‘Til You Make It
Renanzo Williams AKA Berlin Berlin is a New York City rave socialite, model, activist, healthcare advocate, and vogue artist. As an auntie in the Kiki House of Gabanna, Berlin’s responsibilities transcend dance and require fostering and caring for the next generation of vogue artists. I sat down with them to talk life, tragedy, society, their art, and to better understand the subculture that, as of late, has captivated the interest of mainstream American pop culture.
I knew before even heading to Bed-Stuy to meet Berlin Berlin, that they might not be in their normal spirits. Several deaths over the course of a month had rocked both the New York vogue scene, as well as the larger queer arts community.
I pulled up to their block and found them chatting with an upstairs neighbor on their stoop, as the two’s painfully cute dogs yapped and played with one another. Other neighbors milled by, greeting one another and playing music, delivering on the small-town vibe that the historically black neighborhood is known for. Berlin laughed and joked, and I thought maybe I had mispredicted their emotional state.
Berlin is a true social chameleon, and always stunning; six feet two inches of lean muscle, with ever-changing hair, and perfectly curated outfits. Whether they’re at a rave, hopping and leaping and whooping in sweaty abandon, or in the VIP of a Manhattan club, dripping in jewels only the realest know are costume, or getting their 10s walking Runway at a Ball, they command the attention of the entire room. Even as I found them for the interview, in comfy gray PJs with long dreads down to their hips, they swaggered as if in head-to-toe Gucci.
“You want a beer?” they asked, handing me a Bud Light tall boy, before we journeyed to their backyard. We pulled some plastic chairs out from a corner and I set up my recorder on a decaying wicker armchair between us. The day was overcast and hot, fading into the night.
Like many of their generation, Berlin first encountered vogue through a screen. “I first saw it back in high school,” they told me. “Like everybody else; on YouTube and on Drag Race.” While the mainstream has occasionally flirted with interest in both the art form and subculture since the late ‘80s, it wasn’t until recently that the community, with shows like Pose and Legendary, was able to achieve widespread visibility.
For those who are unfamiliar; vogue is an art and a subculture centered around “Balls,” which act as pageant-like competitions of dance, modeling, and fashion. The Balls themselves are giant parties, with announcers, music, and a panel of judges. Vogue “houses” act as families and are akin to teams in traditional sports. Its aesthetics arguably stretch back centuries, but its modern realization can be traced to queer, mostly black and Latino, communities in Harlem in the 1960s.
Historically, Balls were places where queer brown working-class people could mimic and roleplay high-end white heteronormative society. With house names like Balenciaga and Margiela, the scene strove to mimic, both with mocking and aspiration, the aesthetics of couture culture. However, as the endlessly creative participants innovated within this context they began to inspire (and get robbed by) the very world they originally set out to satirize.
Hailing from Macon, Georgia, and coming up in the 2000s, Berlin had to wait until settling in New York to see the art form come alive. “I saw it first hand for the first time working for HEAT [Health & Education Alternatives for Teens],” they said, referring to the sexual health advocacy group that focuses on queer youth of color. “We would go to these functions and set up free HIV testing centers. During the shows people wouldn’t come back to us, so my boss would let me go watch. I would get so into it that my boss would joke, ‘Don’t leave me to go do Ballroom!’”
Seeing and getting to know the community was immediately life-changing. “I got to see people being free,” they said, raising their arms above their head in a shimmy. “Black people being hella gay, black people being hella fab. Like, ‘This is cute! Wait, this is me!’”
“Did you immediately jump in?” I asked.
“I was a little shy at first,” they admitted. “I felt like an outsider because I didn’t grow up in New York. I came from a drag background, which is so different. I was a little intimidated…. I’m a little hood country raver weirdo, and the girls are so glam!”
“I can’t imagine you feeling out of place anywhere,” I said, taking a swig of my Bud Light and wondering if the recent social controversies around the brand inspired its purchase.
“I have a multitude to my identity,” they said. “I’m from the south, but I’m also a military baby, and grew up around the world. It can be hard to feel fully part of any community. I’m very uncomfortable in a lot of places and a lot of times. Then other times, I’m lit! I want to talk to everybody and everybody wants to talk to me.”
“I have a multitude to my identity.”
“Did you face any other barriers of entry with yourself when attempting to start doing Ballroom?” I asked.
