Willi Ninja: The Grandfather of Vogue

Early Life

Born April 12, 1961 in Long Island, New York, William Roscoe Leake (later known as Willi Ninja) was a self-taught dancer and choreographer. He was raised in Flushing, Queens by his Black mother, Esther Leake. Leake was accepting of Ninja’s sexuality and nurtured his desire to dance. A self-described butch queen, he would later be known as the Godfather of Vogue.


Willi began dancing publicly at the age of seven and by the 1980’s he was vogueing in Greenwich village and drag balls throughout Harlem. Vogueing had been around for many years but Willi Ninja brough the dance style to a level of visibility and perfection, said Sally Sommer, a professor of dance at Florida State University. Willi prided himself on being a clean, sharp dancer and his influences included Kemetic hieroglyphics, young Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire, olympic gymnasts, and Asian culture.

Vogueing was introduced to the public through the award-winning documentary Paris Is Burning. Ninja was featured prominently throughout the film and the film’s success propelled Ninja to teach vogueing throughout Europe and Japan, model, and dance in music videos. He taught models of the likes of Naomi Campbell to strut and socialites such as Paris Hilton.

House of Ninja

In 1982, Willi Ninja started the House of Ninja with Sandy Apollonia Ninja. The House of Ninja was started despite not having been a part of a house previously or winning three grand prizes, which is generally seen as a requirement to start a house. While the House of Ninja was known for their performances at balls, Willi was the mother to a group of adopted gay and transgender children and offered a support network and family. The House of Ninja was known as being multiracial including Black, Latinxs, and white men. The House of Ninja currently has over 220 members worldwide.

Willi’s Legacy

Although Willi was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, he continued to care for his elderly mother and mentor dancers and models until he lost his sight and became paralyzed. On September 2, 2006 Willi passed away from AIDS-related heart failure surrounded by the children of his house. The House of Ninja continues to perform at drag balls to promote HIV and AIDS awareness in Willi’s name.

A Selection of Willi's Performances

By Kamrie Risku

References include OutHistory.org, The Guardian, and The New York Times.