The KIKI Scene
By Maya Acharya
Say ‘Ballroom’ and many people’s first reference will be Madonna’s Vogue, or the 90s movie Paris is Burning. But behind mainstream extractions of the performance-based dance form, ballroom has a complex and politically piercing history that is very much alive today.
A part of Ballroom, the KIKI scene in New York is made up of LGBTQ youth of colour. The soon-to-be-in-cinemas documentary KIKI takes us deep into this culture within a culture. It gives insight into the marginalisation, racism and inequality that NY's new generation of voguers face, and how the KIKI community uses ballroom to mobilise and empower youth.
To learn more, Masq talked to Chi Chi: an activist, dancer, ballroom gatekeeper, and generally dazzling individual who co-wrote and features in the documentary.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your first experience with the ballroom scene?
Yes. I go by the name Chi Chi Mizrahi and I was born and raised in Brooklyn but reside in Harlem, New York. My current occupation is as a Program Manager for Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital. I run a program for people who are living with and affected by HIV. My main job is to work with them in regards to making sure they get healthcare. The reason I mention this is because it’s kind of how I got into ballroom, as ballroom has always been a way for me to work with youth.
My first experience: I was dating a guy at the time and long story short; he was like, ‘hey I’m gonna go out, do you wanna come?’ It was midnight on a Thursday... I was like, ‘ok let’s go!’ And there I was, 18 years old, going with them to my first mini-ball. There were all these people walking runway and wearing these costumes, and I just thought “oh my goodness, wow.” The beauty of it was the competitiveness, the people cheering on the next member, the unity, the family; all that stuff really resonated with me. That was my first exposure and from there I went on to learn more about the scene, then become part of a house and eventually walk my first ball in 2006.
The KIKI scene is a distinct scene within a larger community. What is it that makes it unique within ballroom culture?
The ballroom scene is like the overall umbrella, but it caters to all LGBTQ people, no matter what age or demographic, as a long as you compete or are part of a house. The uniqueness of the KIKI scene is that it’s directly geared to youth of colour. Specifically, it’s geared towards their development. Me, as a 29-year-old individual, am coming across a 13-year-old or 14-year-old who’s homeless, who just got kicked out, who just found out their HIV status. The KIKI scene is about supporting these youth from the day we meet them. We give them a place of family and acceptance where one doesn’t have to worry about walking into a space and being judged. You walk into a ball, you walk into the KIKI scene and everybody looks like you and acts like you. You see the same skin-tones, the same mentality. That’s what the KIKI scene is; a space for youth, run by youth. Within these spaces, we create our own resources. You know, coming into the world as a broken child with a sense of lost identity, gender identity, sexuality, mental, physical and emotional health issues – you don’t know how to balance these things, and the KIKI scene uses these kids’ talents, as a form of self esteem building and motivation.
You were recently involved in KIKI the documentary, which has been hugely successful, congratulations. Masq is really looking forward to seeing it once it comes out over here. In the documentary, the focus is very much on ballroom not just as an art form but also as a political movement. Could you tell me more about it?
The movie was co-written by the Swedish director Sara Jordenö and my best friend Twiggy Pucci Garcon, but the initial concept started between myself and Twiggy. And you know, like any friends do, you sit there and you bounce ideas about how you’re going to leave your mark on the world, and how it’s going be amazing. We met Sara, told her about our idea, and from the very minute that we started educating her on the KIKI scene, we met and talked almost every day for two or three months straight.
It started as a small project; we basically wanted a 12-minute insight into the scene. Year one, we did a bit of filming and thought, let’s go with it. Year two we really saw that something was coming out of it, but it wasn’t until year three that we finally knew what we had on our hands. Because there were just so many issues: homelessness, suicide, bullying, sexuality, trans-marginalisation - so many things to be highlighted. A lot of KIKI talks about our individual stories; mine is about substance abuse, Twiggy’s is about acceptance in the church, Gia’s about her transidentity, Symba’s about HIV – things that really pave our community. So year three Sara came to us and said ‘you guys deserve more, this can’t just be 12 minutes’, and that’s when it became a full length documentary.
Video featuring the theme song and clips from the KIKI documentary, composed by Divoli S'vere of queer ballroom collective Qween Beat.
How do you feel about the responses you’ve had to KIKI so far?
The feedback to it as been like Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Like, one day I was just another coloured queen, walking the streets of New York, voguing and slamming her back, and the next day I’m being published in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Ebony Magazine.
