For the next two weeks, here on The Window we’ll be featuring profiles of the amazing individuals featured in our Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters campaign, shot in New York by the iconic photographer Bruce Weber.
Biographer and journalist Patricia Bosworth interviewed each of the 17 models, capturing a chapter of their edifying stories. We are delighted to share Gisele Xtravaganza’s story below. (Note that Gisele is pictured with her mother Gisela and cousin Carlos.)
My name is Gisele Alicea. I was raised in Harlem. I am also known as Gisele Xtravaganza and I’m one of the mothers of the House of Xtravaganza in New York. For people who don’t know, the House of Xtravaganza is very much part of the ballroom culture in New York. (Ballroom culture is a subculture of the LGBTQ scene where men and women compete for prizes by dressing in drag and exploring gender in a dance-house setting.)
There’s nothing new about it. Since the 1960s and before African-American men were dressing up as women or butch queens in Harlem. The original House of Xtravaganza was founded in 1982 by Hector Valle, a gay guy from Puerto Rico who was famous for his elegant style of vogueing— striking poses, you know. He decided to create an all-Latino ballroom for Latino gays in a nightclub called Paradise Garage in the West Village.
The atmosphere at Xtravaganza has always been high-energy, competitive, and fun! There are a lot of contests. Very strict. Everything focused on specific categories, like Face or Femme Realness. You “walk,” stride, swish—like on a fashion show runway. Everybody is judged for the beauty of their clothing and makeup. There are many elaborate hairdos.
Today members at Xtravangaza are mostly African-American and Latino LGBTQ men and women, as well as a great many transgendered kids from all over who have been abandoned by their parents or thrown out of their homes by relatives who are homophobic and are struggling to survive. These kids are taken in by me and others—we call ourselves mothers or fathers.
I think part of discovering my real self was done when I was performing at the House of Xtravaganza and other balls over a period of ten years. I started dressing as a girl when I was 15. I won a lot of trophies for Runway and for Face and for Models.
I started transitioning at seventeen. I started taking hormones then, too. It was difficult at first. I was the only boy in my family (I have six sisters). It was difficult. But my mother accepted me right away—she never judged me or threw me out on the streets. That kind of thing happens. And I wanted to be a trans person, not gay. You can’t do this without really wanting to, because it’s a very difficult life.
Society tends to judge you harshly. I mean when you’re dating—or in a serious relationship—you need to have somebody who loves and cares for you. I’ve been in a relationship with a man for a year now; he knows I’m a trans and he accepts me. He wants to be public about us.
Until recently I was still living with my mother in Harlem. I needed to have her close while I was going through all this. Now I have my own apartment and I’ve done a lot of things—I’ve modeled for Patrick Demarchelier; I’ve appeared in Interview magazine; I’ve been in movies like The Extra Man; and last year I organized my own ball, The Universal Ball.
But I will always be involved with House of Xtravaganza.
“I Never Thought This Could Happen” was
directed by Bruce Weber and features members of the House of
Gisele and members of the House of Xtravaganza. Gisele wears Fendi.
Gisele wears The Row.
Gisele wears Cédric Charlier. Gisela and Carlos wear their own clothes.
All photos © Bruce Weber.