Paris Dupree: The Legendary Mother

Paris Dupree was born in 1950. That's it. Paris Dupree was the Mother of the House of Dupree, she coined the term vogue and we don’t even have an actual birthday to celebrate this woman who gave so much to Queer culture. Paris Dupree hosted yearly balls that were so well known and integral to the Harlem community that one in particular, Paris is Buring Ball (1986), would become the focus for Jennie Livingston’s iconic and controversial Paris is Burning documentary. Iconic because this film would become the blueprint for what the world outside of ballroom culture understands and controversial for being used as the source material to appropriate Queer ballroom culture for years to come. Even now in 2020, 30 years later, we are just seeing another mainstream depiction of ball culture that includes the people who live that life with every fiber of their being in HBOMax’s Legendary.

House of Dupree was established by Paris and Burger Dupree in 1975. Houses emerged at the time as a reprieve and sanctuary for members of the queer community that often had nowhere else to turn but to each other. Balls have a rich and transformative history intertwined with that of house. What started as an annual event to bring together the community would evolve with the help of Paris Dupree into what we know them as today. A more performative competition with an array of categories that span the spectrum of masculinity, showcasing the rich variety of queer culture arose alongside what would forever be known as vogue, all thanks to Paris Dupree.

‘Paris Dupree was there and a bunch of these black queens were throwing shade at each other. Paris had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat.’ The provocation was returned in kind. ‘Another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose,’ adds DePino. ‘This was all shade—they were trying to make a prettier pose than each other—and it soon caught on at the balls. At first, they called it posing and then because it started from Vogue magazine, they called it voguing.”

‘You have three strikes against you; you’re black, gay and a drag queen.’

Voguing would break into the mainstream and in the 80’s you couldn’t find a pop video that didn’t take from the style although there was very little change in the perception of the queer community. This lack of acknowledgement would continue with Jenni Livingstons Paris is Burning documentary with many of those involved attacking the documentary for the suggestive portrayal of drag as being performative and not conveying how intertwined and essential it is for their identity. Not to mention all that Livingston would gain from her work that was made possible due to the privileges she had as an educated white woman over the queens that she featured 5 of which would pass away within 2 years of the documentary's release. Those who survived those initial 2 years had few opportunities. They had to fight against the three strikes that they already had against them as black, gay, drag queens. Paris Dupree would be the last of the queens to pass in 2011 and even with the additional time afforded to her we have little to no record of the amazing woman that she was, the incredible life that she lived, or the impact she had on the lives of so many.

By Ashli Jamison

References: New York Times and "Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92"