How A Young Drag Star Found Family In Ballroom And Went From Suburbs To Billboards

In high school, the teen struggled to find somewhere he belonged. Then came ballroom.

Before he found ballroom, before he joined the iconic House of Miyake-Mugler, and certainly before he learned that he wasn’t the only person on the planet who looked and felt and saw things the way he did, Jeremie, who is perhaps among the fastest rising superstars you’ve never heard of, was just an uncertain, disoriented teenager.

And like many other queer teenagers, he was crushingly lonely.

“It’s crazy how we all have such similar stories,” the 19-year-old tells HuffPost Canada, referring to the many shared experiences of young queer kids. (Jeremie requested his last name be withheld for security reasons.)

“Growing up, I felt very isolated and confused. In high school, I was the first person to come out as queer. So by Grade 10, I was already out as gay.”

“I learned to be very aware of my safety”

To be out so young was to be the only one. Jeremie grew up in a nondescript town just east of Toronto, where the main attraction is a 24-hour casino (or, perhaps, a busy Costco) and any sign of queer life is “basically nonexistent.”

One thing to understand about Jeremie: he doesn’t present in the way that most other boys he grew up around do. His hair is long. He flits between men’s and women’s clothing with a casual, Gen Z indifference. He has a predilection for false eyelashes, and has been wearing makeup since before he officially came out as gay.

“I started growing out my hair long. I was trying out eyeshadows, experimenting with makeup. I was testing out my artistry,” Jeremie says. “One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was literally a full-blown drag queen. And I didn’t really feel any way about it.”

The first time Jeremie's mother ever saw him in drag was at his high school graduation. "It didn't go very well," he says.
The first time Jeremie's mother ever saw him in drag was at his high school graduation. "It didn't go very well," he says.

This youthful disinterest in the constraints of gender did not extend to everyone. “I learned to be very aware of my safety,” Jeremie says.

Though the last official survey on LGBTQ safety in Canadian high schools was conducted way back in 2011 (which is to say, another lifetime), it stands that many queer students, particularly trans and gender nonconforming kids, continue to experience harassment by their peers. “I never hung out around school after the bell rang if I was in drag.”

Still, Jeremie counts himself fortunate. He had a group of friends who encouraged him along the way. It was because of them, he says, that he was “even able to make it through high school at all.”

But even those friends couldn’t totally extinguish his sense of loneliness. He still lacked a real community of people who shared his concerns on a personal level — people who might intuitively understand what it was that he was going through internally, day by day, night by night.

And then, ballroom

Then, some months after he graduated and turned 18, Jeremie stumbled upon a world he didn’t know he was looking for: the house ballroom scene, where identity is not something to fight so much as it’s something to harness, refine, dramatize, and telegraph.

Ballroom is an underground subculture made up primarily of people who are, in many ways, like Jeremie: Black, brown, and Latinx LGBTQ+ folks who often struggle and fail to find acceptance, community, and affirmation in the world outside.

And in this way, the scene — which is made up of “houses” that double as chosen families and compete for prizes in extravagant “balls” through voguing, fashion, and runway — is an antidote to such rejection.

“I had no idea what ballroom was,” Jeremie concedes. “I’d never seen ′Paris Is Burning.’ I’d never heard of voguing. I didn’t know any of those things.”

That changed when, in 2018, two of his friends attended their first ball and returned transformed. Curiosity peaked, he accompanied them to the next one: a dazzling affair held at the 519 Community Centre on Church Street, in Toronto.

Watch: For Twysted Miyake-Mugler, the ballroom community unites hope, love and God. Story continues below.

“The experience was almost out of body,” he says, eyes wide, teeth flashing. “I can’t even describe it. It was so validating, so reassuring. I was immediately like, ‘OK. This is where I’m supposed to be. I belong here, and I don’t know why I belong here, but I do.’”

A brief history of ballroom

The house-ballroom community was born amid the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, but it didn’t make its way to Toronto until the early 2000s.

By that point, the culture had already spread to American cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, and was immortalized by the documentary treatment in films like “The Queen” (1968) and the iconic “Paris Is Burning” (1990), which is preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry.

Today, the ballroom scene in Canada is still young. The nation’s first official house, the House of Monroe, was founded around 2006, but the country still boasts its own set of major players.

In the ballroom scene, houses — like the international House of Louboutin — often act as alternative families for those rejected by their biological ones.
In the ballroom scene, houses — like the international House of Louboutin — often act as alternative families for those rejected by their biological ones.

Figures like house mothers Travoy Deer and emcees like the legendary Twysted Miyake-Mugler have been instrumental in nurturing and shaping what ballroom looks and feels like in this country.

And though it was, in the early aughts, confined to damp and dingy basement bars, ballroom now turns up regularly in popular culture. You only need to turn on the television to find it in shows like “Legendary” and “Pose” and “My House,” or in music videos by Teyana Taylor, or on runways at fashion week.

A place that feels like home

Jeremie, who now performs in the ball scene as Jazmine Miyake-Mugler (he is part of the 30-year-old House of Miyake-Mugler; members take the house as their surname, as in a wedding or a birth), immediately felt embraced.

He felt seen and supported by a community of people he had never met before, which was more than he could say for many of his high-school peers. He didn’t have to rush home when the bell rang.

