Are you gagged? Have you been served enough eleganza during your stay-at-home isolation? If not, get ready because while HBO Max launched today with only a handful of new series one of them, “Legendary,” lets the underground ballroom scene take another major step into the spotlight.
A reality competition show with $100,000 at stake, “Legendary” is a very slick but often entertaining showcase that allows eight “houses,” made up almost completely of LGBTQ+ members, to demonstrate their skills in solo and group challenges. Each week one house wins the show trophy while another is sent home. By the end of the series, either the Houses of Escada, Gucci, Ebony, St. Laurent, Balmain, West, Lavin or Ninja will have served enough face, vogued the house down and shablamed for the gods to be crowned the series’ inaugural winner.
That being said, despite some well-shot backstory moments with the contestants, “Legendary” is very much a television show and that’s most apparent in its judging panel. The good news is the iconic ballroom dancer, “Wonder Woman of Vogue” and “Pose” ballroom choreographer Leiomy Maldonado, is a judge. Having Megan Thee Stallion and stylist Law Roach in the mix is, well, fine. The participation of Jameela Jahil, who was forced (?) to come out as queer after she was mistakingly announced as the host, and a different guest judge every week is much more concerning for the legitimacy of the competition (as well as a first episode elimination that seemed more about a producer-driven storyline than a true “vogue-off” winner). But when the houses hit that runway? The sheer talent on hand is often breathtaking.
This week, we caught up with Maldonado and the show’s emcee Dashaun Wesley, another “Pose” and ballroom veteran, to discuss how it all came together and what to expect during the rest of the season.
The Playlist: How did you each get involved in the show?
Dashaun Wesley: Well, originally from the beginning, the scout production approached me and a couple of other members of the ball community from Los Angeles about possibly coming together, about the idea they had for a show. And in the beginning, I was actually supposed to be a competitor on the show, but once we had our sit down and discussions, and our making rounds about how this thing can come about [we went in another direction]. It’s been two years in the making, to be honest. We’ve been having so many conversations. We got picked up from another network, but things didn’t work out in our favor, so we decided to go fish some more. But I’ve been working with them since the beginning. I kind of was given the opportunity to host this show because, like, I do hold these events on a regular basis. So. it kind of took its hand and placed itself there. I became the host of this show and they gave me the opportunity to represent this culture and this theme from the show.
Leiomy Maldonado: As far as me, when I first was approached about the show, they were already working on the pilot, as Dashaun was just mentioning. So, it came to me and they were interested in whether I wanted to have my house be a part of it and compete as well. But for me, my house is not as ballroom affiliated as the other houses and [we’re] not really as competitive. So, I told them no. And then when they finally were able to get picked up by HBO they came to me about judging. And for me, I was like, “Oh wow.” I’m like, “Hell yeah! Why wouldn’t I?” And they mentioned to me that I would be the only person from ballroom to be actually judging. And for me, it’s very important because I play a huge part in why voguing is so respected in the world and why voguing became so mainstream and respected period. And for me to be a part of this, and for me to be the one who’s giving people pointers and, giving them constructive criticism, I feel like it means a lot.
The Playlist: I want to talk about judging it in a bit, but for both of you, and maybe this is a Dashaun question, was it harder to find houses that were willing to participate than you thought it would be?
Dashaun Wesley: Well, I don’t think that it’s the difficulty with finding the houses, it’s finding the members within the houses, that was a very unique part because we come from many different backgrounds and many different experiences. So, to have this opportunity shoved in front of us, we know how we are as a house and how people come to us about opportunities. We’ve been performing and doing different shows. There’s so many different talents and people out there in the world, it’s so unique now it comes around, but it’s focused with it coming to the houses and they’re like, “Hey, let’s choose”. There are so many houses out there. It’s not just eight houses in a box. There’s hundreds of houses that are out there, but about making the choices of what works now. It’s about the individuals within the house and how they come together in order to make this possible.
The Playlist: Were there any legendary houses or well-known houses that you thought would participate though, that didn’t?
Dashaun Wesley: No, because I believe, with great, great, great honor and pleasure and wonderful wishes in the world that season two would give an opportunity for us to see the other houses that didn’t get the opportunity the first time. And with the grace of everything above we’ll have that chance to see a season two with a different set of houses and different sets of people and everything in the mix. So you’ll be able to see the different ways that houses come together and bring it forth on our runway.
The Playlist: Actually that was where I was going with my last question. I’ve seen that so many houses have tens or even a hundred or more members. In theory, if you get a season two, could say, the House of Ninja, come back but with five different members representing it? Have you guys talked about that?
Dashaun Wesley: I believe that will be the duty, because you can bring back the same house, but you can flip it up with five different people. So this is the ample amount of space and opportunity for us to go in so many directions with what’s going on here. Like other shows that have secret things and opportunities where they just mix things up where you expect it to go one way [and they flip it].
Leiomy Maldonado: “Legendary” can just go with the route of doing like an “All-Star” season bringing back other houses that have been there before, but use different members to showcase a different kind of dynamic. You never know. I feel like that’s the thing about the show, per se is like a lot of people have those same questions. Like they’re like, “Hey, do you think that the right houses [were chosen]?” or “Do you think, oh, this house should have been, or that house should have been?” I feel like the first season, it’s perfect. It’s going to give people a push and they’re going to be inspired for season two. And they’re going to be a little bit more prepared and we’re going to see a little bit more magic. And it’s a part of our world.
The Playlist: Was there a moment on set when you guys were in the middle of judging or shooting something where you said, “Oh yeah, this is going to work”?
