First off sweetie, it’s a dip…not a deathdrop.
That’s what any real vogue dancer would tell you on Legendary, HBO Max’s brand new ballroom reality show, where 8 iconic houses compete for a cash prize and bragging rights as a legendary house. As more of LGBTQIA+ culture enters the mainstream, these 8 houses are here to honor the many artforms that make up the ballroom scene, from the looks to the lingo to the jaw-dropping leg kicks. There’s always a time and place for RuPaul’s Drag Race, but Legendary is here and has something to say. Ballroom culture was created in the 1920’s by Black and Latina transwomen as a way to celebrate the beauty and artistic talent of their community, and the Houses of Escada, Ebony, Ninja, Gucci, West, St. Laurent, Lanvin, and Balmain are living proof that this artform is here to stay and slay forever.
Legendary’s panel of star judges includes iconic house mother Leiomy Maldonado, renowned celeb stylist Law Roach, rising rap superstar Megan Thee Stallion and “The Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil. Every episode each house competes in a ball, performing in various categories that push their fashion sense and dance skills to the limit. The judges decide who slides over to the next round via unanimous vote. If your house doesn’t get 10s across the board, you’re catching a chop. Trophies are awarded every ball to the house with the best overall performance of the night, with the bottom two houses vogue battling it out to see who stays in the race and who goes home.
From the perspective of a new ballroom fan, if you liked POSE you’re gonna love Legendary. It’s ballroom meets a la So You Think You Can Dance. Each house pounds the stage with a unique style that keeps you on the edge of your seat. From the high fashion flair of St. Laurent, to the avant garde magic that is the house of West, it’s easy to fall in love with one or all of the teams. Decorated voguer and choreographer Dashaun Wesley brings so much energy to the mic as the MC. With poise, beauty and a tongue hot enough to fry eggs on, his voice boosts every soul in that packed room. Mother Leiomy brings kind wisdom in each one of her critiques, making sure to give solid gems to every house that they can take with them to make their next performances even better. Megan and Jameela are hilarious as new fans of the ballroom scene, screaming and gagging at nearly every performance during the opening ceremony. And Law Roach brings the shade to the panel, taking credit for the looks he enjoys and reading the ones he doesn’t straight into the floorboard.
One thing this show does right is highlight the stories of black and brown queer and trans people. Xa’Pariis from the House of Ebony tells her story of not being accepted by her biological family due to her sexual orientation, and how finding family in her house helped her find the confidence to love herself, whether performing as male or female. Champ from the St. Laurent talking about navigating life as a black bisexual man, and how performing with his house allowed him to embrace the queerness of his masculinity and stand tall in every room he walks into. And Delicious from the house of Gucci shared her heartwarming story about transitioning. There aren’t enough stories about black trans women being embraced by their family when they come out. Stories like Delicious’s mother buying her the dress that helped her win prom queen are what the community needs, so that young queer and trans people living with the pressure of assimilating to heteronormativity can see that they live a fully realized life being exactly who they are.
There were some moments that seemed a tad out of step with the show. Law Roach seemed a bit too harsh at times, and his comments being either all praise or all shade doesn’t give the houses that missed the mark any constructive criticism to build off of. It mainly fell on the shoulders of mother Leiomy to give each team a well balanced critique, it would’ve been better to have someone else on the panel who could also give some sage advice to the contestants. And speaking of balance on the panel, there really only needed to be one “ally” judge on the panel, if they had to have one. Meg and Jameela were high energy the whole time, but the show didn’t need two surrogate audience members judging a competition for a culture they’ve only recently been fans of.
The house that won the very first trophy of the show was also slightly head scratching, as the House of Ninja (founded by Black queer man Willie Ninja) took grand prize. Now the house itself is legendary, and the girls definitely put on a show, but not a single person on the current team was queer, trans, Black or Latina. This may have been a strategic move to center a team of cisgender women to pull in more mainstream viewers, but at the same time it felt like a missed opportunity to decorate another team whose members have had to deal with way more societal struggles in order to make it to the same stage.
Overall, Legendary is a hit. Queer and trans people of color have been fighting for what has now been a century to keep ballroom culture alive and thriving, and a show like this getting picked up by a big name like HBO Max is one more big step forward. As house mother Miss Shalae says, “Through all the hurt and the pain and the brokenness, this is the beauty that comes from that. We are that beautiful flower that grew from the concrete.”