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Vogue Ball Toronto Canada FUNCTION by Kirk Lisaj
Photography Kirk Lisaj

Inside the Toronto Vogue Ball where walkers were Dazed & Confused

The inaugural FUNCTION event saw glammed-up hopefuls battle it out for cash prizes while channelling iconic Dazed covers past and present

What it means to throw a ball, smack in the middle of a Sunday in Toronto, at a nightclub whose clientele leans white, techno-minded and – here, I’m making an assumption based on experience, photographic evidence, and the city-wide deficiency of queer nightlife – deeply heterosexual, is that you’ve temporarily remade the block in your own image.

Illuminated by the late afternoon light, along the sidewalk outside CODA stand a bunch of elaborately-dressed young people, splitting joints, cigarettes, and the odd kiss, and for one night – or at least a few hours – the space is transformed into a spectacle of colour. Drivers, having forgotten that it’s impolite to stare, roll slowly past, winding down their windows to bark at the bouncers: “What’s going on? Is there a party?” 

The memo for the afternoon was that it was FUNCTION’s inaugural Cover Ball. “An annual affair that highlights our favourite print publications shaping the world of art, fashion, and culture,” explained Nikolaos Théberge-Dritsas, aka Aura, and Tamar Miyake-Mugler, who founded the event in collaboration with self-proclaimed ‘failed socialite’ Jazmine Miyake-Mugler.

The magazine they’d decided to honour first of all was this one: walkers were commanded to show up in looks that recalled or channelled a show-stopping Dazed cover, with prizes for the best to the tune of $250 to $500 cash. As I emerged from the station across the street, my eyes landed on a girl whose hair had been pulled back asymmetrically, so half her hair was in a bun, and half was spiked up like three points of a star. Clearly she had scored a copy of the August 2007 issue, and Luke Morrall’s cover story. 

Ballroom in Canada is still in a relative infancy, having first emerged in Toronto in the early 2000s. It’s younger than the scenes in Chicago or New York City, but slightly older than those in London and Paris, and is therefore afflicted with the middle child’s dilemma of disappearing between attention-seeking siblings. “For a while, it felt like Canadian ballroom wasn’t taken seriously,” says Jazmine. But with the premieres of more houses and performers, collaborations with the American and European scenes, higher cash prizes, higher visibility, and higher-stakes balls, “that’s definitely, finally changing,” adds Aura. 

“People settled into the fact that Toronto is a small, insular place,” he continues. “But since FUNCTION has been throwing bigger balls, we’ve seen an uptick in activity. Especially with us throwing the World AIDS Day Ball in December, people have that to look forward to every year to make those moments happen and plan their débuts. We’re giving the girls an outlet!”

Inside, the club was bathed in blue light, and bathroom mirrors were crowded with cherubic faces becoming their own fantasies, putting the finishing touches on their effects. “Girl, now this is a $250 face, honey,” someone announced to their reflection as I passed.

Away from the bathrooms and out on the dancefloor, DJ Karim Olen Ash pumped house beats from behind the decks at the top of LSS, and Flossy 007 improvised a chant on the mic: “I’m the cover girl on the magazine! I’m the cover girl on the magazine!” “Oh, bitch,” said MC Icon Precious Old Navy, herself a lyrical assassin, “I love that. I’m taking that. I’m the cover girl on the magazine.” An army of performers stormed the runway in pink balaclavas, or pink breastplates, or pink velvet trackies—to officially début the Canadian chapter of the House of Juicy Couture. They took home three trophies. 

The following procession of looks was a vibrant montage of Dazed’s recent history. A wreath of violet flowers, framing a luminous face, recalled Björk’s lush, floral accoutrements from a 2017 autumn story. Mother Diséiye Juicy Couture, channelling Grimes circa 2012, was brined in a sheer, floor-length gown that sparkled in the light. A hunky, bearded man holding a single orange flower discarded the burlap fabric that he’d draped across his chiselled body [see: Maisie Williams in Gareth Pugh, from 2015] to reveal nothing but a thong and some tattoos. I counted five takes on Rihanna’s iconic 2021 story, one of them almost totally nude, the sex siren performer’s lithe body dipped in gold paint that left the floor slick with streaks of glitter. 

“Sex siren has been a journey of self-discovery,” said Christine Do, aka Jinx 007, who won her set and is working on a photo project called the Siren Series, about femininity, sensual expression, and transformation. “When I honed into the essence of my sensuality and stopped catering to the male gaze, I discovered my own sexual freedom and identity.” On the floor, Jinx was hypnotic enough to make me question my own sexuality: a vision in white who calculatedly dispatched a black-suited, umbrella-bearing man to introduce her, himself so beautiful the judges thought he was walking, since the bottom half of his suit was missing.

As if to clarify just how special the night was, at one point I looked around and noticed several people were crying. It was during the realness category, when a 71-year-old black woman walked out in a pink blazer and some blue jeans, her hair shock-white, all the light in the room trapped behind her smile. “Hold on,” said Precious, commanding the music to stop, “That’s the Sandra Caldwell! We know who you are!

The actress was in town to star in The Guide to Being Fabulous, a stage play about her life which charts her early life, her involvement in the Stonewall Riots, her time in the ballroom scene, and performing at the Moulin Rouge, plus prison time served in Montréal and New York. Precious handed her the mic, and Caldwell, who publicly shared her trans identity in 2017, brought the house down: “As a black trans woman,” she said, “I am going to live the rest of this life as openly and freely and truly as I possibly can.” 

“That made me really emotional,” Jazmine, who is 22, told me afterwards. “We don’t have any documentation of trans women living that long, especially black trans women – and not only living long, but thriving. Like, it’s hard to imagine me living to that age, because I can’t even contextualise my own life after 40. It’s a gamble after that. Seeing Sandra up there… It meant more than I can express.”