As soon as Sade's "Sweetest Taboo" began pulsing into the Playstation Theater in Times Square on Saturday night, we all knew something big was about to happen. Then, the blood-red curtains slipped open and there stood Michell'e Saint Laurent in an all-white, custom Marco Marco gown. Her silhouette — especially her billowy, ruffled organza skirt — was even more striking against the backdrop of men in black suits.
As the song played, she slowly began to sway her arms, tracing her jawbone with her slender fingers. Her skirt moved with her, then seemed to take on a life of its own. It was only then that her "skirt" — actually four organza-covered men — split off completely. This was Saint Laurent's ode to RuPaul's Drag Race's Nina West's crowning (and now viral) performance back in 2008 for Entertainer of the Year.
Saint Laurent slinked down the runway toward the panel of judges, where Rihanna sat dead-center, taking in the show. In one hand, Saint Laurent held her floor-length braid. In the other, she slowly ran her fingers across her cheekbones, jawline, and nose. She blew kisses to the judges. Rihanna flipped her off with both hands and mouthed, "Fuck you, bitch."
"Tens across the board!" commentator Snookie West said into the mic.
This was a ballroom moment. To be more specific, this was the ballroom category of Face.
It was really just one of many moments that night, as the ballroom house of Miyake-Mugler celebrated its 30th anniversary with the Return of Porcelain ball.
While the ballroom community has slowly seeped into the mainstream over the past three decades — Madonna's "Vogue"; Paris is Burning; My House; and season four of America's Best Dance Crew — it's really only been for the categories of Vogue Performance and Realness, not Face.
For those unfamiliar, the Face category awards contestants with the "perfect face," focusing on five key elements: eyes, nose, skin, teeth, and structure. "Historically, the Face category is all about symmetry, perfect teeth, and being flawless," says actress Trace Lysette, who is known to this community as Trace Gucci, founding mother of the ballroom House of Gorgeous Gucci.
Contestants work for weeks, even months, leaning into their skin-care regimens and abstaining from certain foods to ensure the integrity of the skin. For competitors — trans women, in particular — winning can be ultimately affirming. For decades, this category was one of the only places in culture that these women were recognized as the epitome of beauty.
But back to the Mugler ball. It seemed everyone came out this weekend — models including Duckie Thot, Anok Yai, and Winnie Harlow; Pose’s Dominique Jackson; rapper Lil’ Mama; Vanessa Vanjie Mateo from RuPaul's Drag Race; even Rihanna, who arrived just before 1 a.m., causing the crowd to rush the stage, phones held high trying to snap that one Instagram-worthy photo.
Rihanna was there on official business: Miyake-Mugler had teamed up with Fenty Beauty to make history in a category they had long been known for: Face. The winner of the night's open-to-all Face category would walk away with $10,000.
And so on this night, with so much cash at stake, it was more about how you presented that made the difference. The category description read, "Ostentatiously extravagant beauty verging the point of vulgarity," hence Rihanna's reaction to Saint Laurent's performance. The star even curled her lip in mock disgust towards Saint Laurent at one point. A mesmerizing beauty; something out of a dream.
"Some people get comfortable being pretty, when it comes to Face," says Saint Laurent, the overall mother of the ballroom House of Yves Saint Laurent, who spent two months preparing for this competition. “But for ballroom, it needs to be next-level. You have to step it up. Ballroom is extra, so your presentation should always be extra."
But a few slots before Saint Laurent, Dee Dee Xclusive Lanvin took to take the stage.
Lanvin is considered the reigning champion of Face, having been awarded $7,500 in 2009. Tonight, she was rolled out in a human-sized birdcage. A group of escorts, all in black suits, slowly spun the cage as Minnie Ripperton's "Lovin' You" played in the background. When she emerged, she walked the runway and stopped right in front of the judges. There, with her hair slicked back off her face, she pulled off her golden raven mask, to present one of the most recognized faces in the category.
"Face is the epitome of ballroom," says Lola Gucci, the overall mother of the ballroom House of Gorgeous Gucci. Lola made her entrance by lip-syncing to a remix of Deee-Lite's "What Is Love," as an entourage flanked her with mirrors. "People make you feel like a celebrity."
Shannon Balenciaga worked on her entrance for four months, cycling through several costumes before deciding on a custom look from her brand, House of Whor, that was inspired by Viktor & Rolf's Haute Couture Spring 2019 collection. Shannon’s wig for the night was created by Terrence Davidson, who has worked with Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, and Trina.
When Erykah Necole Lanvin made her entrance, wearing a floor-length, gold gown, Rihanna herself began to yell "Yes, yes, yes!" Once she was at the top of the runway, Erykah rested her chin in her hand, and blew a kiss.
"Yes, jawline!" Rihanna yelled. "Yes!"
In the end, it was two names that reigned supreme: Dee Dee and her house daughter Erykah. The pair split the $10,000, as is ballroom custom, when members of the same house are the final competitors for a category.
"For the last 10 years, I've been undefeated," Dee Dee, a 20-year veteran of the category, says, calling the night both anxiety-filled and bittersweet. “So tonight will actually be my last time walking this category. I'm signing off — this is it for me." This means that Dee Dee will end her Face career at the highest point possible, having won the two largest prizes ever awarded in the category. But for her house daughter, Erykah, things are just getting started.
"When I was a teenager, I used to watch these women on YouTube — my current house mother Dee Dee, and Stasha [Garcon], Onjenae, Nadia, Tracey Africa, Octavia Saint Laurent, and all the women who really paved the way for me," Erykah says. "Being trans, our community is beat down so much, especially when it comes to minority women, so it was so good to see them uplifted in this way."
Erykah has been the reigning winner of Face in Atlanta's ballroom scene for four out of the five years she's been walking the category. For this competition, she drank more water (up to a gallon a day); added chemical peels to her regimen (with her esthetician, Shamar Renee of Diamond Facez), and eliminated all grease in her diet to avoid clogged pores.
"This was my first time winning a thousand-dollar category — it just happened to be 10," Erykah says. "So I'm definitely going to keep going. This is just the beginning."
Read more stories about beauty in the LGBTQ community:
- 14 LGBTQ- Owned Beauty Brands to Support
- 21 People at NYC Pride Share the Stories Behind Their Beauty Brands
- What Makeup Means to the Young LGBTQ+ Models of Make Up For Ever’s New Campaign
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Originally Appeared on Allure