“Internalized homophobia, internalized racism, internalized misogyny,” they said, setting down their beer. “It all makes life harder to walk through, in general. Even moving to Bed-Stuy from Bushwick–” a move that would generally be associated with entering a more conservative populace– “I was terrified about how queer I present. In Bushwick the homeless people would be like, ‘Work, b$%$h!’ They’d seen way crazier than me. But my neighbors have turned out to be amazing. The black men over here are beautiful. The black women are lovely. People go out of their way to say, ‘Hello,’ to me.”
“How would you personally describe vogue?” I asked.
“Vogueing is poetry,” they said. “I vogue for the people who aren’t here anymore. The girls– and boys too– but for the girls who left us too early. It’s a dialog between black queers that’s stretched decades. It’s a conversation with history and culture. Ballroom is catharsis through fashion and movement. It’s ritual and ancestral.”
For Berlin, the artform’s rich history is clearly a huge part of their emotional connection to the craft; with the way they talk about it, the experience seems to evoke the ancient. “There’s a thing we call ‘tapping in,’” they explained. “It’s about tapping into your fem-queen, tapping into your ancestral realness– reaching towards your ancestors and embodying their power. Tapping into your queerness, your blackness… As I’ve gotten better at this, I’ve gotten more confidence in my own experience.”
“You’ve alluded to both a historic and current disproportionate amount of loss in this community,” I said. “It seems like in some ways the art itself, for you, is a memorial to those that have passed. Is there a lot of time set aside for explicit memorials at Balls?”
“There are a lot of memorials,” they said. “But there are so many names to mention. Our community has been going through s#!t since before AIDS. Homelessness, violence, mental health. Some of the most talented people in the scene are people who have to sleep on the train.”
“In a lot of ways– your public health work, your protesting– I think of you as an activist,” I said. “How do politics and activism affect your art?”
“It’s a very political act to be overtly flamboyant,” they said, standing up and stretching their legs. “My life in and of itself is very political. Just by existing and thriving. Just by wearing what I want and accepting the fight that comes with that.”
“My life in and of itself is very political. Just by existing and thriving. Just by wearing what I want and accepting the fight that comes with that.”
“Yes,” I said. “But when channeling your fabulousness into an art form, especially one centered on competition, you have to worry about quality in order to win. What are the benchmarks of talent within vogue?”
“You need to have charisma in any active performance–from ballet to tap,” they explained. “Techniques, elements, athleticism. Flexibility is huge, you want to be as flexible as you can be. Form: you want to be as c#@^y as you can be–your wrists should be as bent as possible, your hips are switching like they are broken. After I walk Runway, my main category, my hips are hurting!”
Vogue is an expansive field with a wide range of movements and aesthetics associated with different categories of competition. According to Berlin, some of the most common categories include Face, Fem Queen Realness, Butch Queen Realness, Catwalk, and classic Vogue. Vogue artists may walk one category that they specialize in, or many, depending on their skills and interests.
“It’s a bit ironic that vogue culture, which originally imitated establishment high fashion, is now being aesthetically plundered by that same establishment,” I said.
“Ballroom has definitely started influencing fashion over the years,” Berlin said, with an eye roll. “In the ‘90s and early 2000s especially, designers were inspired by Ballroom. Our looks inspired a lot of eyes we didn’t realize were in the audience….It seems like we can’t have anything to ourselves. I guess that’s ok, we don’t mind sharing, but come on! Share back and give us our credit.”
Interestingly, as queer black designers have made inroads into establishment high fashion, the scene has adopted their names and labels into the repertoire, including a new Kiki house named The House of Telfar.
This loving satire goes beyond economic aspirations, and can be a way for participants to explore and celebrate their queerness through caricature. Berlin explained that much of the dance’s form and iconography comes from aggrandized femininity and attitude. “Bending your wrists is so gay and flamboyant. It’s a hyperbolic satire of being c$%#y: over-embellished movements mimicking fashion and queer stereotypes.”
“Can you explain the difference between the Main Scene and the Kiki Scene?” I asked.
“Oof,” they said, taking a deep breath. “So, there’s the Main Scene and then there’s the Kiki Scene. The Main Scene is the one from Paris is Burning, with the iconic houses like Labeja, Ebony, Margiela, Channel— Kiki came along for the youth. People started noticing that young kids wanted to participate in Ballroom, like, ‘These kids want to come out here and get their 10s, and I want my kids to come out and start walking, too.’ But there were some issues with mixing in the younger people, so Kiki was created as a safe space for younger kids to join. Kiki is more relaxed and less pressure. You do not want to get chopped [disqualified] in the Main Scene– you have to be together, you’re spending real time and money. Not that people in the Kiki scene aren’t too, but the expectations are really different. But, a lot of people walk and participate in both.”