And, can I be honest, a lot of our audience are white people, and the fascination of watching seven people of colour talk about what they’ve gone through, their sexual assaults, addiction etc., has them blown away. A lot of people say things like ‘wow you guys are brilliant, you guys are so smart’. That’s the feedback we often get, that we’re smart. And I think, ‘am I smart because I’m a person of colour and you didn’t expect it, or am I genuinely smart because I educated you on something that’s so common, but people like you never take the time out to actually see the oppression we’re surrounded by?’ People also ask about how they can be involved. Everywhere we go we try to talk about political issues, funding of government programmes and the institutional structures that directly affect us.
It’s interesting that you mention that a lot of viewers have wanted to help the community, and how this can be problematic because you feel tokenised. The KIKI community is created by LGBTQ youth of colour, for LGBTQ youth of colour – why do you think it’s important that you create your own spaces and visibility?
Well history has shown that rather than be educated, white people often want to come in to be the saviour. I mean, I cannot speak for the needs of a white woman, because I am not a white woman, so I do not know what that woman goes through. Similarly, I can’t expect a white cisgender woman, or a white cisgender male, or even a white gay male to speak for my needs, especially when privilege and power allow those people to have a different lifestyle than my counterparts in the KIKI community. And you have to acknowledge power and privilege in that, because they are what allow you access and give you a better chance of a normal life. A normal life for us is being able to wake up in the morning and still be alive, without living with HIV, without the fear of being killed, without being bullied. How many people do you know wake up in the morning and have their first thought be fear to go outside because of the threat of violence?
And for us, history has shown that, for white people, once all is said and done, we’re just that token person or a form of entertainment. If you know anything about Paris is Burning you’ll know that Livingston did exactly that to the ballroom community in that movie. When she made millions off of it, she didn’t write one person a cheque, saying ‘here goes five thousand dollars, here goes ten thousand for putting twelve years of your life on camera.’ Instead, she profited from decades of royalties. And she did it on the backs of people who were already broken, people who were already marginalised, people who were already shattered.
That’s actually one of the things I wanted to ask you about: since the documentary started screening, a lot of people have been calling it an ‘unofficial sequel’ to Paris is Burning but, as you mentioned, the director was strongly critiqued for being a ‘white voyeur’. KIKI, on the other hand, was co-written by Twiggy; how important is that for the authenticity of the movie?
Collaboration. Collaboration makes a big difference. The collaborative understanding between myself and Twiggy and Sara was that the only way we would move forward with the project was if Twiggy and I had a say-so in how it was developed. For us the collaboration was so unique and important because Sara had no knowledge of the scene. So we were the gate keepers, we were the stake holders, we had the knowledge. We were able to say ‘no this is not what we want to expose, this is what we do want to show’, but at the same time understanding that we had to show both the good and the bad. So the collaboration was very important. If it wasn’t for that it would have been a documentary through a white lesbian’s vision, and that’s not what we wanted; we wanted it to be something for us and by us. You can’t tell the story about us, without us.
I’d also like to talk a bit about the House system and how it organises people within the community. The system uses words - like mother, father - that symbolise ‘traditional’ family units. How do houses work as families in practice?
When I tell people about houses, they think of an actual physical house; that’s not what it is. A house is a system that we use. Houses have a mother and a father, who have extensions like aunts and uncles, and then the mothers have kids. The mothers and fathers are the leaders, because they are the ones who nurture you and guide you.
The way the system works is that anyone can open a house, but a real prestigious house with validation comes from someone that has credibility within the scene. So I was able to open up my own house because I was well known and respected, and I was top in my category, which is voguing. But not everybody is made to be a parent. It comes with its demands. You have kids who are literally in school.
The house is all about the image you present. So the house that I founded is called the House of Unbothered Cartier. When you think of Cartier you think of royalty and regal beauty right? As the founder I pick the mother and father to carry the image and help me run the house. Houses don’t necessarily stay in one region; the system allows expansion. My house has a chapter in New Jersey, in Philadelphia and in New York. And these are all my responsibility. After choosing the overall parents you choose the chapter parents who recruit kids and represent the house. The parents make sure the kids are prepared, that they have structure and go to meetings. And it’s also off the ballroom floor; families hang out together, you might even live together with family members. It’s very unique; each house is different and operated differently.
How about the impact of houses, beyond the dancing, as a space for LGBTQ youth of colour who are marginalised in several ways: would it be accurate to say that the houses and balls are in some cases crucial to the survival of its members?
Oh hell yeah. For example, at sixteen years old, imagine your biological parents turning your back on you and having to walk out of your front door. At that very moment, what do you do, where do you go, who do you call? That’s when you have to start trusting people outside of that framework, and the only way you can do that is by building these bonds. We save a lot of lives – not just from HIV, but suicide, sex work, drugs, all these things that if we weren’t there to be that barrier, how would they survive?
