“When you see it for the first time, when you go to a ball and step into the room, it’s such a gag,” says Dashaun Wesley, ballroom legend and emcee of HBO Max’s new competition show, Legendary. “It’s like a light switch turns on, and you want to either compete or come back and watch.”
The first reality show of its kind, Legendary showcases eight of the most celebrated houses from the underground ballroom scene as they battle for a chance to win $100,000, the largest grand prize ever offered in recorded ballroom history. Contestants put on high-energy performances while judges Megan Thee Stallion, Law Roach, Leiomy Maldonado, and Jameela Jamil offer feedback and decide who gets chopped.
Heading up the panel of judges, Jamil, known for her role as Tahani on NBC’s The Good Place as well as her activism surrounding body positivity, is no stranger to controversy. When the initial press release for Legendary incorrectly announced Jamil would both judge and emcee, Twitter users immediately questioned her validity as an authority in ball culture, which emerged from the Black and Latinx LGBT communities in New York City.
Jamil was quick to clarify that she is only sitting on the panel of judges, not hosting, and wants to use her platform to shed light on a community that she has admired for years. “This is not my moment, this is their moment,” she tells L’Officiel USA over the phone. “I’m just here to celebrate from the sidelines.”
Wesley agrees, telling us that the highlight of hosting the show was being able to see the contestants showcase their talents on a national stage. “It was so beautiful to have the opportunity to see my friends be put on a platform,” he says.
Ahead of the release of Legendary, which is now streaming on HBO Max, L'Officiel USA spoke with both Jamil and Wesley on ball culture, taking criticism, and why representation matters.
L'Officiel: Legendary is the first reality show of its kind, completely centered around ballroom. Why do you think the time for it is now, or do you think we’re overdue for a show like this?
Dashaun Wesley: I’m honestly going to say that I feel like it’s long overdue. People thought Madonna invented voguing, but it was going on way before that.
I think it’s the perfect moment for us to have this show, and to give everyone an opportunity to keep an eye on what’s going on in ballroom. When you hear voguing, you know what to expect from it. You know you’re gonna see some dance moves, but now is the time to educate people on the originality of where ballroom came from, and how people get ready and prepare for opportunities like this. Of course, it could have been earlier, but why not now?
LO: How do you feel about it being released in the present moment?
Jameela Jamil: We’ve read a lot of really distressing things in the news lately that have happened within the Black community and within the trans community, and we have seen so much sadness and violence toward the communities that make up a large portion of ballroom. What I want for people to know is that that is not the story of ballroom, that is the story they have to live with because of the ignorance of others. This show is what ballroom is, these people are who make up ballroom, and their passion, and their love, and their drive, and their art, and their beauty is what ballroom is. This is the story that isn’t told enough by mainstream media, so it is very cool to have the beautiful side of ballroom showcased by such impressive people.
LO: Jameela, what drew you to wanting to become involved with Legendary and what has your relationship with ballroom been up until you started filming the show?
JJ: I fell in love with ballroom after I saw the documentary Paris Is Burning but I’ve also been going to balls for years. I’ve always admired ballroom culture from afar because it’s where so much of what we see in our most mainstream fashion, art, music, media, dance, etcetera is from.
I wanted to be involved with Legendary because I heard it was an authentic ode to ballroom, and I knew that everyone behind the scenes—all the makeup artists, tailors, and hairdressers—were from ballroom. I knew Dashaun [Wesley] was at the helm of it and has been involved for years, so has Leiomy Maldonado, MikeQ, and Jack [Mizrahi], so it felt like a very honest attempt to celebrate this beautiful community that I’ve loved for a really long time.
They came to me at the very end, and they just needed a couple of people who had big platforms who would be able to make sure the show got over that final hurdle and make it on air. I hadn’t planned on doing television this year, but when they told me that, if I could be of any kind of service, I jumped at the opportunity to witness this art upfront and it was a thrill and an honor, unlike anything I’ve ever done.
LO: You have always been very outspoken and unapologetic about who you are, and with that often comes pushback. As you were on the show, is there anything you learned from the contestants and your fellow judges about how to handle that criticism when it comes up?
