House of Xtravaganza
Founded in 1982, the House of Xtravaganza is the most publicly recognized “house” to emerge from the New York City underground ballroom scene and among the longest continually active. House of Xtravaganza members and the collective group are recognized for their cultural influence in the areas of dance, music, visual arts, nightlife, fashion, and community activism. House of Xtravaganza members continue to be featured in popular media and travel the world as ambassadors of voguing and the ballroom scene.
Composed primarily of African American and Latino LGBTQ men and women, members of the ballroom community traditionally form “houses” which serve the dual purpose of providing a surrogate family structure, and competing for trophies and prestige in community organized balls. Houses are traditionally formed in a family-like structure, with a house “mother” and/or “father” who oversee and direct the group. In keeping with ballroom community tradition, members take the house name as their surname (e.g. “Jose Xtravaganza”). House members compete or “walk" in balls in various categories including representations of dance, fashion, costume design, runway modeling, and gender impersonation. The dance style known as “voguing”, which went on to be popularized by Madonna’s 1990 song “Vogue”, is perhaps the mostly widely recognized stylistic form to emerge from the underground ball scene.
House founding and early years
The House of Extravaganza (original spelling) was founded in 1982 by Hector Valle, a gay man of Puerto Rican descent, recognized for his elegant and athletic style of voguing. While Hector Valle was familiar with the ballroom scene, he himself did not belong to a ball house. In the summer of 1982 he made a bold decision for the time to create an all-Latino ballroom house, in response to what was a nearly exclusive African American gay subculture. Hector undertook the task of building up the House membership among friends he socialized with in the West Village of NYC and at popular nightclubs of the era, such as the Paradise Garage. One of the first to join Hector in the new venture was a transgender teen of Puerto Rican descent who came to be known as Angie Xtravaganza and would assume the role of “house mother”. Mother Angie would quickly emerge as the dominant leader and driver of the House.
In early 1983 The House of Xtravaganza made their first ballroom appearances. Although young and not widely experienced in ballroom competition, the desire to succeed captured the group numerous grand prize trophies in their first outings. Over the next few years the House of Xtravaganza would continue to recruit talented young members, often drawn from the downtown gay discos and nightclubs of NYC, and build up their recognition as a force to be reckoned with in the ballroom community. The outsider status as a Latino house within a primarily African American scene fostered a fierce family bond among the Xtravaganzas, and that closeness emerged a recognizable distinction from many of the other houses. During this formative period, house mother Angie Xtravaganza felt that they had made their stand as an exclusively Latino group and, not wanting to exclude based solely on ethnicity, made the decision to open the house to all potential members regardless of ethnic background. The House of Xtravaganza would ultimately include African American, Asian, and Caucasian members, although it would remain true to its roots as a primarily Latino ball house.
In 1985 founder and house father Hector Valle died of complications from AIDS. Later that year Angie Xtravaganza recruited a young up and coming star of the ballroom scene named David Padilla to leave the rival House of Ebony and become father of the House of Xtravaganza. David Padilla had admired what the House of Xtravaganza had accomplished in a relatively short period of time and being of Puerto Rican heritage felt a kinship to the primarily Latino house. To celebrate the House’s fifth anniversary, Father David and Mother Angie organized the 1987 Xtravaganza ball, held at the popular New York City nightclub Latin Quarter. It was one of the first balls to be held in a proper nightclub, as opposed to the social halls of Harlem which were the traditional venue for ballroom events. The House would continue to promote balls for the community throughout the years, including many at the most popular and famous NYC nightclubs of their era including Tracks, Sound Factory, Red Zone, Roxy, and XL.
Several members of the House of Extravaganza of this period went on to become pioneers and icons within the ballroom community, as well as ambassadors of ballroom culture to the larger world including: Angie Xtravaganza, David Ian Xtravaganza, Danni Xtravaganza, Venus Xtravaganza, Carmen Xtravaganza, Bianca Xtravaganza, Hector Xtravaganza, and Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza. The House was also known for its stable of “impossible beauties”; transgender women (known as “fem queens” in ballroom lingo) who reigned in the ballrooms and worked as professional models and entertainers.
