"Evil couture" OTA runway contest at Back with a Vengeance Ball at Lake Merritt Amphitheater in Oakland on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Vogue is about much more than turning the world into a catwalk: it’s a form of self-expression, a celebration of culture and a way to find a sense of community. The Oakland Pride parade may have gone digital this year, but Open To All (OTA) weekend more than made up for it. Consisting of back-to-back vogue events on Sept.10 and 11, the Oakland To All Kiki Ball and Back with a Vengeance Ball brought the true spirit of Pride to Lake Merritt in full color.
“I found a big part of my confidence in ballroom,” said OTA Oakland Pride Weekend organizer Shireen Rahimi, a.k.a. Hype Kitty.
Rahimi, who hosts weekly vogue sessions and helped expand OTA to the Bay Area, recognizes how important it is for the youth to have a place to practice together. “Vogue is something that really impacts these kids' lives. It’s creating a space where kids can come and truly be themselves,” she said.
Both free events were crowdfunded through donations from the weekly vogue sessions and GoFundMe, and received support from Bridge HIV, TransVision, CAL-PEP, AIDS Project of the East Bay (APEB) and Alameda County Health Care Services. “That’s really our thing, open to all. Open to all genders. Open to all identities,” said OTA Founder and CEO Leggoh JohVera.
The legendary New York commentator said OTA’s goal is to make sure “that what we get, we can give back.” In that spirit, all donations, aside from event cost, went straight to cash prizes for vogue performers to win in multiple categories.
The theme “Back with a Vengeance” came together after overcoming several unexpected hurdles while coordinating the main event on Saturday.
“The most challenging part is that we had to deal with the city this year. All of the events that we do are technically renegade,” said organizer Guerilla Davis with the artist collective We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.
This meant paying $3,000 in police security fees and other permit costs, Davis said, despite the fact that organizers secured a community-informed safety squad trained in de-escalation and conflict resolution.
“It’s so ridiculous the number of forms and the amount of money it takes to have a free event,” Davis said. “The amount of money that we paid from donations that could have gone back into the community is going back to the city.”
Despite the hurdles, the team who organized the event was happy with the turnout. “At the end of the day, we were able to get all the permits,” said organizer Ashlee 007. “We were able to meet all the requirements to have the event. We had a successful event. All the money that was donated was given out to the community. Everything that we wanted to happen happened.”
Balls Provide Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Dancers
Venus Alaia 007 attended both the Oakland To All Kiki Ball and Back with a Vengeance Ball. She grew up in East Palo Alto and often traveled to find a sense of community. “It’s not safe for trans women, so growing up I would always commute to San Francisco and to Oakland to find community, to find safe spaces,” she said.
For Isaiah Wilder, attending a ballroom event is like lighting a fresh candle. “Ballroom is really just comfortable. It’s almost like a candle in your house. The aroma is what I really like,” Wilder said.
Wilder has been a part of the ballroom scene for more than 13 years and has turned his passion into a career, most notably with a feature in the music video for Sam Smith’s “Promises.” He also made it to HBO Max’s Legendary season one finale with his former house, the House of Lanvin.
“It makes you feel good. It makes you just feel important and that you are here for a purpose and you belong here,” he said.
A West Coast Hub for Vogue
Romania Stephens flew in from Los Angeles to attend the event and support friends who live in the area. She used to perform in Northern California often and was excited to be back for the weekend. “I came out here to have a good time and to grow,” Stephens said. “It’s just amazing to be here, to be alive, and to be moving.”
Jacob Mohundro also traveled to the Bay Area to partake in this weekend's festivities. Mohundro currently lives in Reno, Nevada. The three-hour drive was well worth it for the young dancer. “This is the closest place to Reno that has balls. This is how I stay in balls,” Mohundro said.
Mohundro competed in several categories and made it far in the “Set It Off” OTA Performance contest, which offered Back with a Vengeance Ball’s largest cash prize for the weekend. Though Mohundro didn’t win, they were excited for the opportunity to perform alongside vogue legends.
D.I.Y. Fashions On Full Display
G'bari Gilliam, the winner of the virgin runway “Shine Bright Like a Diamond” contest, heard about the event and knew he had to attend. He put together a custom look with the help of a fellow member of The House of Gorgeous Gucci.
For Gilliam, being a part of The House of Gorgeous Gucci means having a chosen family. “They were bringing something new to the ballroom scene, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to help create a legacy,” Gilliam said.
His custom-made look was a nod to the future. “I wanted to incorporate high fashion and heavy metal,” he said.
Gilliam was excited he won the contest, and enjoyed the environment the event fostered most of all. “All good energy, great weather, good atmosphere, it’s a great time,” he said.
Celebrating Black, Queer Excellence
Montreal Kallman loves the ballroom scene. “I’m really excited about it becoming more lively and more of a fully realized thing here in the Bay Area,” Kallman said.
Kallman attended the event on their own. “I know I’m going to see people I know and I’m going to be gagged,” they said.
Kallman appreciates the rich culture found at vogue balls and a great place to observe queer excellence. “Particularly, queer, Black excellence. That’s the legacy that it represents to me,” they said.
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