How Jack Gucci Brought Ballroom to the Mainstream

Mikelle Street
·9 mins read

When Jack Gucci hops on the mic to speak, the sound that comes out is awe-inspiring. The 30-year veteran of the ballroom scene combines the commanding presence of a preacher, the intonation and bravado of Vince McMahon, and the lyrical abilities of an old-school rapper, all punched up with the sass of your favorite local drag queen. He uses his delivery to anoint emerging performers, bestowing superlatives like “the New Queen of Ballroom,” “the Wonder Woman of Vogue,” and more as he works the crowd into a frothy lather. And then, just like that, he'll pivot on a dime, cutting through the bedlam with the steely voice of a Black mother reprimanding her child.

Over that same three decades, Gucci has been at the forefront of pushing the house-led ballroom community, a now global subculture that was started by Black and brown queer and trans folks in '70s Harlem, into the mainstream. His skills on the mic have served Gucci, who was long known as Jack Mizrahi, well: He has guest-featured with Jennifer Lopez, been booked worldwide to host balls, and laid out the blueprint for Billy Porter’s character, Pray Tell, on FX’s Pose. “I always said that I was going to take [ballroom] to Madison Square Garden, and that we’re going to go big on television,” Gucci, who is currently co–executive producer on HBO Max’s Legendary, told GQ. “We’re on TV. Now we’ve got to get that Madison Square Garden check.”

Jack Gucci’s first passion was pro wrestling—growing up in Queens, he got his love for the sport from his mother and grandmother, who would stay up late watching WCW and WWF, respectively—and the sport seeded a love of theatricality that would transfer to ballroom. “I ended up loving the drama of it, the physicality of it, the extraness of it,” he said. “I followed it all of my life.” By the time he had gotten into high school, he was traveling around the country with his best friend to WrestleManias. They had created a newsletter called the Turnbuckle Tribune, and were selling photos they took themselves to wrestling fans at conventions and to the big wrestling magazines.

Originally Gucci envisioned a career in the industry managing his best friend, who at the time wanted to be a pro wrestler. But after that friend had a catastrophic accident while training in Japan, the dream ended. “I always say there was a proverbial fork in the road for me, because I was either going to be the world’s greatest wrestling manager or I was going to be an actor,” he said. “Then I ended up coming into ballroom.”

This was in the early 1990s, when ballroom and voguing were just entering the public consciousness. Following a few splashy features in now-defunct publications like Details and Village Voice, director Jennie Livingston released her seminal documentary Paris is Burning, providing a deep dive into the culture with ready-made stars like Dorian Corey and Pepper LaBeija. The film not only explained to the world the function of ballroom houses, which operated as surrogate families for queer and trans people, but it also introduced words like “reading” and “shade” into popular culture. Then things really crested when Madonna released a little song called “Vogue.”

Gucci's entry-point into the scene came when he found himself distantly crushing on a blond man named Oliver Crumes, who happened to be a dancer in Madonna’s crew. One night at Tracks, a legendary gay club on 19th street, he saw a Black, blond dancer voguing. Gucci went up to him, thinking it could be Crumes. Instead, that dancer turned out to be Andre Mizrahi, a ballroom legend who would change his life forever.

“[Jack] was real innocent, real quiet,” Mizrahi said of that 1992 meeting. “But also wanted to learn the culture and anything that came his way.” In short order, Jack was attending balls, his first coming two weeks later when Mizrahi debuted the House of Mizrahi. Jack quickly went from being the house’s photographer—using the skills he had been developing for the Turnbuckle Tribune—to becoming Andre’s closest collaborator. Within months the pair had launched the New York Awards Ball, and a year after that they launched ballroom’s Hall of Fame, which is the longest standing and most revered institution of the scene to date.

There was a lot of buzz around that first event. While preparing for the Hall of Fame launch (where they intended to name Paris Is Burning stars Paris DuPree and Pepper LaBeija, as well as Stewart Ebony, as the first inductees), Jack was ominously contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We always knew that the FBI knew of ballroom but we never would know how much they knew until this day,” Gucci said. Ahead of the launch, two agents came to speak to the organizers. “I’m like, ‘Holy fuck!’ All these things are running through my head because there’s another side of ballroom.”

