Chi Chi Mizrahi Takes Us Deep Into New York’s Ballroom Scene in ‘Kiki’ Documentary

Photo: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool

Mother Chi Chi Unbothered Mizrahi is a name for the ages. Or, to use the ballroom vernacular: it is legendary. As is the person who’s claimed that name as his own, Francisco Gonzalez Jr., a native New Yorker who’s part of KIKI, a new documentary chronicling the Kiki scene in the Big Apple. Twenty five years after Paris is Burning and Madonna’s Vogue introduced the ballroom subculture to the mainstream, KIKI introduces us to a new LGBT generation that sees in this creative outlet (with voguing and runway competitions) a greater sense of community and advocacy.

The Kiki scene is made up of LGBT youth of color — a minority within a minority — whose very life experiences inform the creative and activist spirit of a scene that champions varied gender expression alongside real talk about HIV prevention, trans rights, and LGBT homelessness issues. As Gia Love, one of the cast members of the film reminded us at a pre-screening workshop on ballroom and voguing, while these dances and moves have now traveled the world and become part of a new dance lexicon, what these mainstream appropriations lose in the process is the very history and cultural significance of voguing as an artistic outlet for a disenfranchised population.

Hot off its warm reception at Sundance and at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the coveted Teddy Award for Best Documentary), KIKI kicked off the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy in style on Friday April 29. It was the first time Sara Jordenö’s documentary screened in New York City where most of the film, made in conjunction with Kiki gatekeeper Twiggy Pucci Garçon, was originally shot. Not even the dreary grey skies and the gloomy rain detracted from the celebratory spirit of the screening. The Museo del Barrio’s theater was packed with many members of the Kiki scene who came dressed to the nines and who, after the credits rolled, showed their voguing and runway skills to the sounds of MikeQ and Byrell The Great from the DJ collective Qween beat (who composed the soundtrack for the film) as MC Symba Queen and Jack Mizrahi pumped up the crowd.

Chi Chi, who’s been an active member of the scene for over a decade and who you may recognize from Icona Pop’s video for “All Night,” embodies precisely what the Kiki scene is all about. Impossibly charismatic, he’s equally at home explaining the art of voguing (and the intricate history of its different styles) as he is discussing the importance of community advocacy (he’s currently a Program Coordinator for Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Peter Krueger Clinic). In more striking terms, he’s able to, as he did at the KIKI premiere, rock a full beard and a leather-accented skirt. It’s a physical expression of Chi Chi’s motto to “Live Your Truth” which as great distillation of what the Kiki scene and the film itself celebrates.

We called up Chi Chi the day after the New York City premiere of KIKI to talk about how he found the ballroom scene, about his own personal struggles, and what he’s enjoyed most about the film’s reception.

On Finding Himself

I was born and raised in Brooklyn in a Jewish community — Midwood, Brooklyn. So for me, growing up, I had both my parents until a certain age. But coming from a family where not everything was perfect, and you know, where some things were dysfunctional was hard. My mom being hearing impaired was a challenge: seeing her being a disabled mom with four kids living off welfare but also finding the motivation to find work to support her kids was an inspiration.

“As a child you were like, who are these two individuals and why are they dressed with this makeup and the hair?”

Growing up my mom had these two friends, one who we used to call one Faggot Frank, and these were two older white men that was just there. As a child you were like, who are these two individuals and why are they dressed with this makeup and the hair? Then I think I understood who I was but I didn’t have the expression to physically express myself. In a way, seeing them made me comfortable being able to identify with individuals that I already knew had something about them that was relatable. But growing up, I played sports, I was very active. I hung a lot with straight people — because you had to deny your sexuality at first, you had to have a girlfriend and you tried to pretend that everything’s normal. But then when I came out at 16, from there a lot of things changed. I moved out of the neighborhood I’d grown up in and relocated the Bronx. And when I made that change my life took a better turn because I was able to understand my life’s journey. When I came out my family was very supportive. I didn’t have no issues. Everything that I wanted to do they were there for me. Even now, me going to balls and dressing up in costumes, getting in makeup my mom is very supportive.

Cast members at the NY premiere of KIKI during the Red Bull Music Academy Festival. Photo: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool
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On How He Found the Ballroom Scene

“I don’t think you realize how much you go through until you sit down and start to spend time with yourself.”

I was dating a guy at one time right after I came out. And he said, “Hey, there’s this Thursday night club, wanna come?” And I was like, uh, but tomorrow’s Friday, it’s a school day. But he said it’d be just for a few hours. Well, long story short, the club was from 11 to 2 and around 2:30am it would transform into this mini-ball. All of a sudden the lights came on and the beat started playing and I was like, what the fuck is going on? Literally the ball came out and like, everything you see as in the movie, and they competed. I was fascinated. I was amazed. And you know, I’m a competitive individual and I wanted to be a part of it. And so then I went to the Latex Ball and from there I had relocated to California because my father had remarried and so through that I joined the House of Mizrahi and when I came back here well, the rest is history with me getting into the Kiki scene.

On What the Documentary Taught Him

Healing. I use that word over and over again. I don’t think you realize how much you go through until you sit down and start to spend time with yourself. The last four years has been that. It was very cathartic. Four years of me being able to express myself and not have to be judged and not worry about what’s gonna happen afterwards. The movie has taught me a lot about myself in terms of healing and in terms of happiness. I’ve learned how to treat people who are still hurting and help them heal. The first time I saw it was waterworks all around. [Friday night] was only my fourth time seeing the movie I get more and more emotional every time I see it. Because after four years, it’s like, wow so much has occurred!

Chi Chi Mizrahi. NYC premiere of KIKI at Red Bull Music Academy Festival. Photo: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool
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On Screening The Film For New York City

It’s a very emotional experience. This is the first time that we took it to a place really close to home to us. The film’s been in Sweden, in Berlin, it was one of those things that, when the international crowd sees it, they receive it in a way of exposure—it’s the first time they’re experiencing something of this magnitude—but when you bring it back home, it’s one of those feelings where people already know what it’s about so they’re waiting to see what dynamic you’re gonna add, or what you’re gonna bring to it. It was a nervous feeling because when you have your mom and your friends and your family, and the people that think that they know you 100% and then when you show them a movie like this where you talk about yourself and your experiences. It’s an eye-opening. It makes it that much deeper and relatable. Bringing it back home was just overwhelming. New York City is the mecca of ballroom, you know?

On How the Documentary Has Been Received

It’s all about what one watches and what one grasps from it. For me, most of the time, when I talk about my issues with overcoming substance abuse, that’s what people connect to with me. I have people come up to me who are fighting their own demons. A lot of them tell me, “Wow, watching this movie really makes me feel like I’m not alone and that people care.” And like I say, it takes one person to start the conversation. [On Friday] it was a lot more of that, people who know of me (you know, I’ve been doing advocacy work for the LGBT for the House and Ballroom Community for the last 12 years) and so people only see me in that light. But now, as they see me as an everyday person they’re just motivated and inspired by it.