'You Just Serve As Much As You Can': Mj Rodriguez On Ball Culture And 'Pose'

Jun 17, 2018

High fashion, makeup, vogueing competitions. In the 1980s, New York City's drag balls were cultural events for the LGBTQ community, most of them black and Latino. But balls have largely been hidden from mainstream America.

Now, a new show on FX is putting them front and center. It's called Pose, and according to FX, it has largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles.

"It's great that finally our stories are getting to be told from the lenses of our eyes," says transgender singer and actress Mj Rodriguez.

Rodriguez plays Blanca, an HIV-positive ball competitor who decides to leave her drag "house" to create a new one from scratch. She tells NPR that she and Blanca actually have a lot in common.


Interview Highlights

On how Blanca's experience compares to her own

So Blanca, she's like this rambunctious, very, very nurturing, compassionate, a little bit hardheaded, but ambitious spirit. And she's trying to leave a legacy with the news that she's received as far as her diagnosis as far as HIV, and she's trying to leave something behind so her [house] "children" can carry on her legacy. ...

Me and her have a lot in common. There are some small differences, obviously, but these are also very, very true stories. And I've been ostracized from a specific part of my community, and I decided that I was not going to let that be the thing that brought me down. I was going to move forward and uplift. ...

There were moments where I was called many derogatory names. I've gotten into a couple of fights. People have jumped me. You know, I've had a lot of things that have happened to me, but I look past those things now and now I'm moving forward and I always believe that the experiences that you go through are what make you stronger and what help you push forward through life.

On landing the role of Angel, a street musician living with AIDS, in the 2011 off-Broadway revival of Rent

Rent was one of the main defining moments, and it was like the precipice of my transition. I had always known I was female, since I was 7 years old. But at that time there were no words that I could express, at the age of 7. But when I got to a certain age, which was 14, I knew. And then I carried that on through my career. So when I played that character, I was just like: Finally, I can have people see me for the woman I am and not have any doubts or thoughts or anything, just can simply be and simply live and pour my soul out onstage.

On how drag balls work

It's a refuge — it's a place of refuge for anyone of the LGBT community of color. And we go there just to find solace, to find family and just to find comfort.

And there are also ... many categories, which are like walking face, walking realness, vogueing, vogueing femme and also runway. Runway is one of the things that I walk, and that's when you literally walk down the runway in the ballroom culture and you just serve as much as you can. ... Bring it, honey, you have to bring it.

On how it feels to be part of a large transgender cast

I think is beautiful. One, I'm glad because most of these women I've met or have worked with before, so that's the best part about it, we have already a connection. But most importantly, these [episodes] are telling different stories ... of each of these trans women's lives, and that we are living authentically just like anyone else who's walking this earth, and that we just literally need to come together and stop the BS, honestly.

Denise Guerra and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Welcome to the world of ball culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The category is Bring It Like Royalty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: High fashion, makeup, voguing competitions. In the 1980s, balls were cultural events in New York City for the LGBTQ community, most of them black and Latino. But balls have largely been hidden from mainstream America. Now a new show on FX is taking it front and center. It's called "Pose." The program features the largest cast of transgender actors in series-regular roles, which includes my next guest, singer and actress Mj Rodriguez. She joins us from member station WBGO in New Jersey. Mj, welcome to the program.

MJ RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much, Lulu. I'm happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This must be so exciting for you, having this show out and sort of taking this into mainstream America.

RODRIGUEZ: It is extremely exciting. I'm like - right now I'm even smiling from ear to ear. It's great that, finally, our stories are getting to be told, you know, from the lenses of our eyes on a broad spectrum.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you introduce us to how balls work? It's more than just a fashion competition, obviously.

RODRIGUEZ: One, it's a refuge. It's a place of refuge for anyone of the LGBT community of color. And we go there just to find solace, to find family and just to find comfort. And there are also just other categories - many categories which are, like, walking face, walking wellness, voguing, voguing fem, and also one way. One way is one of the things that I walk, and that's when you literally walk down the runway in the ballroom culture, and you just serve as much as you can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mean, by serve, just, like, bring it.

RODRIGUEZ: Bring it, honey. You have to bring it.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I think, for many Americans, the only brush that they might have had with this was with Madonna and voguing, right? The famous song that she did. Why do you think it's important to go back now and revisit this?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it's very important because, I mean, there is a specific group of people that have cultivated this. If you notice, there's one man that's in her video. And he - his name is Willi Ninja and he was one of the main founding fathers of the ballroom scene. And I think it's time that our stories get to be told and also the trans stories that need to be told because we were also the liberators of that movement, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to talk about your character in "Pose," Blanca.

RODRIGUEZ: Sure thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Tell me about her.

RODRIGUEZ: So Blanca - she's, like, this rambunctious, very, very nurturing, compassionate - a little bit hardheaded, but ambitious spirit. And she's trying to leave a legacy with the news that she's received as far as her diagnosis - as far as HIV - and she's trying to leave something behind so her children can carry on her legacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you and Blanca have in common?

RODRIGUEZ: Me and her have a lot in common. There are some small differences, obviously, but these are also very, very true stories. And I've been ostracized from specific part of my community. And I decided that I was not going to let that be the thing that brought me down. I was going to move forward and uplift.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say that you were ostracized, what happened?

RODRIGUEZ: There were moments where I was called many derogatory names. I've gotten into a couple of fights. People have jumped me. You know, I've had a lot of things that have happened to me, but I look past those things now. And now I'm moving forward. And I always believe that the experiences that you go through are what make you stronger and what help you push forward through life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You played Angel in the off-Broadway revival of "Rent" and...

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Yes, you did. And that character, of course, was memorable as a street musician living with AIDS.

RODRIGUEZ: So "Rent" was one of the main defining moments, and it was, like, the precipice of my transition. I had always known I was female, since I was 7 years old, but at that time there were no words that I could express at the age of 7. But when I got to a certain age, which was 14, I knew. And then I carried that on through my career. When I played that character, I was just like, finally, I can have people see me for the woman I am and not have any doubts or thoughts or anything, just simply be and simply live and pour my soul out onstage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's it like to be in a cast of transgender actors?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it's beautiful. One, I'm glad because most of these women I've met or have worked with before, so that's the best part about it. We have, already, a connection. But most importantly, these are telling different stories and different spectrums of each of these trans women's lives - and that we are living authentically, just like anyone else who's walking this Earth, and that we just, literally, need to come together and stop the B.S., honestly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Mj Rodriguez, star of the new show "Pose" on FX. Thank you so much for being here.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.