Being announced as a judge on a ground-breaking new TV talent show should have been a cause for celebration for one star of The Good Place. However, as the backlash over her association with the series increased, the actress found herself in an awkward position. And in the end, she felt compelled to make an admission about her sexuality.
HBO Max is the highly anticipated streaming service from WarnerMedia Entertainment. Since it was announced in October 2018, TV fans have been drip-fed information about what such a service will look like, with details of the shows it will feature when it launches in May 2020. This has included the frenzy-inducing announcement that HBO Max will host a one-off Friends reunion.
But the Friends reunion isn’t the only HBO Max TV show that has sent the internet into a spin. In September 2019 the service announced the first two original, unscripted programs it was working on. One, with the working title of The Greatest Space, would be a design competition, while the other – named Legendary would be a series about voguing.
For those not in the know, voguing is a style of dancing that emerged from the ballroom scene in New York during the 1960s. It was during this decade that so-called “ballrooms” popped up in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and they began life as drag shows before evolving into parodies of high fashion runway shows.
The ballroom scene resonated with New York’s Latino and black LGBT communities and offered young trans women with little cash to spare the opportunity to become catwalk queens for the evening. Voguing was the name given to the moves participants would throw on the runway, as they mimicked the poses they saw in high fashion magazines, such as Vogue.
There has always been a competition element to voguing, with participants divided up into “houses” (named after popular fashion brands) and battling it out on the runway. But the significance of houses went way beyond ballroom culture because – aside from hosting shows – they also provided safe spaces for young people who identified as LGBT.
To this day, LGBT homelessness remains a problem, but houses have put roofs over the heads of many struggling individuals over the decades. Furthermore, during the A.I.D.S. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) crisis, houses provided a place of sanctuary for those who felt stigmatized against because of their queerness. With this in mind, voguing became a sign of resistance for the LGBT community as well as an art form.
Given the social significance of voguing, seeing the dance style go mainstream has been cause for celebration for the LGBT community and beyond. Perhaps most memorably, the dance form was used by Madonna in the video for her 1990 song Vogue, and was also the focus of the acclaimed documentary Paris Is Burning that same year.
More recently, voguing became the subject of the FX TV drama Pose which premiered in 2018. And then, in September 2019 came the announcement that HBO Max would host its own voguing reality show in the form of Legendary. However, the show faced some unexpected backlash thanks to one particular casting choice.
When news of Legendary was first announced, it was revealed that the series would be produced by Scout Productions, the same team behind the Netflix smash-hit Queer Eye. The show would comprise of ten episodes, in which ten voguing houses would battle it out on the catwalk for a cash prize and “Legendary” status.
Overseeing the Legendaryvoguing competition would be a panel of five judges, alongside an M.C.. It was soon revealed that Dashaun Wesley had been given the latter role. Indeed, he was largely considered the perfect choice thanks to his 17-year involvement in the ballroom scene, having begun M.C.-ing in 2003.
Among the regulars on the Legendary judging panel would be Leiomy Maldonado, Law Roach and Megan Thee Stallion. Maldonado is a trans ballroom dancer, who has been nicknamed the “Wonder Woman of Vogue.” Roach, meanwhile, is a celebrity stylist, and Megan Thee Stallion is a rapper.
For each episode of Legendary, the three aforementioned celebrities will be joined by a guest judge. And the show had also bagged an actress from the NBC comedy The Good Place to head up the panel. However, not everyone was impressed with the star’s appointment.
In fact, the announcement of the new Legendary series would be largely overshadowed by the controversy over the producers’ choice of head judge. Many people were confused about the star’s credentials. Seemingly, she had no link to the world of voguing or to the LGBTQ community.
One of the more high-profile people to condemn the appointment of the Legendary judge was Trace Lysette. The actress was one of the first trans people to star in a non-trans speaking role on a primetime TV show. This moment came when she appeared in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2013.
Between 2014 and 2019 Lysette also starred in the web television series Transparent which aired on Amazon Video. However, offscreen she has been heavily involved in ballroom culture as the founding mother of the Gorgeous Gucci house. As a result, she appeared dumbfounded by the Legendary head judge casting decision.
Taking to Twitter in February 2020 Lysette said of Legendary, “I interviewed for this gig. As the mother of a house for nearly a decade, it’s kind of [mind] blowing when ppl with no connection to our culture gets the gig.” Lysette added that her tweet was “not shade” towards the judge in question, writing, “I love all that she stands for. If anything, I question the decision-makers.”
However, while Lysette had tried to avoid calling out the Legendary judge, she responded to her fellow actress’ tweet. Seemingly attempting to diffuse the controversy, The Good Place star corrected reports that had suggested she would also M.C. the show.
Her response to Lysette read, “Hey trace. I think you auditioned to be one of the house mothers. I’m just one of the judges. Not a house mother. We weren’t up for the same thing. @deadline are wrong. I’m NOT the MC. The brilliant @DashaunWesley is. I think you’re f***ing amazing, in every way.”
However, it seemed that Lysette wasn’t buying any of the actress’ kind words. In a cutting reply she wrote, “I don’t have [to] audition to be a house mother… I am one. I remember the convo well. It was a convo in regards to be a host/producer. At least that’s what my manager at the time worked out. I never heard back. I send you love too. But I will always speak my truth.”
