Exclusive Interview: HBO Max’s Legendary judge the Wonder Woman of Vogue Leiomy Maldonado “the balls started with trans women”

When HBO Max launched on May 27th, part of its opening day lineup was the first two episodes of the nine-part Max Original dance competition Legendary. Inspired by the world of ballroom, the show pits eight Houses against one another in weekly vogue battles in the search for a Legendary House. With a different theme each episode, like Intergalactic, Circus Bezercus and Wild Wild West, the series gives viewers an insight in the history of ballroom and its continued importance to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly Black and Latinx trans and queer youth. Featured on the Legendary judging panel is the Wonder Woman of Vogue herself, Leiomy Maldonado, alongside stylist and image consultant Law Roach, actor and writer Jameela Jamil and rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

Born in the Bronx, Maldonado is an LGBTQ+ activist and an icon of New York City’s ballroom scene, and beyond. In 2009 she became the first trans contestant on America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV, while during Pride Month 2017 she was featured in Nike’s #BeTrue campaign. You might have seen her in Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair music video, doing her signature Leiomy Lolly. Maldonado has worked as a choreographer on both seasons of FX’s Emmy-winning Pose, also appearing on screen as Florida Ferocity. She’s set to return in both capacities for season three when production, which was halted due to the current health crisis, resumes.

As episode five of Legendary, with the theme Remember the Times, lands on HBO Max today, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Leiomy Maldonado about why she agreed to be a judge on the series rather than a performer, her own introduction to vogue as a teenager, why she established her own House, what she makes of references to ballroom culture on RuPaul’s Drag Race and why she loves being part of Pose.

Leiomy Maldonado. Photograph by HBO Max.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What do you hope that viewers who come to Legendary not knowing maybe anything at all about ballroom will take away from watching it?

“I think they will learn how important ballroom culture is for us, for our community. They’ll also experience how much hard work it takes for us to prepare for these balls and how important it is for us to be celebrated and have a platform to showcase our talent. I feel like also the viewers are going to be able to pick up on how important it is to have a house, and why houses are so important to us and how they relate to real family and the good stuff.”

One of my favourite elements of the series is getting to know the members of the houses through those interviews, hearing their often moving stories. What do you make of that aspect that it’s been built into the show? I think it’s important.

“Yes, I believe it’s super important for people to understand the competitors’ stories and where they come from and why they were brought into ballroom and why ballroom is important to them, because everybody’s story is different. I feel like with ballroom so many of us have gone through so many things and some we can relate to, some we can’t, but the thing about the ballroom community is that we’ve been taught to survive. We’ve been taught to really own our space, own ourselves and our talent and I feel like with Legendary putting that aspect into it, showing the stories is very important and it’s beautiful. You get to understand why these people are here and you get to understand what it took for them to get to there.”

Dashaun Wesley with the House of Ebony. Photograph by Zach Dilgard/HBO Max.

It’s beautifully done and I’ve definitely cried a few times watching those personal stories. Could you give us a bit of an insight into your own experience of getting into the ballroom scene when you were a teenager? How did you first get involved and what has being part of the community meant to you?

“I found out about voguing while attending Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx. I came across my first mentor who eventually introduced me to voguing. She gave me a VHS tape and I went home and I put that tape in and I was immediately intrigued by everything about voguing, everything I saw; the energy, the battling, and just the different personalities that you see through every girl that was on the VHS tape. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I was introduced to the ballroom community overall because that’s when I found out about the ballroom scene. I found out about voguing first when I was about 15, and then the ballroom community itself when I came into the scene when I was 16. This back in the early 2000s, like 2003.”

Amazon Mother Leiomy for Nike #betrue collection

And what would you say you have brought to ballroom yourself in terms of your own style of voguing? Because everyone brings their own personality to it, their own take on it.

“When I first came into the scene it was different. I found out about voguing while watching that VHS tape, so I didn’t really learn from actual ballroom people. The mentor that I did have she wasn’t part of ballroom, so we didn’t really talk about the ballroom scene, I was just really intrigued by voguing. So when I came into the ballroom scene and started competing I was mimicking what I would see, so to the ballroom scene they saw me as a mimic, it wasn’t what the true essence of voguing was based on ballroom. But little by little I realised exactly what they meant by that and I implemented and applied that to my practises and that’s when I really started being seen and respected in the community. When I first started out, they were very negative about accepting my style, but little by little I was able to incorporate real ballroom and voguing essence with the style that I felt. Because for me I vogue from passion. When I first found out about voguing it was about releasing stress. I found out that through voguing I was able to express so many emotions that I couldn’t as a woman of trans experience. When I came into the scene and started voguing I changed so much. I was able to be respected for being an athletic woman, whereas in the ballroom community the voguers back then, especially the women, they weren’t as dramatic, they weren’t as athletic, and they were more about being soft and doing poses, whereas when I came in I was about agility, and antics and high energy and little by little I was able to bring so many different things. I’ve been able to bring so many different elements to voguing that have changed voguing and has made it to where it is now.”

