Willi Ninja: Voguing Butch Queen
By Ana Herrera
Recognized as the “Grandfather of Vogue,” Willi Ninja rose to prominence in the Harlem Drag Ball scene in the 1980s and took the dance form of voguing around the world. Willi Ninja founded the House of Ninja in 1982, acting as a “mother” to a group of adopted gay and transgender “children” in New York City. Moving away from showgirl drag, the Harlem drag ball scene provided African American and Latino youth a space to express nonconforming gender presentations. The houses of the drag ball scene provided the participants a support network and an extended social family. Each house having distinctions, the House of Ninja was famous for its dancers. Ninja helped create and shape the dance form of voguing that combined exaggerated model poses and intricate mime-like choreography. After appearing in the documentary Paris is Burning, Willi rose to fame as a choreographer, musician, runway model and modeling coach, as well as serving as a direct inspiration to various artists who immortalized the style in their music videos. Willi Ninja’s life illustrates what it means to be a black gay male in a world that lauds white male heteronormativity. Willi Ninja transgressed rigid gender barriers as he participated in the ballroom scene and performed an androgynous gender presentation on and off the stage. His legacy continues as the House of Ninja members keep voguing alive and advocate on behalf of their mother to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.
Willi Ninja was born William Roscoe Leake on April 12, 1961 and grew up in Flushing, Queens. A completely self-taught dancer, Willi began to dance publicly at age 7. After high school, Willi dropped out of college, enrolled in beauty school and moved to Greenwich Village in the late 1970s. Not much is known about his childhood, although in many interviews he describes how his mother, Esther Leake, was very accepting of his sexuality and had a direct role in nurturing his interest in dancing. Esther often took Willi to the ballet and the Apollo Theater to see various dance performances. In an interview with Joan Rivers, Willi describes how he never came out to his mother about his homosexuality; in fact, it was she who confronted him, claiming that “mothers always know.” She told him that he was her son and she would love him no matter what. Presumably having some sort of acceptance, Willi’s experience stands in stark contrast to the lives of the African American and Latino gay and transgender youth he later mentored. Inspired by Fred Astaire, Olympic gymnasts, and the martial arts (hence the name “Ninja”), Willi formed a dance group who called themselves the Video Pretenders in the early 1980s. They would go to clubs and mimic the dance moves in the music videos being shown on the screens. They soon realized that they should create their own choreography. Willi began voguing at the Christopher Street Pier and Washington Square Park, popular hangout sites for LGBTQ youth, and made his debut in Harlem’s famous drag balls.
The culture surrounding drag balls and voguing can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge hosted its first queer masquerade in 1869. In newspapers, these balls were disguised as “masquerades.” However, by word of mouth, they came to be known as fag balls or parade of the fairies. This scene experienced backlash and police intimidation during the Depression, Prohibition, and the criminalization of homosexual relations throughout the first half of the 20th century. By the early 1960s, the drag ball scene began to fragment along racial lines, coinciding with the intensification of the Civil Rights movement. Although attended equally by black and white audiences, black queens were expected to “whiten up” their faces if they wanted a chance at winning a title. Frustrated by racial biases, black queens began to stage their own events. Crystal LaBeija formed the House of LaBeija in 1972 as a promotional gimmick for a drag ball she was hosting with a friend. The formation of the house structure paralleled the increasingly assertive gay liberation movement and the reshaping of New York gangs. The house system of the drag ball scene provided an extended social family that helped the participants navigate through racism, homophobia, transphobia, and class oppression. Many were disowned by their family and friends, or ran away to avoid causing their family shame because of their nonconforming gender and/or sexual identity. The history of the house formation also requires references to the politics of abandonment and the racial and economic injustices occurring in New York City in the 1980s. There was a decline in the city’s welfare and social services, early gentrification of urban neighborhoods, decreases in funding for group homes and shelters for homeless youth, a sharp rise in unemployment rates among black and Latino men and a lack of funding during the Reagan era for people newly displaced or homeless as a result of HIV/AIDS. All these conditions forced black and gay (and especially black gay) people into the streets in unprecedented numbers, if they were not already disowned by their families for being gay or transgender.