“And can you tell us about your house?” I asked.
“Hell yes I can,” they said, laughing. “I’m in The House of Gabbana, founded by Legendary Becky Revlon AKA Becky Gabbana. My house mother is Legendary Tanae, she’s a three-time legend. She invited me to her house practice. At first I didn’t think they wanted me in the house, but they ended up wanting me. We really come together for each other.”
Berlin is very close to their biological family, but for many in the community, especially historically, being estranged from traditional support systems is commonplace. Houses act as secondary chosen families that provide resources and support. Hence the use of terms like “mother,” “auntie,” and “sister,” to designate relationships, as well as more formal support roles.
Berlin’s house commonly goes above and beyond for each other. “A girl who was in our house was being bullied at her job about her gender and stuff,” they told me. “We rolled up to her job and talked to her manager like we were her mother. He put an end to it.”
“With houses acting as safety nets for people, it’s easy to forget that they are primarily thought of as vehicles for prestige and acclaim,” I said. “How do you decide who gets in? Is it the person who needs it, the person who fits in socially, or the person who will win?”
“There’s a weird dynamic with that,” they said. “It is a family. You might want the fabbest girl, like, ‘Yea, she’s a 007, but if she’s a drama queen or shady I don’t want her in my family.’”
“And what about the disowned trans 14-year-old without a lot of excess charisma or talent who really needs a network? Will she get in?” I asked.
“Yea,” Berlin said. “She’ll get in, as long as she shows up to practice and comes to the Balls to support. Once she finds a house, her house is gonna try to find her a job. Somebody is gonna try to get her set up with housing. Somebody making sure she goes to school. Your house should be a safe haven, a network of international safety nets. There’s always going to be a black trans woman trying to help somebody else. A true mother.”
Tragically, these networks of support, love, and safety are all too necessary. “People be dying,” Berlin said, overwhelmed. “Last week we lost someone, O’Shae [Sibley], to a hate crime. He was stabbed at a gas station for vogueing by a homophobic 17-year-old on camera. His best friend was standing right there. I didn’t want to watch the video, but I watched it. It got me thinking about my own life, my friends’ lives, and the people who knew him. I went to the demonstration for him, The Vogue of Love for O’Shae. We gathered at the gas station and danced and chanted for him. It was beautiful but heartbreaking. I’m tired of having to chant somebody’s name out in these streets. Three other friends have died in the last month. My 30th birthday is coming up, and I just keep thinking, ‘Please get me there.’ I hear all these youngins talking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be 30.’ Like, ‘No, baby! Yes you do! Get me there!’ Life is really fragile.”
“I’m tired of having to chant somebody’s name out in these streets.”
“What effect do you think HIV prevention and things like PrEP have had on the community?” I asked.
“The Kiki scene itself was created out of HIV prevention,” they explained. “Safer spaces for young people and harm reduction. Resources have been focused on this community in New York City for a while now. Like I said, that’s how I discovered the scene. At most Balls there’s free HIV testing and PrEP services. It’s almost over-saturated, we are a pretty obvious group to serve, but there are rural populations, houseless populations, people making less noise who need these services too.”
“That’s so interesting!” I said. “By being creative and beautiful, you all have been able to acquire resources and aid.”
“Exactly,” they said. “This community came to the world, and said, ‘Hey everybody, here we are!’ The art form speaks for itself, it’s impossible not to be captivated.”
“Survival through serving,” I said, as we both laughed.
“You have to stay beautiful,” Berlin said. “No matter what trials and tribulations you’re facing. I think there’s a quote in The Bible like, ‘Thank God I don’t look like what I’ve gone through…’”
“I don’t think that’s from The Bible,” I said, as we both started laughing again.
“You just gotta fake it ’til you make it,” they said. “Dance while you’re exhausted. Dance while you’re feeling insecure. We see someone go to the floor and achieve greatness, not knowing what all is going on in their life.”
Berlin paused, placing their hand to their head and looking down. “That’s what vogue really is,” Berlin said. “It’s about being my true authentic self. Taking a deep breath before I walk out the door to go face the world. Usually people are nice, sometimes they aren’t. But that’s ok, at least I’m still here.”