Legendary on HBO Max. Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO Max

What about the name Wonder Woman of Vogue, how did that come about?

“The Wonder Woman of Vogue came in through Jack Mizrahi. I was a Mizrahi at the time, and him getting to know me personally he saw how much talent I have and he’s known my story from day one, and basically my journey in ballroom, that I’ve had to battle so many people and always stand alone and really take over. I had to take over ballroom in my own way and that’s where the name Wonder Woman came from, just my strength and what I stand for, that’s just who I am.”

You appeared in the music video for Willow Smith’s song Whip My Hair, was that song inspired by your signature move the Leiomy Lolly hair whip? I’m guessing that Willow might have seen that on TV on America’s Best Dance Crew.

“Honestly I don’t know if it was inspired by me. I feel like I was the inspiration, but I don’t know for sure. I didn’t work on the choreography for the music video, I only appeared on it. I dance in that video. But I believe that when the song came out it was definitely inspired by me and that’s why they reached out. At the time it was a little bit after me being on America’s Best Dance Crew and that was when the Leiomy Lolly, which is one of my signature hair whips, was taken basically by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and Britney Spears and all these other people.”

When did that Leiomy Lolly hair whip first come about, was it quite early on when you were first getting into the ballroom scene?

“Yes, the Leiomy Lolly I believe I started doing that in late 2007. So by the time I went on America’s Best Dance Crew in 2009, two seasons before we were on the show, there was already a group that did a tribute to me, and they shouted me out by name and did the Lolly!”

When did you establish your own House of Amazon and why did you want to do that?

“The House of Amazon was created about five years ago. I got tired of being part of ballroom because of all the negativity that I was receiving. I felt like people couldn’t differentiate between me being a competitor and then me being someone who’s a public figure and actually doing stuff and bringing stuff into the ballroom. They couldn’t really respect that and get past that. But I felt if I leave ballroom that’d be like me leaving my roots, so why would I do that? So instead I chose to create a house, and to make sure that my kids stay true to the essence of ballroom. I feel like today within the ballroom scene a lot of people lose the essence of why ballroom was created. A lot people now they’re looking to be famous, or looking for the next gig, and although that’s amazing and I applaud people who are able to use their talent and to make a career out it, I feel that’s my part of giving back to the ballroom community in a sense, through my kids. I wanted to build a house that was all about family orientation and just showing love and being supportive and just being there for one another through thick and thin.”

And it’s an international house isn’t it?

“Yes, correct!”

Amazing LEIOMY – Vogue Femme solo STREETSTAR 2013

Going back to Legendary, I believe the makers of the show initially approached you about being a competitor on the show and I wondered why did you agree to be a judge instead, rather than a performer?

“As far as me being a part of the show, I feel like I’ve already been there as a performer. I’ve been on America’s Best Dance Crew, I’ve been an artist on my own for so long, I’ve been able to carry myself as a performer, I’m an icon, I’m know for this, I’m already a seasoned performer. Although the world would have experienced so much more out of me being a performer, because there are people in the world who haven’t experienced that side of me, I feel like it’s very important for me to be the judge and to lead my community into getting better, into finding ways to give them critiques so that they can become better performers, become better artists, to give them a light of hope. I feel like that’s the part that I play on the show. I play a big part of the cross between mainstream and ballroom. So it’s only right for me to be there and to sit in that chair.”

Law Roach, Megan Thee Stallion, Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado. Photograph by Zach Dilgard/HBO Max.

I think that sums up your place on the judging panel really well. Would you ideally liked to have seen the judging panel made up entirely of people from the ballroom community, who know the ballroom scene well as you do? I know when it was announced that Jameela Jamil would be on the show that received some criticism before people had even seen the show.  