Working at the hospital, I see these things first hand. I see kids as young as thirteen coming in HIV positive, with diabetes and pre-existing conditions – and I think, ‘you haven’t even lived a life yet. But had you come across a system or family or structure that you were able to identify with, that made you feel like you had value; someone who took you for who you were and not what they wanted you to be - would you still have made those decisions that put you in this situation?’ And that’s why these systems are crucial. It saved my life. I was homeless; I know what it’s like first hand. And I keep giving back because I know no matter where I go there’s always going to be someone who reminds me of my kids, and if I don’t do it, who will?
How do you handle that responsibility on an everyday basis? How do you look after yourself while looking after your kids?
I’m a mother by nature, ok? Let me tell you something, I make it work. You prioritize. And yes, there are days when you can’t do anything, and there are days when you can do more than others. I’m fortunate to have a good life and work a nine to five job, so I’m in a position to help a lot of these kids. The things I’m telling you are totally different when you actually experience them; when you see their pain and see them overwhelmed with not wanting to have to sell their bodies, but that’s the only form of income if they want to eat. And society doesn’t understand that; it’s hard to explain.
Speaking of how society treats and understands ballroom culture: does the way in which ballroom and voguing have been introduced into mainstream culture, through people like Madonna, bother you?
Can I be honest; the thing I hate most is a culture vulture. Don’t get me wrong, I love Madonna, but she owes us a shitload of her motherfucking time. Why? She’s done voguing thousands of times in different ways, but never once has she come back with the success that she’s had, to even throw ball, to give money back to community centres, to feed the homeless on a holiday weekend. But then she has the nerve to run around and say ‘Oh I used a few people from the community for my Madonna video.’ Bitch that’s not the community, that’s not where we stop at. And yes, it pisses me off, because how many people who have stolen vogue, incorporated vogue, have given back to our culture? How can you take an art form but not include its history, when the history is just as important? It makes no sense. Yes, it’s a beautiful art form, but it’s an art form that we started in order to express ourselves, almost like an intervention. It’s a way of life. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s my life.
And the fact that people are getting paid and not using the authenticity of our talent is not ok. People work day and night to be the best at what they do and then someone can come and pimp your power and bypass these individuals, when they are the true superstars and not you. So to take the style and not even give us credit for it, who would be happy with that? And it’s not just Madonna, FKA Twigs and so many artists have done it. People know about Madonna and are like ‘oh my god vogue!” and do this boxy stuff, but bitch, do you know where voguing came from? Do you know what voguing is? Bitch, do you know that people have died because of voguing? Do you know that people have transitioned [gender] because of voguing?
How do you feel when you vogue – what does it mean to you personally?
It’s cathartic. There are days when I come home and baby let me tell you something, I just vogue. Because I don’t know any other way to deal with it. I can get high, I can get drunk, or I can vogue. To be honest, it’s therapy. It makes me feel good, like I’m achieving something. The model of ballroom is ‘living in your truth.’ It makes me feel like I can step into any room, any audience or film festival and not have to worry about being myself, because I’ve already been being myself and I have that validation - not from society, but from my community.
In an interview with Twiggy, he mentioned that one of the goals of the KIKI scene is liberation and freedom. What does freedom look like in a patriarchal, cis, heteronormative system?
Do I feel free? Yes. That is because I’m given a lot of freedom that many of my community members aren’t. My skin tone isn’t the same as theirs. And my privilege is different from what Twiggy’s privilege might be. Being free is what has allowed me to be so vocal. I know that when I speak up, that I’m heard, that when I show up people will watch, and that what my people need, I’m able to provide.
Now, do I feel that freedom is there for all of my community? No. Some members will be seen every day for the colour of their skin rather than their potential or their knowledge or their skill set. The first thing you’re going see is a Black trans woman, or a Black man, or a Latino gay male. And true freedom doesn’t allow that; freedom is to be able to be oneself in any dynamic, in any space, at any given moment. The only way we’ll achieve freedom is if we start putting in place our own structures.
What’s the most important thing that you want people to understand about the KIKI community?
I want people to understand that, like anyone else, we have needs, we hurt, we cry. And before you see us for how we dress, and what we do and our body language, see us with humility. Acknowledge that people feel the need to use us as a punching bag, that people feel the need to oppress us and think it’s ok. If you reflect on the structures that have contributed to us getting HIV, to us dying, its not about choice; it’s a response to what heteronormative society has pushed upon us. So before you call us dyke, or faggot or an abomination, call me a fucking human.
Read more about the KIKI doc on it's website.