"I want to be somebody. I mean, I am somebody. I just want to be a rich somebody."
So said Octavia St Laurent 25 years ago, summing up the attitude of many of her fellow stars of the Harlem ball scene. None became rich, but they did provide the inspiration for Madonna's 1990 hit “Vogue” and find immortality in legendary documentary Paris is Burning (1990). While their straight counterparts had at least The Cosby Show or the budding rap stars of the era to identify with, kids like Octavia had to look beyond the here-and-now of black inner-city life to create their own subculture.
Drag balls had been held for decades in Harlem, dating as far back as the 20s. Originally, the ideal was for drag queens to recreate the glamour of Hollywood stars – classic female impersonation. But by the 80s, the balls had moved on to encompass “realness” of every kind – with the performers mimicking not just film stars but everyone from male executives and schoolgirls to the thugs from the street corners.
Voguing is the ballroom's quintessential artform – the battle of fashion stills. The dance's hieroglyphic poses require physical abilities beyond parading up and down. A skilled voguer is "throwing shade" with his moves, as is aptly described in the film: "Instead of fighting, they take it out on the dancefloor." In fact, the documentary came about after director Jennie Livingston saw a group of kids voguing in Washington Square Park, and became one of the first of many filmmakers and photographers to make the pilgrimage uptown for this gay break dance. When Madonna caught hold of voguing, she catapulted the style out of the ballrooms and into every suburban disco. White glamour was imitating gay Harlem imitating white glamour.
“A lot of transgendered and pre-op transgendered are a little shocked about my attitude in regards to not wanting to be a woman, and taking that role of womanhood. Iʼm no damn woman, donʼt wanna be no woman. I stand up and piss in the bathroom, I donʼt sit down, you know what Iʼm saying?” – Octavia St Laurent
One of the main characters of Paris is Burning, we followed Octavia Saint Laurent looking forlorn at a model casting but scoring 10 ́s across the ballroom board for "Femme Realness" and back to a backdrop of rusty kitchen pots, dreaming of being somebody. "Men are dogs. Sooner or later all men start barking" was another Octavia-ism. When I got to know Octavia, she had just starred in Wolfgang Busch's documentary How Do I Look? (2006, dubbed the sequel to Paris is Burning), and was now using the name Heavenly Angel Octavia St Laurent Manolo Blahnik.
She seemed to me like an open book. All the stars of Paris is Burning were like that on camera, but Octavia remained that way in real life. Though she would often say that "life hasn't been fair", as we spoke more I saw a person not hardened by life but instead excited about the future. Octavia gave educational talks about HIV and being transgender, and while never apologising for her experiences in sex work, she remained convinced that the bad times were behind her. "I refuse to prostitute myself," she proclaimed the first time I spoke to her.
In 2008, Octavia was diagnosed with cancer, and after the chemotherapy made all her hair fall out, she simply told me that now her look was "even fiercer". Despite her continuing battle with the disease, Octavia remained positive that she'd get the singing career she'd always dreamed of. I proposed that we collaborate on a track, and when I heard her belt out a note, I was stunned. Though never trained, and remembered mostly for her looks, Octavia could sing – and I mean really sing. We started work on our collaboration, the track "Be Somebody", which not only features Octavia singing her heart out, but also her classic one-liner from Paris is Burning: "I wanna be somebody. I mean, I am somebody. I just wanna be a rich somebody."
In March 2009, I called Octavia at her mother's in Syracuse, upstate New York. By now the cancer had spread to her lungs, and Octavia promptly informed me she wouldn't pose for any pictures until after the summer, by which time she ́d be back to looking her best. I decided to interview her. I didn't know it then, but this would be the last time I spoke to her.
Hi Octavia! How are you?
Octavia St Laurent: Iʼm blessed because youʼre still interested in Octavia St Laurent! Iʼm blessed because the children are still talking about me, Iʼm very fortunate. I wanna sing. Singing is everything to me, and itʼs a part of who I am. My uncle was Louis Armstrong, I donʼt even know if you know who Louis Armstrong was. He was married to my grandmother. My mom used to sing with Sweetheart and the Crystals. And I am ready to be out there and just do Octavia St Laurent, bring her alive, like sheʼs never been alive before.
I canʼt do anything right now because of the cancer. Iʼm just resting in Syracuse, which is a quiet place from the start. My stomach is really big from the steroids, it feels like Iʼve got something strapped to my stomach. I feel large. My arms and legs are still slim, but my butt is real big. I gotta get back to normal. I donʼt wanna be seen by the public until then.
What are the doctors saying and what time frame are they giving you?