“Honestly I love how the judges were chosen and I feel like every judge in those chairs plays their part and not only for TV but overall. A lot of times people forget the bigger picture. As far as Law Roach goes, Law can bring in people who never really knew about ballroom but were inspired by ballroom, they probably really didn’t know that it came from ballroom, so having someone like Law on the panel he’s opening eyes for people who probably have even stolen from ballroom honestly, to keep it real. Then you have someone like Megan Thee Stallion who comes from the hip hop industry. In the hip hop industry they’re very homophobic, they’re very transphobic, that’s an industry that honestly is the least supportive of our community, so to have her on the panel that’s a cross that gives people a reason to watch the show and for people aren’t open to the community and they’re supportive to Megan, they’ll watch the show, and watching the show they’re going to be inspired. I say that with the most cockiness ever because for me I feel like there’s no way that anyone can watch the show and not be inspired and not find some kind of respect or understanding of our community. And with Jameela Jamil she’s international, she’s going to bring in the international people who probably don’t know anything about ballroom or who are oblivious to the culture overall.”

Law Roach, Megan Thee Stallion, Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado and guest judge Nico Tortorella. Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO Max.

And she has that role on the show of not really knowing much about ballroom initially and she learns about it as she goes along during the series in some ways doesn’t she?

“Yes, and I love that, that also gives the viewers kind of a sense of anyone can learn. Yes, this is a competitive show, but it’s also educational, it’s here to teach the world about the culture overall. A lot of people find out about voguing and they’re intrigued about the dance form, but they don’t know the culture behind it. There’s a reason why this is so important for us, it’s not just about oh, let’s just get out there and dance.”

Law Roach, Megan Thee Stallion, Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado and guest judge Dominique Jackson. Photograph by HBO Max.

In terms of the guest judges, on episode 3 Dominique Jackson made quite a splash on the show didn’t she? What was it like having her involved as a guest judge?

“I loved her on the panel! I felt like we needed that honestly. She’s been a part of ballroom for years, she’s an icon, and she’s done things to break barriers. Seeing her on there and seeing her in full ballroom mode, it was amazing!”

Legendary guest judge Dominique Jackson. Photograph by HBO Max.

Yes! I love her being on the show. I hope that she comes back if they do a second season of Legendary. I was quite surprised that the house of Ninja team on the show is made up of five cis women.

“As far as the Ninjas, the whole House of Ninja is not cisgender women, but the ones that were chosen to be on the show and showcase the House of Ninja were cisgender women. But it’s so important to see that because a lot of times people feel like because someone is cisgender or they’re not actually an LGBTQ person, that they are not supposed to be here, or they can’t be celebrated and honestly that’s not what the space is for, the space is for everyone. It’s just about having people that are going to respect us and who are going to be allies and be there for us and fight for us and fight with us. I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand why this is a culture, it’s not just a dance style or a party, and people need to know the difference.”

The House of Ninja on HBO Max’s Legendary. Photograph by Zach Dilgard/HBO Max.

What are the ways you’d like to see the ballroom scene evolve to be more accepting of trans women, in the terminology that’s used and attitudes?

“I feel honestly a lot of people need to understand that if it wasn’t for the trans community we wouldn’t have rights to this day. If it wasn’t for the trans women fighting, and the trans women being out there and the trans women caring for the young gay men who have been kicked out their homes and the people who haven’t been accepted. It’s a lot of the trans women who are out here helping people and inspiring people and taking care of people, it’s us. People need to understand that we need to be loved, we need to be celebrated and we need to be protected.”

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And you’d like to see that become more apparent in ballroom?

“Yes! Especially in ballroom. I feel like ballroom has forgotten that the balls started with trans women, the ballroom scene started to celebrate mostly trans women.”

Can we just touch on RuPaul’s Drag Race, because I think that some people watch that show and they almost feel like they know ballroom through watching it, through some of the language that’s used and the queens often do moves like the dip, which they refer to as ‘the death drop’.

“Uh huh, ‘the death drop’, appropriation.”

I love watching Drag Race, but people can’t only watch that show and think they know ballroom can they?

“I mean I feel that we need to have a moment where we actually educate people and let them know. I feel like a lot of times people think because you’re part of the LGBTQ community that anything LGBTQ is the same or it relates, but it’s not. Yes, the ballroom scene started with drag, that’s where it initially started, but when it comes to ballroom that’s not the main thing. The drag world, that’s a whole different type of world. I would never come into a place and act like I know anything about drag history, so I feel like it’s disrespect to our culture, especially when it’s mocked and a lot of times it looks bad. I’ve taken time to address people on Twitter, because you know I don’t mind, and you have people saying that it doesn’t matter and things like that, but it’s like, yes, it does matter, people need to understand the importance of it, because a lot of things in life get stolen and honestly people deserve to get credit for what they’ve created and what belongs to them.”

