Despite travel bans, COVID-19 can’t stop some things from making it overseas, including ballroom battles and house culture. Widely available stateside on VOD December 8, the illuminating, fierce documentary Deep In Vogue, co-directed by queer Brit Dennis Keighron-Foster and straight ally Amy Watson, introduces North Americans to Manchester’s “Northern Vogue” scene.
Inspired by the legendary Black and Latino houses and vogue balls in 1980s New York City — first popularized by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, Madonna’s 1990 single “Vogue,” and a 1989 Malcolm McLaren song and music video from which the doc borrows its title — U.K. houses like Darren Pritchard’s House of Ghetto and Grace Oni Smith’s The House of Decay share their hunty realness with filmmakers while preparing for Manchester’s ICONS Vogue Ball. Ball emcee and prolific Black, queer filmmaker-writer Rikki Beadle-Blair spills some bonus hot tea.
Keighron-Foster (who’s also a single papa) and Watson sat down with NewNowNext for a Zoom kiki about the documentary, which started shooting in 2017 prior to the arrival of shows like 2018’s Pose, HBO’s 2019 competition series Legendary, and RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K.. They chatted about other U.K. ballroom hotspots and how Northern Vogue queens would fare against the original, legendary NYC houses.
How did this collaboration come to be?
Amy Watson: Well, me and Dennis met at a rave. We fell in platonic friend love and went to a ball about a year later in Manchester. We realized we both almost had enough skills to make a film about it.
Dennis Keighron-Foster: You walk into that room and are so inspired by Rikki, who comes out and goes, “It’s 1977, you’re Black, gay, your mother doesn’t love you anymore, you just moved to NYC, don’t have anywhere to live — so what do you do? You dance!” We needed to make a film about it, and growing up as a queer boy in Leeds with mothers throwing bricks at me just because I was passing their house, I realized through Rikki’s speeches I should have been a lot more proud of myself. So, it was inspiring, and we had to document it.
Watson: The question we asked ourselves while we made it was, What is this dance from the Reagan-era, height of the AIDS epidemic NYC doing in 2000s U.K.? Why here and now? We wanted to explore the parallels and differences between those two times and places. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with Brexit and right-wing populism, [vogue] is needed again by the North of England and everyone. And we wanted to make a love letter to what we saw as a positive force.
Do you consider this documentary an entry point to vogue in itself or a companion piece to other documentaries and shows?
Keighron-Foster: I think it’s a little bit of both. Ryan Murphy’s Pose wasn’t on when we made it, vogueing wasn’t really being used in music videos. It had gone underground again. I know it was still happening in NYC, but we wanted to make a film about Manchester and why it’s happening here. When we met some of the documentary’s subjects, they had been doing it since the 1980s in Liverpool, and building their houses and queer families and developing this art form.
Although we’ve seen cisgender women in houses before, like former Royal House of LaBeija overall mother Kia LaBeija, your documentary features House of Ghetto, which is essentially all cisgender Black women. How do they fit into this very LGBTQ subculture?
Keighron-Foster: I got a lot of questions about why there are cisgender female houses, and the answer is always the same. The reason Darren Pritchard set up the House of Ghetto was because with [the U.K. government’s austerity program, which slashed budgets for housing and welfare], the hardest-hit demographic is Black straight [and cisgender] women, and in its truest form, vogue is about disenfranchisement and empowerment and giving people a space to express and be themselves without being sexually exploited by men. Especially Black female dancers — they were being paid, like, half of their white counterparts. A vogue ball was a place where Darren could give back to that community, and when they come out, they are the audience fave. They’re the sassiest.
Have either of you learned to shablam?
Watson: No, but Dennis has walked in a ball.
Keighron-Foster: No. We’ve got rhythm, but none of us can learn a step to save our lives. We’re living vicariously through the subjects in the film.
There’s some discussion in the doc of London’s ball scene and how it differs from Manchester’s. Which other U.K. cities have ballroom scenes that might surprise us?
Keighron-Foster: I think Glasgow, Scotland, is another big place. We actually wanted to make it about the whole U.K. scene but realized there were so many rich stories [in Manchester alone]. We felt we’d be stretching ourselves thin if we went beyond our doorstep.
Watson: Newcastle, Leeds, is slowly disseminating across the U.K. I think there’s always been a bit of a vogue presence in London, but it’s a different brand up north. The north does choreography, and the south is true to the original NYC version of vogue. We could have shown these two in contrast, but in the end it didn’t work out with the south. What we didn’t want to present was setting these two styles against each other, so in the end we thought, Let’s stick to Manchester and its houses.
How about a bit of culture swap: What element of contemporary British queer culture would you like to see North Americans learn about?
Watson: A film that needs to be made would be about the Muslim queer world in the U.K., because we have a huge Muslim population and lots of gay Muslims, and it’s so cloak and dagger. Especially in the north of England. There’s a lot going on underground, but I don’t know how you’d film it because people’s lives are at stake in that community by coming out.
Once the pandemic is over, would you like to see some New York City houses fly over and do battle with Manchester’s? How do you think they would fare?
Keighron-Foster: Oh my god. That would be amazing, and the U.K. houses would love it as well. I think it would be mutual respect. We’ve got some really good dancers here, but more than anything, having some NYC dancers over, they would be in awe. Like, “This is why I started this.”
Deep In Vogue will have a special virtual premiere this Saturday, December 5 at 7pm EST/4pm PST. A live Q&A moderated by this writer, Lawrence Ferber, will follow.