By 1988 the ballroom scene was frequently being cited in the press for its emerging cultural significance. With the support of strong relationships built in the popular nightclubs of the period, and beyond of the mostly closed ballroom community, the House of Xtravaganza was uniquely situated to take advantage of public interest in the ballroom scene. In 1988 Chi Chi Valenti, chronicler of downtown culture, featured the House of Xtravaganza in her landmark essay “Nations” for Details magazine, with group and individual portraits by noted photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. That same year members of the House of Xtravaganza were featured in the December 1988 issue of American Vogue magazine alongside Naomi Campbell and other supermodels, as well as the May 1989 issue of Time magazine, and the September 1989 issue of Vanity Fair. Xtravaganza’s were also featured in numerous other local and national publications as public interest in voguing and the ballroom scene continued to grow.
In 1989 the House of Xtravaganza participated in the Love Ball; an elaborate celebrity fundraiser organized by the Design Industry Foundation for AIDS which used the basic structure of the original balls as a template for the evening’s festivities. Love Ball participants included designers Carolina Herrera and Thierry Mugler; supermodel Iman, artists Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, and Julian Schnabel; and performance artist Leigh Bowery, among others. David Ian Xtravaganza was the Love Ball Master of Ceremonies, several Xtravaganza members along with fashion retailer Barneys formed the one-night-only "House of Barneys" winning a trophy by artist Donald Baechler for the "God Bless This House" category, Coko & Shady Louie Xtravaganza won the "Banjy Team" category trophy by artist Joseph Kosuth, Father David X. and Julie Jules X. won the "Wedding of the Year" category trophy designed by artist Kenny Scharf, and Jose Xtravaganza took the Voguing competition grand prize trophy created by Keith Haring - likely the most valuable ball trophy ever created. Of the event Chi Chi Valenti later observed, "The Love Ball was simultaneously a massive coming-out party for the uptown ball culture, and the end of a certain naivete that had been inherent in that culture. The Harlem balls would never be quite the same again."
In the fall of 1989 the House of Extravaganza would revise their name to “Xtravaganza”. At this time the House and its members were quickly gaining notoriety outside of the ballroom scene and were frequently cited in the press. The name change provided a rebranding of sorts for the House; the “X” motif also doubling as the Roman numeral for “10” - a perfect score in ballroom competition. Impresario Malcolm McLaren would record one of the first vogue-specific records, “Deep In Vogue”; the introduction for the track calling out the House of Xtravaganza as one of the legendary New York voguing houses. That same year David Ian Xtravaganza, along with DJ’s and House members Johnny Dynell and David DePino, recorded the seminal single “Elements of Vogue”; it’s nimble rhyming lyrics recorded over a dance track sampled from popular voguing beats provided a step-by-step introduction to the art and attitude of voguing. David Ian and Johnny Dynell, accompanied by other House members including Jose Guiterez and Luis Camacho, toured Japan in support of the record release – introducing voguing to an international audience. That year David Ian Xtravaganza would assume the position of “house father”; a position he would hold through 1993.
In 1990 the ballroom scene and voguing went mainstream. Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary film “Paris Is Burning” chronicled the underground scene and made celebrities some of the long-time stars of the ballroom scene, who to that point had remained mostly unknown to the larger public. Members of the House of Xtravaganza were the most frequently credited in the documentary. Among those featured in the movie are Venus Xtravaganza whose life and murder form a principal story arc for the film, and Angie Xtravaganza who is extensively interviewed in the film. Filmed between 1986 and 1989, the film also features a very young Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza voguing in competition, foreshadowing his transition to professional dancer the same year as the film’s release. “Paris Is Burning” was widely critically acclaimed and went on to become the highest grossing documentary at the time of its release.
