a culture that is not hers.
No one is saying that cis people can’t be a part of shows centered around the LGBTQ community, but it’s important that their presence doesn’t overshadow a show’s true purpose, especially a show that’s focusing on a subculture like ballroom.
Given the fan base that both Jameela and Megan have, their appearance would obviously drive a high volume of viewership for the show, allowing those who have never experienced ballroom a way to enjoy and appreciate its art form. That being said, Legendary could have taken a note from RuPaul’s Drag Race and easily introduced Jameela and Megan as celebrity guest judges for a few episodes if they really wanted them to be a part of the show
Since it was announced, the whole story has been very messy, especially with Jameela’s tweeting and deleting, and the fact that she chose to come out after the backlash. It’s obviously amazing that Jameela came out to live her truth, but to do it after receiving an enormous amount of criticism just doesn’t seem 100% genuine. It’s as if she’s trying to play the victim so that people would leave her alone.
At the end of the day, the ballroom space is not her space to be in. By taking the job, she’s doing what she constantly condemns. She’s taking away a part that should have been filled by someone that’s part of the community.
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Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.