Venus Xtravaganza | Photo by Helem Lamboy

Kimberly Reed on the Life and Legacy of Venus Xtravaganza

I'm Your Venus tells a new chapter in the story of the Paris Is Burning star

11 mins read

The poignant story of Venus Xtravaganza is one of several reasons that the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning remains incredibly popular. One of several fabulous New York City ballroom walkers featured in Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Venus’s lively screen presence, vivacious energy, and her earnest hopes for the future immediately captivated audiences. Her story helped make Paris Is Burning a landmark thanks to the attention and space it gave to transwomen, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, to share their experiences in their own words.

Unfortunately, as viewers of Paris Is Burning know, Venus never lived to see the impact of her story, as she was murdered in a motel room in December 1988. She was only 23 years old.

The life and death of Venus Xtravaganza return to the screen in I’m Your Venus. The film, directed by Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons, Dark Money), follows Venus’s biological family and her chosen family as the Pellagattis and the House of Xtravaganza join forces to have the unsolved case reopened. Beyond closure for the loss of their sister, the families seek justice for the many transwomen who shared Venus’s fate.

Reed, speaking with POV via Zoom ahead of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, vividly recalls the impact of seeing Venus on screen in Paris Is Burning. “I was living in San Francisco, and I was in the midst of my own transition when I saw the film,” says Reed. 

“It is hard to describe because some of the stories in Paris Is Burning, especially Venus’s story, are so difficult, but at the same time, I was so desperate, so hungry, to see myself portrayed on screen and to see any examples of trans folks. It left a deep, deep impression on me.”

The director says that there wasn’t a ballroom scene in San Francisco at the time—with ballroom referring to the underground subculture created by members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially Black and Latinx members, who come together in a celebration of dance, fashion, and drag that was a form of protest and community-building—so she drew upon the advice of executive producer Dominique Jackson, who emerged from the 1990s’ ballroom scene and starred in the hit TV series Pose, which depicts the growth of the culture in 1980s’ New York.

“Dominique tells a story of Venus serving as a cautionary tale: ‘Don’t let what happened to Venus happen to you.’ I remember thinking exactly the same thing many, many times,” says Reed.

“Despite that cautionary tale, the more important impact that watching Paris Is Burning and meeting Venus for the first time through film had was that it gave me an example of how to live as a trans woman and be myself and be public. How to not be ashamed of anything, and be fierce, and be beautiful–and be all of the things that we want to have in life. This freedom of expression is so important. It marked me deeply. It marked me as a filmmaker, too.”

While Venus’s cold case has many hooks for the kinds of true crime docs that are all the rage these days, the impact of her story is evident as Reed takes a very different approach that centres the life lost. “People are certainly fascinated with true crime stories,” she says. “I think they come with their own set I clichés. As a filmmaker, I didn’t want to get stuck in those clichés.”

The responsibility of continuing Venus’s story is apparent in the way the documentary leads with care. The film follows Venus’s brothers John, Joe, and Louie, and her niece Jillian on the side of the Pellagatti family, and house mother Gisele representing the House of Xtravaganza. Together, they reopen painful wounds with hopes to heal. At the same time, the Pellagattis lead a second campaign to honour their sister by updating all her records—and her headstone—to reflect her chosen name. The posthumous name change for a transwoman would be a first in New Jersey. Alongside this quest, the families seek to have Venus’s apartment designated a historical site in recognition of her contribution to trans history.

Elevated by this character-driven approach, I’m Your Venus emphasizes the human costs of violence as it observes the families’ pain. Members from both families are still grieving, particularly as their immersion into Venus’s life tells them so much about a sister they hardly knew. Emotions boil over as the case brings breakthroughs and disappointments, false starts and hopeful leads.

Members of the Pellagatti family and the House of Xtravaganza in I'm Your Venus | Participant

“I’ve been thinking about it as true, true crime,” says Reed. “If you were to make a documentary about people involved in a true crime documentary, I think this is what you would get. You would get folks who are trying to do the true crime thing, but the most important thing about that is: What are their emotions going into this and is the impact when they think they have an answer? What is the emotional impact when they don’t have an answer?”

Exploring the dynamics of estranged families is something that Reed handles especially well. The director previously shared her own experience reconnecting with her adopted brother and members of her high school class in Prodigal Sons. The 2008 film was the first documentary by an openly transgender director to receive a theatrical release in the USA.

“It informs deeply what I was going through,” Reed says when asked how her previous film influenced her relationship with the Pellagattis. “The relationship that I had with my brother in Prodigal Sons is, in many ways, the relationship that the Pellagattis didn’t have a chance to fulfill with their trans sister.”

Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning | Jennie Livingston

Reed adds that making the film with the Pellagattis helped her witness healing in action. Whether cameras were rolling or not, she notes the family’s openness to the trans community, as well as the trans and queer members of the crew who helped them understand Venus’s life and impact. Reed says they also saw aspects of their sister in present-day members of the House of Xtravaganza.

“I feel like our documentary filmmaking enterprise was part of their healing. We were kind of operating by proxy through them,” she observes. “I’m proud that our documentary film was able to not only witness that reconciliation, but be part of it, too.”

Being a slice of ballroom culture history, moreover, I’m Your Venus appropriately ends in a celebration of life as members of the scene would have it. But while the Pellagattis, