“This is me, you understand?” Octavia St. Laurent declares triumphantly to the camera. “I love myself for who I am, what I am. I’m beautiful, I’m talented, and there’s no woman who can stand out there next to me. And if they can? Bring it on down.” Thirty years on, and there hasn’t even been a contender.
I’m watching Queen of the Underground, the 1993 documentary about New York City superstar Octavia St. Laurent, later Octavia St. Laurent Mizrahi, whose legendary status was catapulted into the national consciousness by the questionable work of filmmaker Jennie Livingston and her documentary Paris Is Burning. In the now-cult classic, Livingston invaded the Harlem drag ball scene, where primarily drag queens and gay men and transsexuals and more staged a grand performance of gender and defiance. Critics applauded her, colleges included it in curriculums on gender and sexuality and filmmaking, and in total, Miramax and Livingston raked in $4 million dollars from its release. According to reports, only $55,000 of that was distributed back to 13 performers based on time spent onscreen. In the years since its release, Livingston’s subjects were not quiet about the often exploitative nature of her work. (Livingston, meanwhile, still disputes the more modern interpretation that her film was “for white people,” as she told Vanity Fair in 2019.)
Throughout the film, St. Laurent describes her dreams, which include vaginoplasty and money. “I want to be somebody,” she tells Livingston. “I mean, I am somebody, I just want to be a rich somebody.” Around her apartment are scattered clippings of the womanhood she’s built for herself. Magazine tear-outs of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Ross and the Supermodel Trinity: Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington. Laurent admits it’s “wicked beauty” that she wants in life.
Of the cast, Octavia St. Laurent was undeniably a breakout star, alongside another legendary performer, Pepper LaBeija, and voguing master Willi Ninja. Of course, Venus Xtravaganza has also been mythologized by subsequent generations of transsexuals. Her murder, which remains unsolved, haunts many, Xtravaganza so obviously bursting with talent and light and possibility for a future she sought after desperately.
In the decade after Paris Is Burning, the performance of Harlem balls gradually trickled into the greater gay culture of the ‘90s, with drag queens becoming more prominent fixtures—and now, faces of the community at large. Pose, the Ryan Murphy production, was a relative hit, and elsewhere, outside the community, pop stars and artists and designers fully co-opted the fashion and makeup aesthetics of ballroom culture mainstays. But, unsurprisingly, trans people were still largely left behind, as the AIDs crisis and a tidal wave of Hollywood homophobia crashed down on the culture.
More than Paris Is Burning ever could, it’s St. Laurent’s response to Hollywood that came to define her public image. Queen of the Underground is a short doc, directed by Adam Soch and produced by Jerico DeAngelo, that profiled her in 1993. Through it, Laurent struck back not with an op-ed in the pages of the Times, as one might do now, or a tweet. Instead, she brandished a knife.
“Our whole fucking world is being run by perverted undercover fags that run around, talking about how straight they are.” The words drip with venom as they spill out of her mouth, and she continues: “You got big-time celebrities that go around in their cars picking up transvestites, having sex with them, and then getting on TV and making fun of them.”
The words seemed quite pointedly aimed at Eddie Murphy, who had been frequently criticized by LGBT activist groups in the years prior. As if a prophet to the girls, St. Laurent also quotes his 1992 movie Boomerang: “Everything you do in life is like a boomerang. When you throw it, it eventually comes back—don’t fuck with me.”
Murphy would later be arrested, in 1997, after he was caught by the LAPD with trans sex worker Atisone Seiuli. He would not be charged with a crime; Seuili would spend 90 days in Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail.
More recently, this clip could be found, often uncredited, on Tumblr in the mid-2010s, when young gay and trans people rediscovered everything the elders had already said decades prior. Through that renaissance of online trans community building, it’s also been passed around on Twitter and Instagram. It even molded, without question, the dialogue of Pose, Ryan Murphy and Steven Canal’s FX drama about the ‘80s New York City ball scene.
Octavia St. Laurent did not live to see the fruits of her work and impact on the culture, having passed in 2009 from cancer, at 45. Before she died, she became a speaker and educator on HIV, being positive herself. She later hosted the 2005 PILL Awards, which honor artists in the LGBTQ+ community. That same year, she was quoted in Out Magazine alongside Willi Ninja, the only surviving primary castmember besides her, and filmmaker Jennie Livingston, for a retrospective on Paris Is Burning. St. Laurent said of the film: “Jennie Livingston had no knowledge about the lifestyle. The information wasn’t accurate.” In her eulogy in The Village Voice, filmmaker Wolfgang Busch, a friend and collaborator, wrote that St. Laurent “walked against the icons, Margo Princess, Doray Princess, and she battled the likes of Icon Tennille Reid-Dupree, Pamela Cartier, etc.” To Busch, and many, “Octavia was a winner. She never gave up.” Of her legacy: “From Paris Is Burning to the Maury Povich Show and to How Do I Look, we will always treasure and remember the lifetime achiever and icon, Octavia, walking face in heaven with the angels.”
As for myself, I first saw Queen of the Underground as a wee 15-year-old on a secret forum for trans women, well after I was out. In the 10 years since, I’ve come to realize that while there are objects and aesthetics slot into various parts of myself, it’s Laurent’s words in Queen of the Underground and beyond that center my transsexualism not simply as an identity, but a political practice. Don’t fuck with us.