Madonna’s 1990 hit single “Vogue" was based on the dance style developed in the ball scene. For the video and subsequent Blonde Ambition world tour, Madonna recruited two amazingly accomplished voguers from the House of Xtravaganza; Jose Gutierez and Luis Camacho. Madonna’s “Vogue” would go to #1 in 30 countries and was the best selling single of 1990. The accompanying video, directed by David Fincher, featured choreography by Jose and Luis for which they were nominated for the 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography in a Video. In addition to touring with Madonna, they also appeared with her in the 1990 MTV Video Awards live broadcast of “Vogue”, a “Rock The Vote” public service announcement, and the behind the scenes tour documentary “Madonna: Truth or Dare” (a.k.a. “In Bed with Madonna” outside of North America). Jose Gutierez Xtavaganza would also appear in Madonna’s video for “Justify My Love ”, model for Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as choreograph and dance with other pop music artists. In 1993 under the name “Jose & Luis”, the duo would record “Queen’s English” with Junior Vasquez for Madonna’s Maverick label. The track featured background vocals by Madonna; the only record on which she is credited for as a background vocalist. Two additional tracks by Jose & Luis, "Do It To the Rhythm" and "You Want To Touch Me", would appear as part of Sire Records 1993 sampler "New Faces". Other Xtravaganza records from this period include “Just Like A Queen” by Ellis-D (an alias for Junior Vasquez) which included vocals by Coko Xtravaganza (1989) and “Love the Life You Live” by Danni Xtravaganza with Freddy Bastone (1990). David Ian Xtravaganza teamed with legendary NYC nightclub DJ’s and music producers Larry Levan (of the Paradise Garage) and Mark Kamins (of Danceteria) to record the 1991 single “Love’s Gonna Get You”, under the name East Village People featuring David Ian.
The deepening AIDS crisis of the early 1990s had significant impact on the House of Xtravaganza and the ballroom scene as a whole. Mother Angie Xtravaganza died of complications of AIDS in March 1993, after ten years of leading the House to ballroom and public recognition. Her death was the subject of the April 18, 1993 New York Times feature “Paris Has Burned”, which included an oversized photograph of Angie on the front page of the Sunday Style section. With the death of Mother Angie and several other long-time House members, the Xtravaganzas turned away from the public eye and returned to their roots in the underground ballroom scene. Danni Xtravaganza assumed the role of house mother following Angie’s passing; a position he would hold until his own passing due to AIDS related complications in 1996. David Ian Xtravaganza would die that same year, also of complications from AIDS, having already passed the role of house father to Hector “Face” Xtravaganza in 1993. During his tenure as house father Hector would prove to be highly influential within the ballroom community, producing numerous events as well as providing council and leadership for a younger generation of ballroom participants from many different houses. In 1994 DJ / music producer and House supporter Junior Vasquez released a house music single simply titled "X" which bore a dedication to Angie Xtravaganza on the label; the record remains a popular club anthem today.
Recent and current
Despite the deep losses the House of Xtravaganza has remained active within the ballroom scene and cultural life of New York City, with a steady flow of young and talented LGBTQ youth eager to be a part of the legendary ballroom family. (Membership in the House of Xtravaganza is based on a wide variety of criteria and is much coveted in the NYC ballroom and Latino LGBTQ community.) The loss of Mother Angie to AIDS at the young age of 28, along with the death of many other House members, prompted the Xtravaganzas to take a more visible role in the area of HIV/AIDS activism. From 1994 this activism would lead to their support and involvement in many HIV/AIDS benefits and organizations, often as featured performers or spokespersons, and remains a central activity for the House today.
Iconic voguer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza (one of the youngest members of the original mid-1980s group) became house father in 2002, with past father Hector “Face” taking the honorary title of “house grandfather”. Early House member and ballroom icon, Carmen Xtravaganza, served as mother of the house for various periods between 1998 and 2010; with other members holding the position in the interim. In 2009 longtime House member Coko Xtravaganza, an African American transgender woman, assumed the honorary role of "house grandmother".
