In vogue: How photographer Chantal Regnault captured the Harlem ball scene’s rise to fame
With a brand new exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam currently on, and a wildly successful book documenting her time in the Harlem ball scene, Paris-based photographer Chantal Regnault looks back in love at a community who changed her life.
Between 1989 and 1992 in New York City, French photographer Chantal Regnault had her entire outlook on life changed. She discovered, in all its prime glory, Harlem’s house ballroom scene. It was a culture that had evolved from the long-established pageantry of drag queen balls, a parade of gender fluidity and expression by way of competition and aesthetics. Entrenched into the folds of cosmopolitan life since the turn of the 20th Century, balls – as they came to be known – were spaces for the non-conforming queer community to flourish as a heterosexual society set out to diminish them. It was Harlem drag queens Crystal LaBeija and Lottie, in 1972, who recognised that the drag queen balls and pageants were no longer satisfying nor appreciating them as Black queens, and so they divested from the drag balls to create “houses”: kinship networks founded not on blood but on relational aspects of their identity. Quickly, young Black queer people of New York City flocked to find a community that had been lacking for so long. And with the advent of houses came a more youthful, performance-orientated energy. Classical “cross-dressing” drag with feathers and beads became secondary, and the art of posing and performing now coined as “voguing” came first.
Chantal Regnault: Anonymous, The Grandest Grand March Ever AIDS Benefit Palladium NYC (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1990)
Chantal Regnault: Denise Pendavis, House of Omni Ball (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
By the late 80s, voguing had taken off, and runway categories in the ballroom were everything. At the same time, the spunky and audacious photographer Chantal was reading about their advent in The Village Voice, a famous New York-based magazine which had a strong advocacy for gay rights. Chantal was relatively new to the country and was looking for inspiration in her larger-than-life appetite for culture, scanning through magazines such as Voice and New York Native. When we speak with her, she’s full of joy about her time in the city. “I can understand everything better now,” she tells It’s Nice That. “It was a special point in the culture.” Born in France, there was simply nothing like this in Paris, where Chantal came from. For the young upstart, “it was incredible” to arrive in New York City and find such a glamorous, powerful community that was thriving in spite of the forces against them. Wide-scale violence and AIDS were the two looming spectres, the latter of which had already ravished much of the queer community by 1988. “During the AIDS crisis, all the gay clubs had closed down because people were dying left and right,” she recalls. “And suddenly I was discovering ballroom, which was thriving underground as it always had.” At that time, the balls were almost exclusively attended by Black queer people, but Chantal bore witness to the rise of many Hispanic houses, and even one white house, all of which congregated to create a gender diverse community of its own.
Instinctively taking her camera to the first ball she attended, Chantal found herself with tonnes of eager ballroom participants wanting their picture taken by her. She was hooked, and returned monthly to every ball across the city. Yet still, she points out how she gets questions on her ability to do so even to this day. A heterosexual cisgender woman at these balls was incredibly uncommon, and today, even less so. “It was 30 years ago, and there was not so much questioning about how legitimate you were a part of the community or how legitimate you were to photograph them,” Chantal explains. On this note, her tone never waivers into criticism of politics. Instead, she speaks with a brazen clarity and focus that is much like her photographic prowess. “From the beginning, I was always very considerate to how they felt and how they wanted to be photographed, that I was not there to bother them.” With such a cool-cat approach, Chantal was welcomed, encouraged, and fawned over by the voguers and ballroom family. “I realised not only did I not bother them, but I became part of the scene because I was a photographer, and any glamour girl loves a photographer,” she laughs. “And of course I was French, and there was this whole mythology of France and glamour, so I was the French photographer.”
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Chantal Regnault: Angie Xtravaganza, Think Pink Ball (L'Amour Pendavis Ball) (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1991)
Today, Chantal still plays into the chic, Parisian artist archetype. She doesn’t mince words about anything, including the recurrent times when she gives her dues and respect to the people who these photos are all about. “The ballroom was the trans culture at the time,” she says. “The central character was the ‘femme queen’.” In Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92, a book that collects a host of Chantal’s work at the balls and interviews with its legendary figures, the character of the “femme queen” is seen time and time again. In reality, “femme queen” was a category for the balls, not a character. It denoted transgender women of the houses who could seemingly “pass” as cisgender, which at the time Chantal brushes off as “simply the culture.” It wasn’t just the femme queen who Chantal noticed as the key figure of the ball, however. “New house mother Pepper LaBejija opened it to kids who were fresh from breakdancing in the neighbourhood and came on the scene,” she adds. “And Pepper was a real butch queen up in pumps.” Pepper, in fact, went on to become a renowned figure of the ballroom largely in part to her role in the widely successful cult classic film Paris is Burning, a documentary from the 1990s which took voguing and ballroom to a cinematic level (for better or for worse).