Leiomy Maldonado: For me, it was after the first ball that we shot, I was already like, “Oh, wow, yeah, this is amazing”, because it’s one thing to hear about the ideas and hear how things are going to be put together and stuff. But to actually see it in person, it’s completely different. And me and Dashaun, coming from ballroom, we already know what the energy of the balls give. We already know what to expect when it comes to a ball. So, the fact that they found a way to still bring the uncensored authenticity of ballroom but make it TV? When I was on that chair after the first one, I’m like, “Oh wow. They did that”. And I say, they, because it took a lot for them to find a way to make it work because although it’s ballroom and you’re getting the real story of ballroom and it’s not a real ball. But they found a way. They made it so perfect.
Dashaun Wesley: I’m the same as Leiomy. I’m going to piggyback off of her and say once you’re on the stage and everything is constant go it’s like, “Oh, it’s happening. Oh, it’s happening. Now we’re on episode two”. When I first hit the stage and had a conversation with the audience, I’m like, “O.K., this is really occurring”. And I believe it took enough time for that to happen. We’re long overdue if you ask me, but I just think “Why not now?” And I just think that very first episode of stepping on stage and letting the houses go and letting them go for the run and compete? I think that’s what really made it for me.
The Playlist: Granted, the show is giving a spotlight for ballroom, but you guys are also trying to make good TV. And you have a new guest judge, I’m guessing, every week?
Dashaun Wesley: Mm-hmm
The Playlist: Tyson Beckford is the first guest judge and, granted he may have some experience in ballroom that I couldn’t find online, but some of the contestants got very upset and named him backstage because they were not happy with how he’s judging. And, Leiomy, I know you’re an icon in the ballroom scene. You’re the most experienced person on the panel. With $100,000 at stake was it awkward having someone with that level of experience participate? Or do you think after a couple of episodes the judging balanced itself out?
Leiomy Maldonado: The thing about the ballroom [house members] is that they’re not used to how this competition is put together. You’re not used to having to receive feedback verbally. They’re not used to getting challenges and being put under specific pressure. And I feel like that’s something that the [contestants] there, they learned that. They learned that while working and putting together these challenges, they kind of “gag” like we like to say. “Gag” how pressure it is and how much work it actually takes. And when the comment was given to Tyson, I felt like it was uncalled for it because this man knows about runway. The category was “runway” and they had to be specifically walking in unison. So somebody misses a step, I’m sorry, but anybody can pick that up. Anyone that knows what being synchronized is, would understand that someone missed a step and the category is runway. This man has walked runways and knows about runway and has been a part of the modeling industry for years and I felt like it was kind of an ignorant comment.
The Playlist: Dashaun, another moment in the episode has La Roche stopping the show wanting two houses to come back for the vogue-off. It was a “Three Blind Mice” runway and, I’m paraphrasing, says “There are no mice out here”. He was upset. You calm down the crowd and simply note, “Nope, a cut is a cut”. Do you think that’s important for the rest of the series? That viewers understand that it doesn’t matter if you’re thinking this it’s the wrong call or not?
Dashaun Wesley: One interesting thing that was said definitely about this is that usually categories have sort of a title head and then there’s a description. And a few people pay attention, like the description that I read before the category happens is what the description of the category is called for. Usually, a lot of people get confused by the title and get confused by it and think that what the title is called, that’s what it is. But what happens is you’re bringing this idea of three things coming to life and bringing it forward. I think [the idea] this is going to do is educate everyone to understand definitely lines up. I think this will expand everyone [how to adapt to] thinking outside of the box, which people from ballroom usually do. They think outside of their box rather than going for the actual normal would be called for. This is why we come up with so many creative ideas and ways to execute different categories. It should be explanatory to know that there’s a title head, and there’s a description.
Did you finish shooting the competition before the COVID stay at home orders were put into effect?
Leiomy Maldonado: We literally finished shooting it the week before COVID came out and wanted to destroy humanity.
The Playlist: were you concerned or it was just coincidence that it ended then?
Leiomy Maldonado: No, we know we were concerned, especially like shooting the last ball. And that was when people started really taking it seriously. Luckily, we were able to finish it because I feel like it’s the perfect time for this to be out because it’s going to give people something to really look forward to watch. And if people are at home, a lot of people having nothing to do. This show alone is going to open up, like people’s mindset. And it’s going to inspire so many people that when there’s COVID-19 everybody’s going to something ballroom.
The Playlist: About that final episode, does the winner know they won or did you fill multiple winners and will it be a surprise when it’s released?
Dashaun Wesley: The winner knows who won. What happened was we shot the whole season from beginning to the end, like you just mentioned, like lucky enough, we caught everything before COVID came out and put everyone on lockdown. So we were able to complete everything. So the winner knows who won, it’s just up to us to make sure we deliver that final episode and make sure that people receive it as well too.
The Playlist: At the end of the season, do you do a mother of the ballroom? Are there any other extra awards or anything besides just the house that wins?
Leiomy Maldonado: No, we don’t do any other awards. They only do the one trophy at the end, but in between the episodes, we have some things for you guys. Some exciting stuff that’s going to happen. It’s going to keep the peoples on their toes. That’s all I’m going to say.
The Playlist: That ties into my last question two episodes are available now. There’ll be another episode in a week. Is there anything you can tease about the remaining episodes of the season to viewers or who love the show?
Leiomy Maldonado: I’m not into teasers, honestly. Everyone should look forward to every week, especially with the guests because the way that they chose the guests, I feel like it’s going to be so beautiful. Every week it’s so different. And it’s so magical. The bond being built and how everything works together. It’s going to be so cool.
The Playlist: Dashaun, anything from you?
Dashaun Wesley: I’m going to also say that be ready. Every episode is going to be different from the last episode.
The first two episodes of “Legendary” are now available on HBO Max. New episodes will be released every Wednesday.