Queens competed in various categories to acquire the most trophies, thus placing their house higher in the overall hierarchy of the drag ball scene. Every house was known for something different. House of Ninja was known for its dancers, House of Xtravaganza for having the prettiest faces, etc. While black queens organized their own balls and attempted to represent people of color in their scene, internalized racism still materialized when the “children” still won prizes for emulating white actors and celebrities. However, the shift in the scene to be more inclusive also gave way for showcasing talent at the drag balls. Instead of categories based all on appearance, singing and dancing became other forms of expression. This provided more acceptance in a space where drag usually meant males imitating femininity in order to be convincing women. There were also generational hierarchies, as legends tended to be the founding housemothers, upcoming legends were the older children who had been active in the scene for years, and children were the newcomers/rookies. The scene acted as a springboard for the older queens who were interested in furthering their careers. Willi Ninja participated in the scene to perfect his dance form. Others used it to polish their modeling or singing or other performance art. Arguably, the children benefited the most from the ball scene as it provided a chance at fame in the subculture and legitimized their identity and experiences. Having a space to fulfill their fantasies, they could be the person they wanted to be through the performance of an identity otherwise unattainable to them. Queens won prizes for expressing the most realness, a transformative and convincing performance of a particular persona. Many of the youth could not obtain jobs or an education, but by dressing up as a certain professional or student, they felt like they were fulfilling their desires of being that person and proving they could be that person by dressing the part. The categories ranged from company executives, students, military men, runway models, and a heterosexual man, and then dancers would come to sweep the stage.
The drag ball scene in Harlem was not simply a product of the LGBTQ subculture of New York City. In its own right, the drag queens operated as a wide-ranging community of gay men, trans men and women, lesbian women, and queers. It was a reflection of many gender nonconforming people in society. Queens did not just imitate gender binaries; they pushed to break them down. Willi Ninja did not to “pass” as a woman. He did not live as a woman nor do full drag. He walked and danced down the stage sporting a mustache, long hair, large jewelry pieces, make-up, women’s clothes, all while performing a blend of masculinity and femininity. While a lot of the femme queens and transwomen found validation in winning categories for their realness of passing as biological women, Willi Ninja, an androgynous self-described butch queen, performed a fluid gender presentation in a world that celebrates white male heteronormativity and in a subculture that rewarded woman realness. He just wanted to be himself and showcase his talents and techniques.
Similar to hip-hop and break-dancing, voguing emerged from black, poor and working class communities as a form of expression with an emphasis on male bonding and street crews. Paris DuPree created the style at the dance club Footsteps in New York. She was trying to “out dance” another queen when she grabbed the Vogue Magazine that was in her purse and began to imitate the poses the models held in the photographs. In an effort to insult the other queen in the form of shade, Paris DuPree had created a dance form that is still popular today. Voguing is a contorted, jerky, slicing style of dance, combining model like poses and pantomimic choreography. Willi redefined voguing and prided himself on being a clean, sharp dancer to “kill his competition.” He is credited with revolutionizing the dance form by adding swift angular movements and contortionist arm and leg positions. Willi made voguing a legitimate dance form by teaching it all over the world. He met Malcolm McLaren who took a group headed by Willi on a tour of European fashion houses. Willi modeled in runway shows for Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfield. He took voguing to Europe and Japan. He choreographed and appeared in various concerts and music videos and really took voguing to a level of visibility and perfection in performance that no one had reached before. He trained models like Naomi Campbell and Iman. He taught female models femininity by showing them how to acquire grace and poise. Willi opened a modeling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja) in 2004.
After succeeding in his dream of traveling the world, Willi Ninja never lost touch with the drag ball scene. He was instrumental in getting the ballroom scene to discuss HIV/AIDS prevention throughout the 1980s when it was not being talked about in the gay community because of social stigma and anxiety surrounding it, making it a habit to split time between performing and community engagement. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 and continued working to support his elderly mother while not being able to afford healthcare for himself. He continued to mentor upcoming dancers and models until he lost his sight and became paralyzed. Willi Ninja died of AIDS-related heart failure in New York City in 2006 at age of 46 surrounded by the children of his house. He continued to provide an outlet for self-expression in the queer community until the end. The House of Ninja continues to perform at drag balls to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in their mother’s name.
The following are links to videos of Willi Ninja:
- Lola Ogunnaike, “Willi Ninja, 45, Self-Created Star Who Made Vogueing Into an Art, Dies” New York Times, September 6, 2006,
- Tricia Rose, “Nobody Wants a Part-Time Mother: An Interview with Willi Ninja.” in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture, Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 163.
- The Joan Rivers Show clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQFZ9qw1-T8&feature=player_embedded
- Rose, 166.
- James F. Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies and Chocolate Babies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 82-83.
- Tim Lawrence, introduction to Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92, by Chantal Regnault (London: Soul Jazz Books, 2011), 3.
- Lawrence, 4.
- Paris is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston (1990; Burbank, CA : Miramax Home Entertainment, 2005), DVD.
- Lawrence, 5.
- Ertug Altinay and Mickey Weems, “Willi Ninja” Qualia Folk. Web <http://www.qualiafolk.com/2011/12/08/willi-ninja/>
- Joi-Marie McKenzie, “Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps 'Voguing' Legacy Alive” Loop21.com, 2011. Web. <http://loop21.com/content/underground-gay-dance-culture-keeps-voguing-legacy-alive?page=1>