But how did an average night of photographing the balls usually shakedown for Chantal? With each house preparing head-to-toe looks for different categories, runway presentations, and voguing battles, Chantal recalls how often there was a lot going on at all times. It was “little by little” that she learned to master her photographic domain over the balls. At the start, she would capture the houses as they walked the runway or vogued against one another, trying to be as flattering as possible. “It was not very beautiful to photograph them where it was badly lit,” she says, now well-tuned to the demands of a glamour girl. Armed with her Nikon S-3, Chantal had to adapt to the low-budget setting of the high-glamour balls. “I wanted to use a flash for the colour, because often those warehouses the house mothers (Dorian Corey, Paris Dupree, Pepper LaBeija, and Angie Xtravaganza) rented were not really nice, and they paid for them out of their own pockets.” But still, Chantal underlines just how incredible it was to be immersed in their atmosphere. “It was magic, it was completely magic,” she says with a glint of ecstasy in her voice. It’s an emotive pull to the voguers that reads clearly in her pictures: every image is electric, alive, loving, and tender. They veer away from voyeurism, and function completely as an uplifting platform to a community that embraced Chantal with such loving arms.
Being a 40-year-old heterosexual foreigner in the midst of the ballroom atmosphere seems as if it would be dauntingly out of place. Yet for Chantal, it was nothing of the sort. “I would often go backstage, and it was like being backstage in a theatre,” she recalls. “All the characters, the models were there and trying to collect the money at the door, and everyone was in the toilets, and the hallways, putting on makeup, wigs, getting ready, being late.” It was a frantic, exciting atmosphere that Chantal often tried to capture, to much avail. She’d show up before the ball began, and stay right up until its closing doors – “often at 6, 7, 9 am.” By the 90s, Chantal was no longer a spectator with a camera. She was the ballroom community’s honorary photographer-in-residence, a friend, and a loyal asset. The photography had become a way to reaffirm an etched out ballroom fantasy: that each member was a grandiose, modelesque, and wealthy uptown woman. “I believed in their fantasy because it would make you feel really good,” she admits. Here, Chantal errs on the defence, a tone that indicates her fierce loyalty to the community remains the same even decades later. “There was no nightlife and we were thinking about all the people we were losing from AIDS,” she explains. “So suddenly walking into the ballroom was like another world where everybody laughs again.” For that time, it was needed. The AIDS pandemic was mocked and belittled by the United States government, despite killing more men than the Vietnam war. Finding strength from their peers was a remedy for queers everywhere. “At the balls, there was always laughing, it was very joyous,” Chantal says in one particularly emotional moment of clarity. “I want to point out, please, that it was extremely joyful.”
Recently, the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam opened up a brand new exhibition that surveyed the visual history of ballroom. Naturally, Chantal’s work was featured prominently. She was more than happy to participate in building the exhibition and attending its opening gala – but most importantly, she was overjoyed that more people around Europe could see the photographs she had lovingly taken of her friends back in New York. But how did Chantal manage to be so prolific? “I decided very early on to photograph them all in the way they wanted to be seen,” Chantal explains. “It was very important, and I never tried to catch them half-done or with their make-up not ready or somewhat tired or with their wig on the side, you know? I wasn’t interested in going to that place at all.” She speaks as if this is a given fact, a decision that was never up for debate. As the ballroom participants picked up on Chantal’s eager cooperative and collaborative spirit, they began to willfully direct her: “can you take this photo like this?” became “shoot me like this!” which became “I want to be in this pose.” It made sense, considering ballroom was all about the Black queer and trans community reclaiming an agency of glamour that had been robbed from them in the outside world. “It was all about looking beautiful and real in there,” Chantal explains. “Outside the balls, a lot of them had no money and were living dangerously.” Rather simply, Chantal facilitated a space for beauty and realness within her lens for them all to flourish in.
Eventually, she settled on using black-and-white as her go-to, something that became her “thing,” as she nonchalantly recalls. Whilst Chantal simply chalks it up to being an “inspiring” medium, one can’t help but notice how the black-and-white of each picture brings the ballroom community into a deeply artistic realm – something they readily deserve. Off the back of these photos, Chantal built solid friendships with house mothers, voguers, drag queens, butch and femme queens. Soon, she was being invited back to their houses, tapped for photoshoots, and so on. One particular time, she had the likes of legendary voguer Willie Ninja (of Madonna’s Vogue fame) in a rented studio, giving her direction on how to build his portfolio. “I did the studio shots so I could have more control, but I let them have it all,” Chantal laughs. “I would do very little direction on the shoots. Just free, go with it. They loved it, and it made them feel more like professional performers.” By the end of a day’s worth of studio shooting, both Chantal and her model could walk away with a sizable professional-looking portfolio. The studio shots show another side to the figures of ballroom, as people who were infinitely capable of making art simply by the graphic shapes of their bodies. In their twisted and contorted poses, they are akin to statues of ancient divinity. “I wanted them to be supermodels,” Chantal adds. “They were the first Black models.”
