'You Just Serve as Much as You Can': Mj Rodriguez on Ball Culture and 'Pose'

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High fashion, makeup, vogueing competitions. In the 1980s, New York City's drag balls were cultural events for the LGBTQ community, most of them black and Latino. But balls have largely been hidden from mainstream America.

Now, a new show on FX is putting them front and center. It's called Pose, and according to FX, it has largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles.

"It's great that finally our stories are getting to be told from the lenses of our eyes," says transgender singer and actress Mj Rodriguez.

Rodriguez plays Blanca, an HIV-positive ball competitor who decides to leave her drag "house" to create a new one from scratch. She tells NPR that she and Blanca actually have a lot in common.

Interview Highlights

On how Blanca's experience compares to her own


So Blanca, she's like this rambunctious, very, very nurturing, compassionate, a little bit hardheaded, but ambitious spirit. And she's trying to leave a legacy with the news that she's received as far as her diagnosis as far as HIV, and she's trying to leave something behind so her [house] "children" can carry on her legacy. ...

Me and her have a lot in common. There are some small differences, obviously, but these are also very, very true stories. And I've been ostracized from a specific part of my community, and I decided that I was not going to let that be the thing that brought me down. I was going to move forward and uplift. ...

There were moments where I was called many derogatory names. I've gotten into a couple of fights. People have jumped me. You know, I've had a lot of things that have happened to me, but I look past those things now and now I'm moving forward and I always believe that the experiences that you go through are what make you stronger and what help you push forward through life.

On landing the role of Angel, a street musician living with AIDS, in the 2011 off-Broadway revival of Rent

Rent was one of the main defining moments, and it was like the precipice of my transition. I had always known I was female, since I was 7 years old. But at that time there were no words that I could express, at the age of 7. But when I got to a certain age, which was 14, I knew. And then I carried that on through my career. So when I played that character, I was just like: Finally, I can have people see me for the woman I am and not have any doubts or thoughts or anything, just can simply be and simply live and pour my soul out onstage.

"She's like this rambunctious, very, very nurturing, compassionate, a little bit hardheaded, but ambitious spirit," Rodriguez says of Blanca.

On how drag balls work

It's a refuge — it's a place of refuge for anyone of the LGBT community of color. And we go there just to find solace, to find family and just to find comfort.

And there are also ... many categories, which are like walking face, walking realness, vogueing, vogueing femme and also runway. Runway is one of the things that I walk, and that's when you literally walk down the runway in the ballroom culture and you just serve as much as you can. ... Bring it, honey, you have to bring it.

On how it feels to be part of a large transgender cast

I think is beautiful. One, I'm glad because most of these women I've met or have worked with before, so that's the best part about it, we have already a connection. But most importantly, these [episodes] are telling different stories ... of each of these trans women's lives, and that we are living authentically just like anyone else who's walking this earth, and that we just literally need to come together and stop the BS, honestly.

Denise Guerra and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.