Several House members were featured in the 2006 ballroom documentary “How Do I Look” directed by Wolfgang Busch. Seven members of the House of Xtravaganza have been inducted into the Ballroom Hall of Fame: Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza (voguer), Hector Xtravaganza (BQ face / ballroom culture), Carmen Xtravaganza (FQ realness, face), Derrick Xtravaganza (voguer), Luis Camacho Xtravaganza (voguer), Aldwana Morrison Xtravaganza (voguer), and Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza (FQ runway, trans-activist). In 2006 the House of Xtravaganza as a whole was inducted into the Ballroom Hall of Fame, citing their contributions to ballroom culture. HIV / AIDS organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) named their “House of Latex Xcellence Award” in honor of Hector Xtravaganza. House members participate annually at the Life Ball AIDS benefit in Vienna — one of the biggest and most spectacular annual charity events in the world.
Author Arnaldo Cruz-Malave based his 2007 book “Queer Latino Testimonio – Keith Haring and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails” on a series of interviews with Juan Rivera Xtravaganza (1956 - 2011) about his life as a gay man coming of age in New York City and his long-term relationship with famed artist Keith Haring. In May 2013 the book was developed by the Pregones Theater, NYC as an original musical production entitled "Neon Baby". The musical adaptation centered heavily around the duality of Juan Rivera's relationships with his biological family and his adopted Xtravaganza family.
On May 12, 2012, Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza was found dead following a suspicious fire in her Brooklyn apartment. Twenty-five-year-old Lorena was one of the rising stars of the House of Xtravaganza known for her elaborate nightclub shows, having performed extensively throughout New York, Puerto Rico and Spain. The reporting of Lorena’s death by the New York Times on May 13, 2012 outraged many in the LGBTQ community for sensationalizing her status as a trans woman. GLAAD and other LGBT organizations filed formal complaints against the New York Times for what they considered the disrespectful and bias tone of their news coverage. Following an investigation by the NYC Police and Fire Departments, her death was considered a homicide and the fire as arson. At this time her murder remains unsolved.
In celebration of their 30th anniversary the House of Xtravaganza hosted an elaborately produced ball in New York City on July 22, 2012. The event was held at XL, a recently opened high-tech luxury nightspot in the Times Square area. The ball was successful in attracting a wide range of competitors and spectators beyond the immediate ballroom community drawing from the arts, fashion, and cultural elite of New York. The event was widely covered by the media. In his article published on the front page of the New York Times Style section Jacob Bernstein wrote of the event, “Back in the 1980s, voguing and drag balls flourished in gay New York… But first came AIDS and then came hedge funds. And so the scene receded to the shadows, returning to smaller venues in Harlem and the South Bronx. But then last month, e-mail began to circulating with the news that the Xtravas were bringing the party to XL, a slicker-than-vinyl gay club near Times Square, in an attempt to widen the audience again. And judging by the turnout last Sunday at the House of Xtravaganza’s 30th anniversary celebration, the effort has worked.”.
In the fall of 2012 Jose Xtravaganza partnered with filmmaker Jason Last, known for his cutting-edge fashion work, to create the short film “VOGUE(ing). As Jason Last explained, “(Jose) came on board with one very specific request – that we create something special together and present Vogue(ing) in a new way, steering clear of the obvious first degree references that would otherwise be deemed as simply syndicating what already was.” Toward this end, The Black Soft recorded “The Ballad of Venus” (inspired by the life of Venus Xtravaganza) to which Jose Xtravaganza choreographed a fresh and contemporary work using the physical vocabulary and attitude of voguing.
Twenty-four years after House of Xtravaganza members first took voguing to Japan, they returned for a multi-page feature published in the January 2013 issue of Japan Vogue. Photographed by Terry Richardson with cover model Joan Smalls, the editorial titled “How to Vogue for Vogue” featured eight House members including former Madonna dancers/choreographers Father Jose Gutierez X and Luis Camacho X, as well as Ballroom Hall of Famer Derrick X. and several younger House members.
In September 2013 Swedish electro-pop duo ICONA POP released the music video “All Night” featuring Father Jose X., Derrick X., Gisele X., Jeremy X., Grandfather Hector X., and G Bizarre X., along with other ballroom personalities. The music video presented a mock ballroom battle. ICONA POP members Carloine Hjelt and Aino Jawo were inducted to the House of Xtravaganza as special members during the video filming.