Since so much time has passed, Chantal has grown increasingly astute about her time in New York. Whilst she does reminisce fondly about the balls, nothing is seen through a rose-tinted spectacle. As we go through each picture, she’s reminded of those who have passed, of which she plainly says “is a lot.” Yet with every year gone, Chantal still finds joy in what remains. “To my surprise, and my delight in a way, I was not fully aware of how important my pictures would become as an archive,” she explains. “I knew it was something special and beautiful and that's why I wanted to document it. But, I was not fully aware of the importance of what I was doing.” She pauses here, as if to be careful with her emotions. “Now, only 30 years later, we can see the implications.” As mainstream attention to ballroom has come and gone – Malcolm MacLaren, Madonna, Pose, Legendary – time shows that voguing has always been a commodity to some. During the 1990s, it was “an explosion” when “seemingly everyone” discovered ballroom at the same time. Yet, she’s adamant that the exposure didn’t damage the community. “They persevered with or without the mainstream,” she says. Instead, this particular epoch wound up helping them “The world of fashion – which was also decimated by AIDS – had the idea to throw an AIDS benefit ball,” Chantal tells us. “This was the Love Ball, May 1989, with Susanne Bartsch and RuPaul, which I attended and photographed.” From then on, the benefit balls rapidly raised consciousness within the ballroom on how AIDS was affecting them. “The Gay Men’s Health Crisis created the Latex Ball in 1990 with the ballroom scene, because they needed it,” Chantal adds. “Ballroom was mostly Black and Hispanic and working class, and a lot of them were completely unaware of what was happening and treatment and protection.”
With such a wealth of knowledge, intelligence, and compassion on the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s hard to think Chantal simply started all this “because it was fun.” A simple trip to a ballroom she saw advertised in 1988 ended in a complete re-routing of her life, even when she left New York City to settle in Haiti in the mid-90s, just as ballroom was really taking off into mainstream stardom. She left with no idea just how important her role as the photographer had really been. “There was no photographer following it at the time. Now, everybody’s a photographer,” she quips. “Now, there are almost as many photographers as participants at the ball.” Even in the midst of providing a canny observation on the evolution of contemporary voguing, Chantal still manages to find time to bring it back to the very people this is all about: the ballroom community. “I know the mainstream looks at something at one point and they don’t look at it at another, but through it all, the culture will never die,” she says.
Chantal Regnault: Paris Dupree (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1990)
Chantal Regnault: Derrick LaBeija, House of LaBeija Picnic (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
In many ways, ballroom taught Chantal more than just how to photograph. It taught her how to live. When I ask her what it all means to her, she pauses for a while. “It taught me so much,” she finally replies, quietly. “You have to cross some lines to understand others.” From the beginning, Chantal always knew her photography was a way to understand others. It was a way for her to appreciate difference, not observe it. “I wanted to understand who they were,” she explains. “But in the end, it taught me so much about how difficult of a life they all lead outside the ball.” Even though Chantal’s ballroom photographs situate themselves in the realm of happiness, community, and togetherness, she knows beneath all the frozen scenes of smiles and laughter was an endless pool of strength and courage from all the Black queer and trans members of the ballroom. “Even within the gay world, they were ostracised and demonised,” she says. She speaks passionately, slipping back into the “mother” figure she took on when she was first photographing the ballroom, when young performers flocked to her as one of the eldest people in the room. Overall, it’s clear a lot has stayed with Chantal through these pictures. Through memories of laughter and fun are memories that remind her of the reality of the violence, structural or personal, that the ballroom community encountered. “To me, it was the epitome of injustice. The epitome of humiliation of another human being. And there was so much danger, especially for the femme queens,” Chantal says. “And it's not over.”
Chantal Regnault: Anonymous, The Grandest Grand March Ever AIDS Benefit (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1990)
Chantal Regnault: Parish Magnifique, Love Ball (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
Chantal Regnault: Temperance and Octavia Saint Laurent (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
Chantal Regnault: Pepper and Tommie LaBeija, House of LaBeija Picnic (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
Chantal Regnault: Modavia LaBeija, Octavia Saint Lauren, and Carmen Xtravaganza, House of LaBeija Ball (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)
Chantal Regnault: Richie Saint Laurent, House of LaBeija Ball (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1990)
Chantal Regnault: Luis, Danny, Jose, and David Ian Xtravaganza (Copyright © Chantal Regnault, 1989)