As the controversy surrounding The Good Place actress and her new role on Legendary escalated, the star’s sexuality was brought into the debate. Some commentators felt upset that a non-queer person had been appointed to a role on a show whose subject matter – voguing – had such a huge significance in LGBTQ culture.
In the end, it seems that The Good Place actress was left with little choice but to open up about her sexuality. As a result, she made a very personal statement in relation to her role on Legendary. The star in question was Jameela Jamil, who came out as queer when faced with the backlash over how she was qualified to judge a voguing competition.
In February 2020 Jamil issued a lengthy statement on social media entitled, “Twitter is brutal.” Addressing her sexuality, she went on to say, “This is why I never officially came out as queer. I added a rainbow to my name when I felt ready a few years ago, as it’s not easy within the south Asian community to be accepted.”
Jamil continued, “I always answered honestly if ever straight-up asked about it on Twitter. But I kept it low because I was scared of the pain of being accused of performative bandwagon jumping, over something that caused me a lot of confusion, fear and turmoil when I was a kid.”
Further revealing why Jamil had chosen to stay quiet about her sexuality, she continued, “I didn’t come from a family with *anyone* openly out. It’s also scary as an actor to openly admit your sexuality, especially when you’re already a brown female in your 30s. This is absolutely not how I wanted it to come out.”
Referring to her upcoming judging role on Legendary, Jamil said, “I know that being queer doesn’t qualify me as ballroom. But I have privilege and power and a large following to bring to this show…. and its beautiful contestants and ballroom hosts. Sometimes it takes those with more power to help a show get off the ground so we can elevate marginalized stars that deserve the limelight.”
Defending her appointment to the Legendary judging panel, Jamil continued, “I’m not the M.C.. I’m not the main host. I’m just a lead judge due to my 11 years of hosting experience, being fully impartial, a newcomer to ballroom (like much of the audience will be) and therefore a window in for people who are discovering it now.”
Within her statement, it appeared that Jamil anticipated further backlash from her decision to come out as queer. She said of Twitter, “I’m jumping off this hell app for a while because I don’t want to read mean comments dismissing this. You can keep your thoughts.” Jamil also added, “To the press, I really really don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just focus on the contestants of the show until it’s out.”
And perhaps Jamil was right to be wary of the reaction her coming out as queer would receive. Lysette for one stood by her original concerns over Jamil’s appointment to the Legendary judging panel, writing on Twitter, “Being queer does not make you ballroom. Being any number of marginalized identities does not make you ballroom.”
Lysette continued, “The only thing that makes you ballroom is if you are actually from it. And most of us who are from it, sought it out when we had no one else… Meanwhile a ballroom elder who will remain nameless is still fighting for a producing credit for putting the structure of the show together, categories, etc… and Jameela is the Executive Producer along with two cis white guys who produced Queer Eye.”
Jamil did, however, receive support from her Legendary co-star Wesley. The M.C. tweeted, “Anything monumental created will always be combated by the naysayers. There’s no way people who [have] no idea of this process can shift our amazing outcome.” He told Jamil, “Welcome to the team. They will understand when it all airs. You’re gonna be… AMAZING.”
Furthermore, Jamil also found support from her fellow Twitter users. One encouraging comment read, “You are loved and cherished. Thank you for making it feel safer to be authentic and honest. It’s through this that we will all evolve. Something so needed in these times. Stay. We’re blessed to have you.”
Elsewhere, others empathized with Jamil, with one user writing, “I personally absolutely hate when LGBT people try to gate-keep queer culture. It’s one of the huge reasons it was very difficult for me to come out. I didn’t feel like I was even allowed to belong to that culture, even though I was gay.”
Jamil is no stranger to a Twitter storm. After starting out as a presenter in her native U.K., she later moved to the United States to pursue an acting career. But aside from landing roles in shows such as The Good Place, Jamil has also become known as an outspoken celebrity on social media.
In 2018 Jamil founded the “I Weigh” Instagram account. The empowerment movement was set up by the actress in response to an image she saw of the Kardashian/Jenner sisters, which detailed the women’s weights. On the Instagram page, Jamil said she wanted “us to feel valuable and see how amazing we are, and look past the flesh on our bones.”
That’s not the only time that Jamil has seemingly taken aim at the Kardashian clan. In 2018 the actress slammed the reality TV stars as “double agents for the patriarchy” in an interview with Channel 4 News in the U.K.. According to Jamil this was because they were “profiting off, and selling a patriarchal narrative to other women.”
Moreover, the Kardashians were among the celebrities that Jamil has criticized for promoting diet suppressants on their social media channels. Jamil herself has been open about her struggles with anorexia as a teen and had claimed that the eating disorder was caused by the pressures she felt by society to look a certain way.
In fact, Jamil felt so strongly about the issue that she created an online petition titled “Stop celebrities promoting toxic diet products on social media.” Jamil wanted social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to ban such adverts, claiming they were damaging to impressionable youngsters.
However, while Jamil had known controversy before, it seemed that her prior experience with social media frenzies was as nothing compared to the reaction her coming out as queer received. “It was completely overwhelming,” Jamil admitted on Instagram in February 2020. “The sequence of events was insane.”
Admitting the timing of her coming out as queer “was bad,” Jamil added that it was, “better out than in.” And on the whole, she was happy to be a source of support for others struggling with their sexuality. To those people, she wrote, “Don’t feel bad for hiding it for as long as you need, and move at your own pace. But feel no shame about getting it off your chest and know you aren’t alone.”