And if it came up would you go on RuPaul’s Drag Race to impart some of your knowledge about ballroom?

“I decline. I wouldn’t. My brand is to only be a part of things that celebrate trans women and the people of our community in a genuine way and that’s not a platform that I would be a part of.”

Well, Pose, which you’re a part of, does very much does celebrate trans women doesn’t it? I know the second season has just landed on Netflix so people are excited about that. I don’t know how they could wait that long though, I watched it last year when it was first broadcast. You’ve worked on Pose as a choreographer and appeared on screen in multiple episodes as Florida. What do you make of the way it’s brought the history of ballroom to such a large international audience and what’s your experience of being involved on the series?

“Being a part of Pose for me was so surreal. When I first got the call about being the choreographer I was like ‘wow, this is such an amazing experience’. I had to do some research myself because I wasn’t out in the 80s and early 90s and I had to research what I was going to bring, and what they wanted to see. I felt like it was so important to see my sisters out there sharing the stories we went through, our own people sharing the stories that we went through ourselves, and how educational the show has become for so many people. Although Pose is not a ballroom show, it’s a show about the LGBTQ community which happens to play around the time where ballroom was a highlight. I love the fact that they take their time to actually educate people on the culture and to show the importance of it, and to show all the different sides, because we see the good and the bad and that’s important for people to be exposed to both the good and the bad. A lot of times you only see the good and then you get into it and you kinda gag because nobody told you about the bad. So I love how they choose to tell the stories and how they choose to celebrate our community.”

And you were involved in both seasons weren’t you?

“Yes, that’s right, the first season I was a choreographer and I did a cameo, and then in the season one finale that’s when they first introduced Florida Ferocity to the show. Then in the second season I worked as a choreographer again and played Florida as well.”

And what about season three, I know that was halted because of Covid-19, but will you be involved in the third season too?

“Yes, Florida will be back!”

That’s great! One of the interesting things about the second season of Pose was Madonna’s Vogue becoming a big hit, and the conversations that some of the characters have around the mainstreaming of ballroom, the fors and against that, and it feels like that’s something that’s happening again now with Pose and with Legendary in some ways. I think your take on it is that it’s a positive thing for more people to learn about ballroom, but I guess there are some people within the community who would rather not have that mainstream exposure or that platform?

“I think in a sense they say that, but I think it’s because a lot of those people are not on those platforms. A lot of times people in these communities, especially the ballroom community, they hate on people that are doing things that they wanted to do. A lot of people, because they’ve been part of ballroom for so long, they feel like they are part of ballroom history and they feel like they should be the ones telling these stories, they should be the ones up on screen. And, yes, I do understand that, which is why Pose went and ensured that they spoke to icons and leaders within the community and they worked around that, and that’s important. But a lot of times that’s where that negativity comes from, it’s not really because they don’t want it to become mainstream, but it’s more so because they want to have control over it, they want to have control over who’s being seen, whose the one telling the stories and honestly that’s boring.”

Paris Is Burning. © Jennie Livingston.

For a lot of people outside the community their first introduction to ballroom was Paris is Burning. What’s your own relationship with that film?

“I didn’t see it until way after it came out. When I came into the scene I didn’t even know that Paris Is Burning existed, but when I did find out about Paris Is Burning I watched and have seen it numerous times since then of course. I just love it. I watch it awe and it makes me wonder what these people went through in their personal lives, because they do share a lot, but me living through the ballroom scene in the 2000s is different from the 90s, so it’s intriguing to me. And to see how Pose finds ways to bring back that era is amazing.”

Final question for you, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, artwork, piece of music or person; something or someone that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years.

“That’s kind of tough, and I’m not being biased because I’m part of them, but I don’t really have one outside of Pose and Legendary. There hasn’t been another show that has really interested me or has inspired me for community. I feel like I can strongly say that because I’m seeing it through people of colour and people I can relate to and I feel like that’s very important and a personal thing for me.”

By James Kleinmann

Legendary is available exclusively on HBO Max. Start a free trial to catch up on the first five episodes now. Follow Legendary on Instagram @LegendaryMax and Twitter at @HBOMax, follow Leiomy Maldonado on Instagram @wond3rwoman1 and Twitter @Leiomy.

Legendary | Official Trailer | HBO Max

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