Port Authority made history last night as the first film starring a trans woman of color to premiere at Cannes. The film, from writer-director Danielle Lessovitz, stars model, voguer, and actress Leyna Bloom as Wye, a young trans woman entrenched in Harlem’s kiki ballroom scene who falls in love with a cis white male drifter named Paul (Fionn Whitehead). It’s a career-making turn for newcomer Bloom, who’s magnetic in the role — with the dazzling screen presence of a golden-age legend — but the supporting cast surrounding her are just as brilliant. As Wye’s fellow dancers and chosen family, the members of the McQueen House fill the film with light and energy, dancing on the steps of New York’s Port Authority, performing at vibrant late-night ballroom competitions, and consoling her when Paul acts like a dick, which is quite often.
The members of McQueen House are played almost exclusively by young, queer people of color; in real life, many of them are also firmly rooted in New York’s ballroom scene. On last night’s red carpet, Bloom and her onscreen family went instantaneously viral, strutting and voguing up the Palais stairs in bright, flowing garments. As Wye puts it in the film, the kiki ballroom scene is about “taking back all the space that the world doesn’t give me”; last night, she and the cast did just that.
But the “boys,” as Port Authority’s supporting cast is affectionately called within the film’s circle, almost didn’t make it to Cannes. Back in April, faced with the impossible financial realities of flying across the country on an indie-movie budget, they worked with the film’s production crew and filmmakers to start a GoFundMe called “Kiki Road to Cannes.” “The inventive dancing styles and costumes these kiki members create have been copied many times over by famous artists and singers, but deserved attribution is rarely ascribed for their efforts. Now we have a chance to honor their contributions on an international stage at Cannes,” reads the fundraising page. “Many of our actors come from underprivileged backgrounds and have been homeless at various points in their lives, often as a result of being ostracized by their families for being queer. The kiki scene is where they find family and acceptance. These young people have breathed such life into the film, and we want to make sure they are able to come to France to celebrate their achievement at the Cannes Festival.”
In just four weeks, the GoFundMe raised $6,000 of the boys’ $10,000 goal. It was enough to send all of them to the festival, where I had the chance to catch up with them the morning after their viral red-carpet moment. When I sat down with Christopher Quarles (a.k.a. Afrika Juicy Milan), Eddie Plaza (a.k.a. Miggy Mulan), Devon Carpenter, Taliek Jeqon, Paris Warren, and producer Jari Jones, their positive energy was palpable and contagious. By the end of our conversation, we were all hugging and promising to meet back in New York. Below, they tell me what it’s like to be “discovered,” make a groundbreaking film, and end up in the south of France, voguing down the Croisette.
Eddie Plaza: They let us vogue on the red carpet. Did you see it? Look [shows me the photos in the Cannes Festival magazine]. Jesus Christ, that’s amazing.
Yes, you guys all look fucking amazing. Tell me how you all got cast in Port Authority.
Christopher Quarles: I was just walking a random ball and people came up to me out of nowhere — after I won, of course. They were like, “I love your personality, we saw you moving around the room. We want to invite you to this casting.” I was like, “Okay … ” I thought it was a scam — another one. But then it was like, step after step after step, and look where I’m at!
Devon Carpenter: We were at the same ball, and I was walking, and the [casting directors] came up to me and were saying they loved my performance, my personality. I also thought it was a scam. But I decided to have faith. It became an amazing experience.
Taliek Jeqon: And I was at the same ball! [Laughs] I didn’t win. They actually missed my category. I walk a category called Bazaar, and my category is really big, out there, glitter, colors — I had to get ready. They were like, “I didn’t see you walk! We need to see you again.”
Eddie: They cast me literally in the street. I was at a festival outside and they came up to me, and asked me, “What’s your height? How much you weigh?” I was like, “Mister! I don’t know who you are! I’m not telling you anything.” But I searched him on Google, and as soon as I saw they were legit, I was like, “I have to do this.”
Did you guys all know each other beforehand?
Eddie: Yes. But we weren’t close. But we built a crazy bond over filming. It was so dope to know the people, then learn who they are inside.
Christopher: This is my nephew. This is my brother. This is my best friend. The only person I didn’t know was Eddie. But in this community, we don’t have to know each other to know each other. We’re like, “What’s up, girl? What’s up, sis?” You’re a family. It’s automatic.
Do you hang out all the time now?
All: Of course. Of course.
Eddie: It’s family vibes. If you’re not cool with your real biological family, you can go out and find yourself a chosen family.
Christopher: Join the Marines.
Eddie: Join the McQueens! [Laughs.]
Do you guys refer to yourself as the McQueens now?
Christopher: We are McQueens. We hold onto that legacy. It’s been a part of the kiki scene for 13 years now. Forever. We’re all individually in different houses — some of us lead their houses. [All go around and name their houses, overlapping with each other.]
You see? There’s so much. People look up to us and we don’t even know half the time. I’m openly HIV-positive, so I deal with a community that’s very different. We deal with a lot of trauma, emotions, stigma. So for me, it’s deeper. I’m able to be an openly HIV-positive person. You have so many people who look at us like, “He’ll be gone in a few years.” I’ve had people say that to me. My mom had the nerve to take out an extra life-insurance policy on me. That broke me. For me, it’s deeper. There’s no life expectancy for me. I’m here.