The agents pulled both Gucci and Mizrahi into a room and said that they needed to interview both LaBeija and DuPree, who were on all the flyers. Then the FBI took the two stars of Paris Is Burning down to their precinct for questioning in connection to a mummified body allegedly found in Dorian Corey’s attic, before returning them to the ball. (Corey had died recently, and the mysterious unidentified remains found in her apartment would later make headlines.)

“So yeah,” Gucci said, “the Awards Ball became a staple of the community.”

Jack initially made a name for himself in the ballroom category of face, where contestants walk down a runway, running their fingers down the bridges of their noses and sliding their tongues over their teeth. Prizing not only facial symmetry, skin clarity, and bone structure, the category also requires an innate charisma—you have to be able to sell it. Jack did that, and did it well. But once he started getting on the mic for the House of Mizrahi and the House of Chanel, he blossomed into a full character, a compilation of his past inspirations.

“That ‘Mouth of the South’ Jimmy Hart, Bobby ‘the Brain’ Heenan, the Grand Wizard that I could have been in wrestling, I ended up merging that into my Jack Mizrahi persona,” Jack said. “It’s in the fanfare of how I announce people, whether they are in my house or not. That comes from me wanting to be the next Bobby Heenan, you know?” What Jack has done on the mic has left an indelible imprint on the scene, not only in naming various performers (Leiomy Maldonado of Legendary and Pose was dubbed the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” by him) but by the legacy he has left. He channeled commentators and emcees that came before him, combining the limericks and rolling of the tongue from Kenny Chanel, and the tell-it-like-it-is preacher’s voice of Kenny Felder Ebony. Alongside contemporaries MC Debra and Eric Christian Bazaar, Gucci gave the burgeoning style of vogue femme a narrative. “I don’t think there’s many people from the new generation that have had the impact and brought so much to ballroom as people like myself and Jack,” Andre Mizrahi said.

Along with Mizrahi, Kenny DuPree, Stewart Ebony, Tony Revlon and RR Chanel were all instrumental mentors to young Jack Gucci. While he doesn’t necessarily name anyone as his mother or father, they handed out indispensable advice about navigating through life as well as the community. (DuPree , for example, once told Jack to stop flirting at the bar with a man much older than he was, and instead to go back to the dance floor with people his age.) “He really took [things I showed him] and took it upon himself to grow with it to become the man that he is,” Mizrahi said. “I believe he’s a great preacher, he’s powerful, he’s one of a kind, and I believe that anything that comes his way, he’s going to do the best he can with it.”

Today, Jack is a link between the community and the larger entertainment world. Diddy, Anna Wintour, and brands like Coach and Equinox have all called on him to help guide their collaborations with the scene. When Jennifer Lopez wanted to give an ode to the community on her track “Tens,” she had Jack come into the studio with her to lay down the song. And when Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals, and Janet Mock were looking for someone to help Billy Porter truly understand what it means to emcee a ball for FX’s Pose, all of their consultants pointed to Jack.

“Jack is incredibly talented,” Steven Canals, who came up with the original idea for Pose, said. “He’s really smart and really thoughtful and extremely quick on his feet—one of his biggest skills on set is always throwing in an incredibly funny line.”

Those lines helped Gucci go from a one-time cameo to a recurring role on the show. On season three—production for which is on hold because of COVID-19—he will join the writer’s room as a staff writer, the first ballroom star to do so. This pattern—of turning a foot in the door into multiple opportunities—has been a constant throughout his career. “I remember seeing him reading a book about screenwriting on set, and as someone who studied screenwriting, that’s when I realized he had aspirations,” Canals said of the recent Pose promotion. “So that’s when we started a conversation about it.”

A similar thing happened with Legendary, of which he was originally brought on as a consultant. The structure of the show's weekly balls are largely a product of Gucci’s imagination as he led the ideation of themes and wrote the categories for the competition. (The series airs the final episodes of its debut season today on HBO Max.)

“Every time you’re given an assignment or you’re given an opportunity to let them know that you’re not just a one shot deal, you’ve got to do it,” Jack said, affirming that no matter how high his star climbs, he will always bring the scene that helped to birth him along for the ride. “And every time I blow it out of the park.” Now he’s just waiting for a shot at Madison Square Garden.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, circa 1485.
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, circa 1485.

A semi-scientific investigation.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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