JJ: People don’t take criticism personally in ballroom, and I think that is incredibly cool and inspiring to watch. They take notes where they feel like the notes are constructive, and when they feel like shade is coming from a place of hate, they just do not engage.
Mostly what I learned was how loving this community was, and when I was going through a certain amount of backlash for being involved with the show, it was the ballroom community that wrapped around me and welcomed me. I was very much willing to leave if it would help the show, but it was people like Dashaun and Leiomy and MikeQ and the contestants who told me to stay. The love of the ballroom community is something you don’t see in any other community, and I feel pretty safe in saying that. No one understands the resilience and family of these people, so it’s very cool to be a part of showing that on stage. It’s not just about shade and the art and colors and sequins. It’s so much about the love, the passion, and the resilience.
LO: What are your thoughts on that controversy now?
JJ: I got so centered so unnecessarily at the beginning of the show. The biggest tragedy of what happened is the fact that this brilliant, amazing new show came out and because of an incorrect press release, I got centered. That was not my intention at all.
The people who should have been centered were Dashaun, who is the star of the show, and Leiomy, and also Megan Thee Stallion, who is so much more famous than me! I am the last person who anyone should have taken any interest in, so the fact that it all became about me was really disappointing. I think the thing that I most want to avoid going forward is that happening again, because I’m only here to make sure the show gets on air. I’m not here to make this my moment.
LO: Dashaun, you are known as the King of Vogue. How did you receive that title?
DW: I could say I received the title because of the work that I have been doing as far as the dance style of voguing and my contributions to making sure it gets seen. I’ve kind of been named by the people who watch the culture, and who are a part of it. I remember someone mentioning it and saying, ‘Oh, you’re the King of Vogue,’ and I called Leiomy up and was like, ‘Girl, they’re calling me the King of Vogue!’ and she was like, ‘What’s wrong with you, girl, receive it.’ So, I just think that it was my contributions to what was going on, like teaching classes all over the world, going on tour with Rihanna for a year, and doing mini projects where I was helping educate everyone on what was going on within the culture.
I’m very competitive as well. I will put it out there that I once was the highest winner of vogue competitors, who won the highest cash prize until some guy came and swept that out from under the rug, but it was kind of known for a while.
LO: How does it feel to now be a part of such a significant moment in ballroom’s history? I saw that you were on a billboard on Christopher Street in The Village, that must have been such a crazy moment.
DW: Yes, it was such a crazy moment! When I came out at 14 that was the same block I used to walk up and down, meeting new people and learning new things, so that billboard, at that specific place, directly across the street from Stonewall...for me it’s much bigger than having a billboard in Times Square, because it’s in a central place where people who look and act just like me went.
That was one of those points that everyone [in the New York ballroom community] would go to. Everyone will see this, so it was just a monumental moment for all of us. Seeing my friends post it up [on social media] just means so much more to me, because it also means something to them.
LO: What do you both hope people feel as they watch the show? What do you want them to take away from it?
DW: I want people to feel the emotions. I want people to see the emotions, I want them to understand the emotions, and to know how much we’ve been through in order to get here. A lot of people are turned away from their homes, a lot of young adults are homeless...and you have these families that are open to letting you in, and giving you information, and providing you with a figure in your life to help you be better, and helping you know that you can be better. What I want everyone to take from this show is to know where we’ve been, what we went through, and how we got through it to be here.
JJ: I so agree with that, and I think, truly, representation matters. Not just for young people to see themselves, but also it’s important for other people to see cultures that they don’t understand and who are underrepresented in mainstream media. I think a lot of bigotry comes from ignorance and fear of the unknown. I’ve said this before, but Will and Grace had a really important impact on how some people viewed gay people. It’s so strange that an NBC sitcom would have that impact, but I think shows like Pose and documentaries like Paris Is Burning, and shows like Legendary are really important tools of education for other people to realize that there is nothing to fear here. There is something to marvel at and to celebrate, and to feel joy and be grateful to witness, and to know that a lot of the things that you love in mainstream media, this is where it came from. We’re just bringing you back to source. That’s what Legendary is, bringing you back to source.