Octavia St Laurent: Theyʼre not giving me any time frames. I've had time frames my whole life, OK? You know how many times these doctors been telling me Iʼm gonna die? Child please, Iʼm not going nowhere. I don't pay attention to human beings, itʼs God I think about.
How would you introduce yourself to people that donʼt know who the legendary Octavia Saint Laurent is?
Octavia St Laurent: I don't know if you know this, but I am very open about my genderism. I'm always willing to educate everybody who feels different, and help them understand that you gotta love yourself, honey. Iʼm a very powerful man, and Iʼve always used the beauty of a woman and put them together. Itʼs got me quite successful through the years. And itʼs also kept me alive. Basically I love who and what I am, and I wouldnʼt be anything else.
Have people tried pushing you into being anything else?
Octavia St Laurent: Well, I wouldnʼt say they tried to push me, but a lot of transgendered and pre-op transgendered are a little shocked about my attitude in regards to not wanting to be a woman, and taking that role of womanhood. Iʼm no damn woman, donʼt wanna be no woman. I stand up and piss in the bathroom, I donʼt sit down, you know what Iʼm saying? Iʼm not trying to be a woman. Just beautiful.
If you were going to try and be a woman, how would you change your behaviour?
Octavia St Laurent: I wouldn't. In spite of my natural femininity, itʼs my natural masculinity that gets me by and people donʼt pay me any mind. Because my ways are so 'child please', people see me as feminine naturally. Most queens overdo trying to be a woman. My whole neighbourhood knows that Iʼm a guy. And they know Iʼm a guy from me telling them. One day I was walking down the street and a car drove by, and they said, 'Excuse me miss, we don't wanna be disrespectful but we heard that youʼre really a man. Is this true?' And I said: 'Absolutely.' He looked at me and I realised at that moment that when you stand up for yourself like that people respect you. When you are true to yourself, people look at you in a different way. Most of the people I encounter forget all about it. They find out the answer and it goes completely through their head. Now if I was trying to deny it, then there would be a constant thing of them trying to mess with me to get the truth out. But once I hit it in the bud, itʼs like, OK, move on.
“When you are true to yourself, people look at you in a different way. Most of the people I encounter forget all about it. They find out the answer and it goes completely through their head” – Octavia St Laurent
You donʼt get shit from people when you stand up for yourself?
Octavia St Laurent: No. No, no, no. No. I guess thereʼs something about my aura, my attitude. I donʼt know, I donʼt get it. I donʼt get nothing from nobody. I mean, sometimes I forget what I am. That I am supposed to be different from everyone else. I forget it. And itʼs not necessary to talk about it unless youʼre trying to date someone. In that case Iʼm gonna tell them Iʼm a boy automatically as soon as we meet. Thatʼs just the way I am. Iʼm not a Jerry Springer candidate at all. When I was in Connecticut, I used to go and talk at colleges, and I used to explain to them. I remember this black guy, he was 20-something, and I was telling him about the culture of eunuchs and their historical background since the birth of Christ. In fact, I believe that Christ was a eunuch. In the description of him in the Bible, there is no other explanation. I think thatʼs one of the reasons he was executed.
Do you see the eunuchs of biblical times as related to modern trans people?
Octavia St Laurent: The modern transsexuals are nothing like the girls I grew up with. I was watching a talk show about 12 and 13-year-old pre-op transsexuals. I donʼt like to call them transsexuals. These are people who are intersex, who are born with these natural qualities. People need to understand that sometimes you don't have a choice.
Do you feel that you didn't have a choice?
Octavia St Laurent: I didn't have a choice. I was born intersex, but I had wonderful parents that supported me. My sexuality was not an issue with my parents. They were accustomed to that since I was a child. People thought I looked like a little girl, and my mother said:, 'This is a boy!'
When you say you were born intersex, do you mean you were born with both male and female genitalia?
Octavia St Laurent: No. I was not a hermaphrodite. Each human being is born with a certain amount of hormones. Every man has 30 or 40 percent of female hormones, the rest is male hormone. If you donʼt have enough testosterone, of course the female hormones are gonna take over, which is my case.
Was life hard for you growing up?
Octavia St Laurent: I came from a different time, so everything was hard. Today living as a girl is not a big deal. But then, honey, cops would arrest you just because you was a boy. I've been to jail a couple of times just because someone said, 'Thatʼs a man.' Theyʼd treat me like this damsel in distress, and then all of a sudden theyʼd come right back and say, 'Put your hands behind your back, youʼre under arrest.' It was a different time when I was growing up. Today, itʼs not a big deal.