Jari Jones: Preach.
Paris Warren: Moments like this are reassuring for me as well. I’m HIV-positive as well. Meeting all of them, connecting with them in this way, inspired me as a person. I love them. This is my brother. This is my best friend. This is my good Judy. I’m so happy. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us. Even though people in America are talking about it, they don’t even know what’s going on. Just the surface.
Eddie: The tip of the ice cube!
Tell me about how the fundraiser started.
Jari: When the campaign started, it was very important for me to make sure they got here. To have black and brown bodies on that red carpet — it’s a game-changer. Black men, queer black men. They don’t make it [to Cannes], not like that. It’s not something that’s common. For them, these individuals, to be that symbol — for them to do that — it meant the world. We did everything we could to get here.
Taliek: It feels really good and reassuring to be able to communicate [our story]. The art of vogue is a place to express yourself. It’s good for your mental health. It’s reassuring to our community to see us here. We wanted to uplift our community, and our community uplifted us.
We wanted to show people what our family was like. We wanted to tell our stories, and we needed the support, and we were humble enough to ask. It’s our community and we’re trying to get ourselves together. It takes a village. It feels good to know you have people supporting you. Everybody wants to feel accepted. And we have it amongst each other, too — [Devon’s] mom is here with us. I’d never met her, but it was instantly like, “Oh, can I have a bowl of cereal?”
Christopher: Even though I’m the head honcho. [Laughs] She, like, was my mother.
How did you react when you learned you’d be here?
Christopher: I went and got my passport. That Sunday. They made me the ringleader for passports. Eddie was like, “What do I need to do?” I was like, “Listen, girl, you gotta get in line.” She didn’t wanna wait. She wanted to get online. It didn’t hit me until the day before. I’ve been let down so much. As a black man, I’ve been let down a lot in my lifetime. I don’t ever get my hopes up, because shit always happens. I was like, “I’m not gonna brag, I’m not gonna talk about it.” I held this to myself for so long. I told a few people, but I held it in because I was afraid.
People told me all the time I had potential to do great things. But I would doubt myself. Every time something good came along, something would happen.
Paris: You gotta get so many no’s to get a yes.
Christopher: You have to build your strength. At this point in my life, there’s nothing nobody can tell me.
Taliek: A goddamn thing!
Eddie: That’s why it was so amazing. We’d gone through all that just to get here. Watching people support us, watching that number go up, I was so ecstatic.
Devon: It felt so good.
Eddie: They believed in us. They believed in the dream we had. They wanted us to create history. And that’s what we did.
Christopher: Indya Moore from Pose used to be one of my gay daughters. She told me her dream. She was like, “This is what I’m doing. Nobody’s gonna stop me.” We lost connection because I’m doing this and she’s doing this, but that happens in life. I tagged her in [the campaign], and she’s always been that person that wants to give back. Once I did that, she posted it back, and $500 was in the account. That’s community support.
Paris: It’s about time. It’s about time. To see that momentum will just continue to make these moments come for people, not just us.
Jari: That’s how we survive being black, being queer. You don’t have something? Ask your brother. Ask your sister. Borrowing a cup of sugar? That’s so real. We know how to come together to make something grand. So we came together and did it. It’s our chosen family.
Paris: Chosen family — it’s the family you have [versus] the family you choose to have. This is my family. I love them. They mean the world to me.
Devon: I’m so thankful to share this with my family.
Did you plan the voguing on the carpet, or was it spontaneous?
Christopher: It was a mix of both, because it was kind of last minute.
Eddie: We wanted to! But we got the confirmation literally three hours beforehand. So we were pretty much like, “This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna take [Taliek’s] dress off, and that’s what gonna happen.” He wouldn’t be Taliek if he wasn’t extra and had those two outfit changes.
Taliek: I wanted to be Lady Gaga. Not to discredit anyone, but when I was speaking to my biological mother about my red-carpet look, I showed her my dress. She was like, “Why are you wearing a dress to the red carpet?” I was like, “Because I’m representing my community. If I was going to a ball, that’s what I’d be wearing.” But I was like, “I love you down mom, and you helped me get here too. So to respect you, I’m gonna wear a suit, too. But I want to have my moment as well.” The pictures are on “Page Six”! I vogued down. I think she was surprised — she didn’t realize how big this was. But she texted me, “Oh my God.”
Jari: We’re holding so much weight. To let it out was amazing. To be the first: The first to vogue on the carpet; the first to not wear suits on the carpet. Leyna is the first trans leading black woman. I’m the first black trans woman to produce a film here. If we don’t go big, why are we even here? We have to work twice as hard to make a statement.
Paris: Three times harder!
Christopher: You know Paris Is Burning premiered here years back. None of the [cast] made it here. Now look at us, generations later. We’ve imprinted on that carpet.
Eddie: This is how Paris Is Burning was supposed to be.
Paris: It’s about creating an opportunity.
Devon: For that little boy in Minnesota, in Indiana, who think they can’t do this. They can see us on that red carpet.
Paris: It’s all about support. Especially in our community, it’s about creating a narrative and building on it.
Jari: We have to do it all ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it.
Eddie: Especially coming from the background we come from. We were given scraps, and we made —
All in unison: Gold.