Alex Mugler is a force to be reckoned with. Working as a choreographer and a figurehead in the underground ballroom scene in New York, he's also found success teaching dance moves to the likes of Rihanna and FKA Twigs. It's a scene that forms the basis of Viceland's latest documentary series My House (SKY channel 13), where Alex, along with a group of dancers from the scene, share their stories of how the ballroom community has shaped their lives.
The ballroom scene in New York is a community of performers and dancers from competing 'houses', largely made up of disenfranchised members of the LGBTQ communities. The 'houses' are often named after actual fashion houses i.e. House of Mugler, House of Balenciaga, and compete for trophies in different categories. It's a scene that's spawned several ballroom scenes around the world, even here in New Zealand through our own LGBTQ vogue dance scene FAF Swag.
Documented in the 1991 film Paris is Burning and reaching a mainstream peak with Madonna's hit Vogue, the ballroom scene has influenced fashion and pop culture over the years. This latest look at the next generation of the ballroom scene coincides with Ryan Murphy's TV series Pose, which is inspired by the same scene and features the largest cast of transgender actors in starring roles and the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever for a scripted series.
The timing of My House and Pose has encouraged a re-examination of how relevant the scene is compared to 30 years ago. Speaking to us from New York, Alex talks about what it's like to be part of the ballroom scene today.
Tell us about how you got into the ballroom scene and how you came into this world. When was the specific moment where you felt like this was your purpose in life?
I was a dancer in high school, just trying to go through puberty and go through life. I was living this hum-drum existence, and then I met this person from the ballroom scene who is actually my Godmother, but who we call our gay mothers. She took me to my first ball and I was just like 'what the hell is this!' I was so astonished. It felt like Alice stepping into Wonderland. I was amazed at all this creativity and all these dance and fashion categories you could partake in. I felt like I was at home. I felt like these were my people, and they received me very well. Since then I thought this is it. This is where I need to be. This is where I'm going to express myself and take myself to the next level.
The ballroom scene is such a safe place for disenfranchised and minority groups. What's it like knowing that this very scene that originated in New York has resonated with so many people around the world?
It makes me feel so happy because I know there was a time before I even came into the ballroom scene where I felt 'other'. For people to have a safe space where they can express themselves through different forms of art, overwhelms me with joy. That's why I'm so happy that a show like My House is on television right now to let people know there is a space for you. There's a home for you. There's a house for you.
How did you react when you first saw My House?
I was really embarrassed actually haha! Because I didn't know how the public was going to take it. I didn't know how they would perceive the show. But after getting over that bit of nervousness, I realised this is going to not only inspire a lot of people, but it is also going to help them.
So much mainstream culture often takes direct inspiration from the Queer Black community, but don't often acknowledge the bodies and faces that create it. For example, omitting artists' like Big Freedia from music videos for Beyonce and Drake. What are your thoughts on this?
It 's cool to be inspired by the ballroom scene and the LGBTQ community but include us. That's my biggest thing. If you want to be a part of this culture, then learn about it from the people who are actually part of it. Don't just take and make it some other thing. It is most important to include whatever it is you're trying to take from that's where you get the real information and the knowledge.
There was an instance at one time where I was choreographing for Rihanna and she wanted me to fly to L.A and train her dancers. I was really in love with the fact that she was really open to letting me do things my way. I expressed to her that I thought it was better to have dancers from the ballroom scene and that she needed to have the real thing. I taught her about the ballroom scene and she let me include people who are actually from the scene.
WATCH: Alex Mugler performing:
There seems to be a major shift from the traditional idea of a house based on being a support system to being more of a brand. Is this true? Are houses becoming too slick?
Yes definitely there is an emphasis on branding, but there's also a place for people, you just have to find which house you feel most at home with. You first start as a free agent, A.K.A 007, and from there you interact with people. Once you find your house, then they will start to train you to be part of the house brand. When I first began, I wasn't so polished. But when I joined the house of Mugler, they became my family and helped me grow in terms of speaking, performing and in all aspect of life.
You work closely with the next generation through the Kiki ballroom scene (younger generation of up and comers). Why is mentoring important to you?
Mentoring is super important to me because there was a time I felt like I had nobody that I could really look up to through this journey of being a gay black man, coming from a predominantly heterosexual background. It made life easier. For me, it was just like made my life better having a mentor.
How authentic is the ballroom world being portrayed in shows like Pose? What are your thoughts on this particular show?
I definitely think it's going in the right direction because it's actually inclusive of the people from the ballroom scene. The storylines are authentic. Like the first episode where they stole clothes from the museum and actually walked in the clothes from the museum, eventually arrested by police as soon as the finished walking. There was a real instance when I was at a ball and this actually happened. Someone stealing clothes from a department store, and the police came after she walked the category and they arrested her.
So I think it’s a super accurate portrayal of the ballroom scene, only because there are people from the ballroom scene actually sitting down with the creators and talking about their experience and their real life. Some of the characters are actually from the scene, like Dominique Jackson who plays Elektra Abundance, mother of the house of Abundance. She used to be in Mugler for many years before she changed houses.
You say in the first episode that you have to come 'done.' You have to be in your best threads. What is your relationship with fashion and what do you like to dance in?
I'm just in love with fashion. For me, it's like self-expression on your body. Like armour in a sense and also for me personally being a young black gay man in this world. People treat you different when you look different. If you turn up somewhere looking raggedy, people won't treat you as nicely.
What are you listening to right now?
I listen to a lot of the people I work with like Rhianna, FKA Twigs. I love this new artist called Tierra Whack. I also listen to J Cole, Solange and plenty of Jazz.
What are your go-to grooming products?
Vitamin E. I get it in a bottle from the local pharmacy and put it all over my hair, body and face. That and aloe vera from the market, I put it all over myself as it has so many vitamins and healing agents. I like to stick to a lot of natural products.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Getting back into acting and also choreography is the plan. I need to make a trip to New Zealand! I'm good friends with Parris Goebel. She's one of my cool choreographer friends in the industry. If the people are anything like you and her, then I definitely have to come over.
My House screens Mondays at 7.30pm on VICELAND (SKY channel 13), with the final episode screening on Monday 6 August.