Carmen Xtravaganza’s impossible beauty

Much of “Paris Is Burning,” the landmark 1990 documentary about New York City’s ballroom community, takes place in the dark. It makes sense: night time is the provenance of the ball, where Black and brown LGBTQ+ people gathered to strut, to work what their mamas gave them, to throw shade, to vogue down.

But when we see Carmen Xtravaganza’s sole scene in the film, she is in the light. She stands on the shore of a quiet beach, the waves crashing at her shins. She cups her hands to light a cigarette, the wind whipping her hair. She chimes in as her house sister, Brooke Xtravaganza, recounts her gender-affirming procedures.

“I am a woman. I feel great,” Brooke giggles.

Carmen turns toward the camera. “She has to rub it in,” Carmen says in mock annoyance.

“I can close the closet door, there are no skeletons in there, and I am as free as the wind blowing on this beach,” Brooke continues, letting loose a laugh as big as the Atlantic.

Carmen directs a wicked smile to the camera: “Except that voice is still there.”

It is a moment of simple and absolute euphoria between two trans women of color, their arms stretched out like wings. Two sisters singing Gloria Gaynor and trading affirmations and jabs the way only sisters can. However fleeting their scene is, Carmen and Brooke feel like the very heart of “Paris Is Burning.”

On Aug. 4, Carmen’s death was announced by the House of Xtravaganza, one of New York’s original ballroom houses. The house — which served for nearly 40 years as her family — did not share her cause of death, but friends said that the 62-year-old LGBTQ+ pioneer, one of Xtravaganza’s “impossible beauties,” had been battling stage 4 lung cancer in recent months.

Impossible beauty. Impossible, in part, because of how naturally stunning Carmen was. Impossible, too, because of what it meant to be a trans woman of color in the ’80s and ’90s: a raging AIDS crisis; rampant homophobia and transphobia, in the home and on the streets; a crack epidemic that eroded Black and Latino communities, by the drugs themselves or by the drug policies of Ronald Reagan’s administration. Impossible, perhaps, because of how Carmen endured, how she always found the light.

To tell Carmen’s story is to tell the story of the House of Xtravaganza, which is to tell the story of ballroom, which is to tell the story of being Black and brown, queer and trans, brimming with hope and ambition.

Formerly a niche art form, ballroom culture has gone international, shaping music, fashion and entertainment — even the way we speak. Madonna’s appropriation of vogueing, inspired by house members Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza, gave her one of the biggest hits of her career. Ballroom terms such as “mother” (the matriarch of a house), “tea” (gossip) and “slay” (to kill it) are ubiquitous on social media and reality TV. Ballroom and its stars pulse through TV shows and reality competitions; K-pop and hip-hop; Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry.

But Sydney Baloue, an Xtravaganza house member and author of a forthcoming book on ballroom history and culture, points out that, at its roots, drag balls were just a good time. Or, from the perspective of ballroom elders: “This thing that I did for funsies at 4 a.m. in Harlem.”

Xtravaganza’s beginnings, Baloue said, were similarly humble. According to house lore, a group of young gay and trans Latinos would meet up at the subway station on Christopher Street. One day, they began asking one another which house they represented, resulting in fantastical names.

“‘What house are you in? Oh, well, I’m in the House of Magnifique.’ ‘Okay, well, then I’m in the House of Extravaganza,’” Balou said. “And that was, like, a joke.” The name stuck, but the “E” did not.

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Founded in 1982, Xtravaganza marked a turning point in the history of drag balls. It was a primarily Latino house, a safe space for those who weren’t welcomed in other parts of the predominantly Black ballroom community.

“This is kind of the dirty little secret of ballroom. Latinx people were not necessarily immediately accepted. And there’s a range of reasons for that,” Baloue said. Some dismissively referred to Xtravaganza members as “cha-chas.”

Carmen, whose full name was Carmen Inmaculada Ruiz, joined during this early period and soon became a standout at competitions. She specialized in the “face” and “femme queen realness” categories, battles on which success hinged on natural beauty, artistry and the ability to “pass” as a cisgender woman.

“Face,” in particular, is a deceptively simple ballroom category, requiring complete self-possession as you sashay over to a panel of judges and serve up your features. It demands a carefully calibrated theatricality — splaying your fingers just so, so your face looks like it’s blooming out of your hands. Play to the judges and run through a gamut of expressions: sultry, imperious, flirty. It requires an exacting command of makeup. And you must retain an encyclopedic knowledge of your angles, which means knowing exactly how the light hits you, how it favors you, how it anoints you.

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Carmen was a master. In 1988, she landed on the cover of the Village Voice, one of the first mainstream publications to chronicle Harlem’s underground ballroom scene. The photo was pure Carmen: her lips softly parted, her hands tugging at an Azzedine Alaïa hooded ensemble; all the glamour of the ’80s displayed in one exquisite shot. The story would catch the eye of Chantal Regnault, an influential French Haitian photographer who documented the rise of the ball scene, as well as “Paris Is Burning” director Jennie Livingston.

Carmen returned to her native Spain in the ’90s, where she founded the Spanish chapter of the House of Xtravaganza and became a staple of the nightlife scene. Carmen had released music, modeled and acted by the time she returned to New York in 1997 and, at the request of founding member Angie Xtravaganza, became House mother, a role she served on and off until 2015, helping to keep the house relevant long after their peers had faded away. She went onto appear in other films and shows — the 2006 documentary “How Do I Look,” where she laughed in the face of a reporter asking for her birth name, and later, “Pose,” the FX series inspired by, and in some ways a corrective to, Livingston’s film.

Gisele Xtravaganza, the House’s current mother (and appointed by Carmen) first ran into Carmen at a diner in 1997. Carmen was already an icon then, and Gisele was an 18-year-old trans girl who felt bullied and ostracized by those in her community. Carmen locked eyes and smiled at her.

“It was goose bumps. It was a deep connection,” Gisele recalls. An impossible beauty opening a world of possibilities. “It was like looking in a mirror.”

“I didn’t have a lot of nice trans women coming up to me. I didn’t have a lot of nice anybody come up to me. That’s why I loved her, ” Gisele said. “I didn’t even imagine how much I loved her.”

Throughout Carmen’s life, shoulder pads and blue eye shadow would go out of fashion and back in again; scores of mothers, fathers and loved ones died; the Supreme Court affirmed gay rights, then walked them back. Drag became mainstream, then vilified. Beyoncé paid homage to ballroom with her “Renaissance” tour; O’Shae Sibley, a 28-year-old Black gay dancer, was fatally stabbed last month vogueing at a Brooklyn gas station to that very music.

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But little about Carmen changed over the years, according to Monica Xtravaganza, a house member since 1987 and a friend of Carmen’s.

Carmen got married, moved to Florida and, in her last days, needed an oxygen tank by her bed. But the ballroom legend remained the same outgoing, commanding, beautiful lady with a “clownish side,” Monica said. The one who took her cancer diagnosis “with a grain of salt,” who knew she was meant to be Carmen since she was 5-years-old, who loved turquoise and Alaïa; who planned a “life reunion” party when she knew she wouldn’t have much longer to live. The one who would always, always try to get a rise out of Monica.

Monica saved the last voice mail she got from Carmen, recorded not long before her death:

“Oooooh,” Carmen purred, “you sound like White woman trash.” Then Carmen laughed. An “evil,” devilish cackle, Monica said. “I love you,” Carmen said. “Call me back.”

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