Try asking people here in Morningside where to find a drag ball, and they’ll likely scratch their heads in response—or worse, tell you to tune in to RuPaul’s Drag Race. It seems that New York’s traditional drag queen culture is a thing of the past, a fabulous, fleeting slice of the ‘80s and ‘90s that disappeared with the turn of the millennium, leaving only a small trail of glitter in its wake. But follow that trail, and you’ll find that drag still thrives underground. This time, it’s accompanied by a new youth movement called the Kiki Scene. Kiki queens—or princesses, rather— are between the ages of 12 and 24, but their drag balls are no less opulent than their older sisters’. Dig those rhinestone-covered bodysuits out of your closets, people: Paris is definitely still burning.
And the fire is fewer than forty blocks uptown, at the former location of the Rockland Palace on 155th Street. During the Harlem Renaissance, the Palace hosted some of the city’s first drag balls: competitions where individuals, dressed in extravagant costumes and makeup, “vogue,” or dance down a catwalk to the cheers and screams of a crowd. The venue was destroyed in the ‘60s and made into a parking lot, but in July, the Kiki Scene adapted the empty space for one of its signature balls. Nine Kiki houses, or teams, participated, bringing in professionals to ensure that every eyelash was curled and every outfit pristine. A video from The Reincarnation of Rockland Palace, as the event was called, shows a lively conglomerate of color and infectious techno music: one second, a dancer in a black and green feather corset struts to the beat, the next, another writhes on the ground in a metallic gold bikini top and skirt.
But behind all the sequins, the fishnet tights, and, yes, the three-foot tall peacock feathers, the Kiki Scene ultimately serves as a pro-social force for its young members. Involved organizations provide services like free HIV testing and support groups to the predominantly African American and Latino LGBTQ youth, who are often rejected by their own communities.
“A lot of these kids have really, really, really hard and difficult struggling situations,” says drag performer Twiggy Pucci Garcon, in an interview with Huffington Post. “Some of them have been kicked out by their families. Some of them, their families have disowned them. Some of them live on the street. Some of them sell their bodies to get their next meal or get a MetroCard.”
Garcon and Swedish visual artist Sara Jordeno are currently collaborating on Gesture, a trans-media documentary that follows the development of the Kiki Scene and its pro-social vision. Together, they organized The Reincarnation of Rockland Palace, as well as a similar event, The Movement Ball, held at the MoMA PS1 in October. The project is receiving plenty of support—a book will be released after the film— but Jordeno admits to being reluctant at first.
“I am of course a complete outsider to the scene. How could I ever make it justice?” she says. “But it turned out that Twiggy and I... agreed that the difficulty with representing the Kiki Scene can be a productive challenge. There are so many important stories that need to be told, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try.”
And Garcon is right in the glitter-covered heart of those stories: in addition to being a performer, he is the founder and leader of The Opulent HAUS of PUCCI. The HAUS is the ultimate embodiment of the Kiki spirit, at once glamorous and altruistic: “Pucci” is both a callout to the colorful fashion house, and an acronym for Peers United for Community Causes Initiative. The house system originated in what Jordeno calls the older, “mainstream” scene, but it has taken on new meaning for the young members of the Kiki community: For many of them, their house is the only family they have left.
“The Kiki houses become a support system, a new kind of family that promotes a healthy lifestyle while providing a creative outlet,” says Jordeno. A house mother or father fulfills a role not unlike that of an actual parent, providing their “children” with emotional support, financial help—anything short of reading Goodnight Moon and tucking them in at night. These parents are not always performers themselves: Aisha Diori, a founder of the Kiki Scene, was studying fashion when she became mother to the House of Latex.
“The scene shatters the norms of family in many ways because it proves that blood is not thicker than water,” Diori said in an interview with Ebony. “It taught me that family support can come in different ways, from different people and through different mechanisms.” Jordeno echoes Diori’s sentiment, noting the high stakes surrounding the community’s members, many of whom are considered “at-risk youth.”
“With the risk of sounding a little dramatic,” says Jordeno, “I would say that the Kiki scene members are saving each other’s lives, mentally and sometimes physically.”
And they do so with seven-inch heels and a smile—or rather, a model’s pout.