The Tragic Gay Legacy of Madonna’s Most Famous “Vogue” Performance

It was 1990, the year of the Hubble Telescope and the World Wide Web, of Pretty Woman and Dick Tracy. It was the year of “Vogue.”

Madonna, modeling a pale pink confection of a gown in the style of Marie Antoinette, her white blond wig of curls piled high and topped with swan feathers, performed the hit single — named not for the fashion magazine but for a term often heard on the makeshift catwalks of Harlem drag balls — at the MTV VMAs in Los Angeles. No pop music performance would ever encapsulate modern (pre-postmodern) gay culture as successfully as this one: now permanently accessible on YouTube, it is a freeze-frame of a bygone counterculture first ravaged by the AIDS virus and then laid to waste by identity politics and the digital age. It is explicit, it is decadent, it is camp.

Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez — two of Madonna’s backup dancers, who would each reach their own fame after the 1991 premiere of Truth or Dare, the film that documented Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour — translated the same dance poses they had choreographed for the “Vogue” music video to the stage, adding flourishes that earned screams from the crowd. They carried silk fans that, when whipped open, sent a satisfying rip through the loudspeakers, and, near the end of the performance, they moved sideways in minuscule steps across the stage in unison with the rest of their ensemble, giving the impression of a conveyer belt.

The idea to style the performance after pre-Revolution France came, according to Camacho, during a game of charades on the final leg of the Blond Ambition Tour, in Nice. The film his team was challenged to mime? Dangerous Liaisons. Six weeks later, the corset worn by Glenn Close in the film pressed Madonna’s powdered white breasts so firmly they looked as if they have been carved from marble by Bernini. Along with Camacho and Gutierez, lithe, gay men of color dressed in silk blouses, brocade vests, and short shorts, comprised the dance troupe. Madonna’s longtime backup singers, Donna De Lory and Niki Haris, draped in carnation pink, were the tawdrier stepsisters to her Cinderella. The spotlight was on Madonna, but not a single character was expendable. They each summoned a fierceness that, when pooled together, evoked a pride of lions. At the time, two members of the pride were HIV-positive. One of them, Gabriel Trupin, would die of AIDS four years later.

I was seven years old when I watched the live telecast with my teenage sister during one of her babysitting gigs. A few years shy of puberty, I wouldn’t develop a same-sex attraction for some time, but by the end of that six-minute-and-twenty-two-second spot of television, an unmistakably inherent sensibility would flower inside of me, a cosmic aesthetic mapped by a constellation of decadence, bold femininity, and tragedy.

Hairstylist turned writer. Married to a dude. Dad to a cat. Proud survivor of Christian fundamentalism, codependent mothering, and the ’90s.

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