In fact, he had never been in or imagined a place where people were celebrated for their individuality — praised for the very qualities that, in the world looming outside, they might otherwise be ostracized or attacked for.

“I was instantly sold on it,” Jeremie says about ballroom. “The cherry on top was that there was a category for me to walk in, called ‘Drags Realness.’ There was a way that I could be appreciated. There was somewhere that I actually fit in.”

Before this moment, fitting in had been as feverish a dream as any. Even fitting in with his family had been a challenge: When his mother saw him in drag for the first time, at his high school graduation, she yelled and cursed and stormed out. The event tore through their relationship. (It has since, in the intervening months, been mended.)

But in this strange and glamorous new universe, Jeremie would meet Tamar Miyake-Mugler — a 28-year-old who was just like him, who had experienced all the same challenges that he’d experienced and who would, almost immediately, become a kind of surrogate parental figure.

“It was this instant connection,” Jeremie says, beaming. “I would have never in a million years thought I would find somebody like me. You don’t know how confused I was about my gender and my sexuality, and her existence assures me that I’m fine the way I am.”

Tamar, like Jeremie, presents as a woman in the ball scene, but lives her everyday life in Toronto as a gay man. “It was love at first sight,” Tamar tells HuffPost Canada, of her introduction to Jeremie. “I’ve never seen myself in anybody. And so to see somebody else on the same journey as me — it was insane.”

And so in the ball scene, Jeremie found not only community, but also an unconditional love he hadn’t experienced before. “Tamar really loves me like a child and a friend,” he explains.

“Parents often come from a place where they don’t know how to raise kids like us, and even if they give you all their love, unconditionally, there are certain things they can’t teach you when it comes to the queer experience.”

Since they met, Tamar (left) has been a kind of mother figure to Jeremie (right), counselling him on matters of life and safety.
Since they met, Tamar (left) has been a kind of mother figure to Jeremie (right), counselling him on matters of life and safety.

Lessons from a second mother

In the ball scene, mother figures like Tamar task themselves with guiding the younger generation through challenges unique to the queer community. Tamar, for example, has taught Jeremie how to be safe when he’s out at night, since both of them can easily be read as trans women and are therefore vulnerable to similar violence.

“Things like that have kept me alive, to be honest,” Jeremie says. “Any questions that I have, I know I can take her advice on.”

It’s through ballroom, too, that Jeremie has learned about time management, professionalism, balance, and priority. “One thing we preach in our house is that you cannot be fab in ballroom if your real life is not fab,” he explains. “So if you’re struggling in real life — you’re not going to school, or you’re not going to work, or your mental health is poor — you need to focus on that before you go to a ball. Ballroom is fun, but we want to ensure everybody goes further than that.”

Though he’s only 19 and has been a part of the scene for barely a year, Jeremie is already beginning to make his own forays beyond the ballroom universe. His celebrity typically lives on the runway, in the “face” and “realness” categories, and he’s already travelled North America and been asked to compete in Europe.

And if, in late October, you happened to visit Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, or other sites in Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa, you would have seen his face on a 8,454 square-foot billboard for Absolut’s #changemaker campaign, which he was selected for as a rising star in the ball scene.

Tamar sees him as part of a larger cultural seachange: a new generation of kids who don’t have the same hangups and reservations about gender or sexual orientation as prior ones might have. To them, she says, it’s as normal to be gay or gender fluid as it is to drive a car.

“It’s nice to see that representation in Jeremie,” she says. “I call her ‘The Next Supreme.’”

Community on pause

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Ontario breathlessly declared its state of emergency, Jeremie was in Chicago with Tamar, fretting about the closing borders. They were headed to a ball to walk the “Drags Realness” category, for which participants would storm the runway first presenting as men, and then, after transformations by way of hair and fashion and makeup, as women.

Jeremie arrived for the first half wearing a full beard, a suit, and braided hair; then, in the bathroom, he shaved, took the braids out, and metamorphosed into Jazmine. He won that category and its $1,000 cash prize in U.S. dollars, “a good thing to leave with,” he says, “considering I’d be unemployed for four months after!”

In fact, the pandemic put the whole ballroom community on hold. Many of the ballroom scene’s major events take place in the summer and have been outright cancelled. Jeremie’s house has stood strong through it all, keeping in touch through an ongoing group chat, watch parties of “Legendary,” and practices over Zoom.

“I think this whole thing has been a great testimony to what community really is — what it’s made of and what it’s meant to be,” he says. “It’s supposed to be there for you, especially through the tough times. We’ve been great with being there for each other and offering support. We don’t want to let anyone feel alone.”

And when protests against police violence exploded across the globe, this philosophy carried over, too. Sequestered in the suburbs and away from the action in the city, Jeremie is still trying to find ways to show up for his community — to be there, especially through the tough times.

“I do feel a responsibility to spread awareness, and to keep in the loop of what’s going on, because that’s a form of community, too,” he says. His Instagram stories have been alight with posts in support of Black Lives Matter, links to support funds and screenshots of petitions for his followers to sign.

“The ballroom community is mostly made up of Black queer and trans people, and if I’m not fighting for them when it comes to these things, then I’ve failed the whole community,” he says, solemnly.

“I’m not going to let that happen.”

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