An "interactive murder mystery" play titled "The Murder of Venus Xtravaganza 1988" was presented by a New York City theater group in the fall of 2013. The show was loosely based on the actual murder of Venus, which had formed a principal story arc in the 1990 ballroom documentary "Paris Is Burning". The play offered a highly fictionalize account of the events and persons surrounding her death with audience members invited to "help solve the case". The House of Xtravaganza issued a formal press release stating they had no involvement with the production and withheld endorsement of the show. According to the press release the House of Xtravaganza considered the use of Venus' name as "inappropriate, opportunistic and disrespectful to Venus' legacy".
In January 2014 luxury fashion retailer Barneys released a catalog and supporting campaign featuring 17 transgender men and women, including Gisele Xtravaganza photographed along with other House of Xtravaganza members. A professional print and runway model, Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza is a long-time member of the House who had previously held the position of House Mother and is a legendary figure in the ball scene. The campaign was shot by iconic photographer Bruce Weber. Entitled “Brother, Sisters, Sons & Daughters”, the campaign included portfolios with photos of the models and their stories, along with a series of videos to coincide with the campaign. The campaign supported the National Center for Transgender Equality and the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center.
In celebration of its fifth anniversary, Candy magazine assembled fourteen influential trans women to represent the ongoing social revolution in the attitudes toward transgender people. The cover feature and 62-page portfolio titled “The Role Models: The Glamorous Women of the Trans Revolution” with photographs by Mariano Vivanco, included two members of the House of Xtravaganza: Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza and Carmen Xtravaganza. Other influential figures included in the group were actress Laverne Cox, model Carmen Carrera, and writer Janet Mock.
The album “Who’s That Lady?” by Koko Jones was released in October 2014 on the Motéma Music label. An accomplished percussionist and band leader, trans activist, and long-time member of the House of Xtravaganza, Jones drew upon her life experiences in the creation of the album. The lead track on the album is “Xtravaganzas”; her personal musical tribute to the history of the House, with lyrics such as “… Mother Angie in the pages of Vogue, they taught Madonna how to strike a pose”.
Former Madonna dancers and choreographers Jose Gutierez & Luis Camacho Xtravaganza are featured in the 2015 documentary Strike a Pose directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan. The film follows the lives of Madonna’s Blond Ambition dancers twenty-five years later; the dancers sharing their own stories about life during and after the famed 1990 tour. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016 to positive reviews. It is scheduled for screening at several international film festivals in the coming months, before being released for broader distribution.
For the 2016 original Netflix series The Get Down, the House of Xtravaganza partnered with visionary director Baz Luhrmann in the creation of a scene set a late 1970s New York City LGBTQ nightclub. The scene appears as part of Episode 6  and features a runway vogue battle choreographed by Father Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza with House of Xtravaganza voguers and a drag performance by Mother Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza.
Father Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza continues to perform and conduct voguing master classes throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe. Mother Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza works as a professional runway and print model, as well as being an activist for the trans community. Luis Camacho Xtravaganza continues to choreograph having worked with Tony Bennett, Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, Aretha Franklin and others in addition to a successful run of cabaret shows. Other notable members of the House who have successfully transitioned their talents from the ballroom to professional careers include nightclub performer Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza (1986 – 2012), performance artist Jeremy Xtravaganza, noted fashion illustrator and artist Alvaro Xtravaganza, fashion designer Malcolm Harris Xtravaganza, NYC nightlife promoter Yamil Xtravaganza, European nightclub headliner Dominique Silver Xtravaganza, costume and set designer G Xtravaganza, Aldwana Morrison Xtravaganza ballet and jazz dancer and choreographer, singer Heather Leigh West Xtravaganza, and jazz percussionist Koko Jones Xtravaganza.
More than thirty years after its founding, House of Xtravaganza members continue to be featured in popular media and travel the world as ambassadors of voguing and the ballroom scene.
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