Do people know more about transgenderism today?
Octavia St Laurent: They still donʼt know enough. This is one of the reasons why itʼs important. Because they donʼt know the difference between transsexuals or drag queens. They just call us all men. They just don't understand.
There are celebrity transwomen today, like Amanda Lepore. What did you think about her making it big?
Octavia St Laurent: Well, who I am to question or to judge? If sheʼs worthy, sheʼs worthy. God has a plan for us all. I was a little shocked at her success, but hey - if you can sell, you sell it.
For most people, you are best known for your part in Paris is Burning.
Octavia St Laurent: Well, Paris is Burning was, believe it or not, a really bad time in my life. I was a drug addict, I was young. It was part of a history that Iʼm grateful I survived. Paris is Burning has become the national anthem of the gay community of my generation. Itʼs just creeping up to this new generation now. I have children calling me saying they just saw Paris is Burning. I just wasn't in the state of mind then that I am today. I am grateful that I lived long enough to see the great changes, and learn so much about myself and life around me. Paris is Burning is doing its thing in its world, but thatʼs not me any more. I don't look at it the way other people look at it. I look at it as a turning point in my life. The documentary is a constant reminder to me of how far Iʼve come in my life. And that Iʼm here today to still live and say I was a part of that. I took life for granted for a very long time. Iʼm just thankful I got a second chance. A lot of them didn't. A lot of the girls didn't live to appreciate it.
Youʼre one of few people from the documentary that is still around today.
Octavia St Laurent: Yes, basically I am one of the last. There are a few that are alive, but they weren't in in the mainstream of the movie. Hundreds of people that went to the balls are basically all gone. Willi Ninja passed away a couple of years ago. Me and Willi grew up together. I was shocked that he died. He really allowed himself to go. Weʼre in a time now where you don't die from that any more. Whatever he was doing was not kosher, honey. He was doing a lot of things he shouldnʼt have been doing. It took him out finally. He was a wonderful individual and a sweetheart, and Iʼm sorry heʼs gone. Iʼve known Willi Ninja his whole life. Iʼve known all those kids. I just got off the phone with Paris ten minutes ago - Paris Dupree, the one the movie is based on. Heʼs gonna be 79 years old!
What was your favourite thing to do at the ball?
Octavia St Laurent: Face. When you won face, I canʼt even explain it to you... the girls in those days were absolutely stunning. I mean beyond. Stunning. I have an old paper of all the girls that passed away from my day, and weʼre talking about queens that looked like Iman or Beyoncé. Girls like that. They donʼt exist anymore. When I used to walk balls it was a preparation of 24 hours. It was a part of my life that was so beautiful. Itʼs too political today.
Has the scene changed a lot since then?
Octavia St Laurent: The concept of what a ball was... it was a victory to us. Something serious. Accomplishing something important in your life, and like my mom said, the balls contributed to gay rights.
Can you explain what the old way is to someone who doesn't know?
Octavia St Laurent: The old way is classics – Diana Ross (starts singing 'Love Hangover'). If thereʼs a cure for this I donʼt want it! You know, all that stuff. I used to walk balls to 'Swept Away' by Diana Ross. You remember 'Swept Away'? I used to come out to that song all the time. Everybody has some sort of character with their music.
Youʼve been immortalised for your part in Paris is Burning. Has this been a good thing for you?
Octavia St Laurent: Absolutely! Aaabsolutely. My only thing is Iʼm not ready to die yet, until I'm gonna do bigger and better. OK? Paris is Burning was just the first step. Honey, Iʼve done a lot of things. Iʼve worked with a lot of celebrities, done a couple of movies, but to me thatʼs nothing. I want to accomplish something that no other girl like me has ever accomplished, you get what Iʼm saying? And I am going to do it through music. Because I can sing. I always knew I could do better. And theyʼre gonna be like, what? Soon when I get back to normal, Iʼm gonna do what I need to do. Start all over again, and this time better than ever.
What would be your advice to the legendary children of the future?
Octavia St Laurent: Live life. Live life and do not take anything for granted. Because what you have today can instantly be gone tomorrow. And don't settle for nothing but.. (background noise, then Octavia laughs) Mommie, would you stay out of my interview please?
What did your mother say?
Octavia St Laurent: She said: '...and donʼt settle for nothing but the best.'
Octavia St Laurent passed away in May 2009. The single "Be Somebody" by House of Wallenberg featuring Octavia St Laurent was released in 2013. In the video, directed by Petter Wallenberg, the vogue houses of New York came out in full troupe to celebrate Octavia's memory. More info over at House of Wallenberg