Leiomy Maldonado on the set of HBO Max's "Legendary"
Photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO Max
Leiomy Maldonado On How Her HBO Max Show "Legendary" Is Giving The Masses A "Real Ballroom Experience"
Leiomy Maldonado eats, sleeps and drinks voguing, a highly stylized type of dance originating in New York City's LGBTQ+ Black and Latinx underground ballroom scene between the '60s and '80s.
Known as the "Wonder Woman Of Vogue," the hard-working trans dancer, model and activist is known for her work in mainstreaming voguing and ballroom culture. In addition to being the first openly trans contestant on MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew," she choreographs the ball scenes on FX's Emmy-winning drama, "POSE." She's also worked with celebrities like Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Willow Smith and Icona Pop.
With her latest project, serving as one of the judges on HBO Max's hit voguing competition TV series, "Legendary," Maldonado is once again pushing modern-day ball culture to the masses.
During each episode of "Legendary," individual teams, known as "houses," compete in themed "balls," which feature a variety of creative categories like fashion and dance challenges, including voguing, posing and walking—all while wearing incredible costumes and outfits. As the show progresses, houses are eliminated until one team is left "slaying." The winning house achieves "Legendary" status and takes home a $100,000 grand prize.
"The world got to see ballroom culture via 'POSE,' and the struggles of the community," Maldonado tells GRAMMY.com. "It opened doors for a show like 'Legendary,' where now you get to see the real deal. It's raw and authentic, not scripted, not made up: a real ballroom experience."
"Legendary," which is hosted by "King Of Vogue" and actor/MC Dashaun Wesley, sees Maldonado offering the houses sage advice on what it takes to win ballroom competitions each week. Celebrity judges Law Roach, who has styled stars like Zendaya, Ariana Grande and Celine Dion; actress/host Jameela Jamil; and breakthrough rapper Megan Thee Stallion round out the judges cast.
Following the breakout success of "Legendary," which just wrapped its debut season Thursday (July 9), HBO Max has renewed the series for a second season, which will film in Los Angeles and will feature all the original judges and host. (Online, the show has taken a second life: The “Legendary" TikTok dance challenge has received over 2.6 billion views, surpassing Megan Thee Stallion's own viral challenge for her track "Savage," which has over 30 million videos.)
GRAMMY.com spoke with Maldonado about music's important role in voguing and ball culture, the dire situation trans women are facing today and the 30th anniversaries of the iconic ball culture documentary, Paris Is Burning, and Madonna's epic song, "Vogue."
What drew you to voguing and the underground ballroom scene?
I fell in love with voguing back in 2003. This was a way for me to find myself through dancing; I could express all this emotion and frustration I was going through as a young teen transitioning. When I became part of the ballroom scene, that's when I really started educating myself on the importance of the culture [and] why it plays such a big role for our community. I just knew this was the place for me.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Paris Is Burning, the definitive documentary on underground LGBTQ+ ballroom culture. How has the film impacted you?
Paris Is Burning was one of the most important films that showcased our culture to the world. It touched on the immense struggles the trans women were dealing with. Listening to them speak was incredible. That movie really inspired me to do something with my talent and bring ballroom to the forefront.
2020 is also the 30th anniversary of Madonna's song, "Vogue," which brought voguing to mainstream culture.
In a good way, it was amazing for voguing to have been given a spotlight. That song put voguing on the map; we would have never had that chance otherwise. It was, of course, groundbreaking; it paved the way for voguing to be seen and accepted.
Still, I feel like it should have been more than just one situation. A lot of times, people just use something for the moment, instead of understanding the bigger picture of it. Honestly, when that song came out, it wasn't about the voguing or the community. As opposed to now, when you are seeing voguing [and] ballroom, it's about the community. I feel like that is a huge difference. It's a different type of celebration.
Leiomy Maldonado on the set of HBO Max's "Legendary" | Courtesy Photo: HBO Max
"Legendary" stands upon the shoulders of "POSE."
Yes, "POSE" highlights voguing culture, showcasing moments that happened in real ballroom history. While it is a scripted show, some of the things that have happened on "POSE" have happened in ballroom. The fact that these stories are being told [is] so important.
The world got to see ballroom culture via "POSE," and the struggles of the community. It opened doors for a show like "Legendary," where now you get to see the real deal. It's raw and authentic, not scripted, not made up: a real ballroom experience.
How has music played a role in voguing?
Music has been very important to ballroom and voguing. For every category [competition], there is a style of music that gets played, so the people can be [and] feel in that theme or character. With ballroom, it changes so much; there is a lot of variety, artistry [and] talent. Things are going to change; you are not just going to be stuck with one DJ, with one commentator on the mic. You are going to get different flavors and styles. That is so beautiful. Without music, the world would kinda suck! Music makes the world go round! Now you get to see how ballroom culture inspires the world.
As one of the show's celebrity judges, what does Megan Thee Stallion bring to the table?
Megan brings a lot of love and inspiration. She wants to make sure each team is comfortable in their skin doing what they are doing and are engaging with the audience. As a performer, she understands being onstage and what it takes to command that attention, showing that you are confident.
While "Legendary" celebrates trans culture, we are living in a world where countless trans women of color have been killed. What's it going to take to change this?
People forget that trans folks are human. I truly don't understand what the struggle is. As humans, we have feelings, we have compassion. But when it comes to trans women of color being killed, you don't really see much of that.
A lot of the frustration nowadays comes from the fact that our own people of color are not fighting for us. That's hurtful and heartbreaking, because when men and women of color are being taken from us, we are out there fighting on the frontlines with them because we are all fighting together as people of color.
But when it comes to trans people being killed, it's like, "Oh no, their lives don't matter." What's important is for allies, people in the community, etc., to be visible, loud and protecting us to the utmost, not only when it's your friend.
A few weeks ago, I put up a fake obituary on my Instagram just to alarm people, like, "Hey, this could be me." For many of the responses, it was an awakening call for them, like, "Wow, I never thought about that." People need to understand that this shouldn't only be important if it happens to someone close to you. We are all one community, and are all in this together.
There is a lot of solidarity between the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter movement. Let's talk about their intersectionality.
The Black Lives Matters movement was started by two women of color, and they are part of the (LGBTQ+) community. That alone is mind-boggling to me. We need to be vocal about the protection that we deserve and are in need of.
That needs to trickle down within the community as well. A lot of times, we deal with transphobia, misunderstanding, miscommunication from people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual. That to me is equally mind-boggling. We need to put the work in and understand how important it is for us to be together.
How do you see the music of ballroom evolving?
I would love to see the hip-hop community be more accepting of ballroom, even to have collaboration. I feel like a lot of these barriers that are being held onto should be broken down. We need to start appreciating people for their talent and what they bring to the table. Forget about gender and labels.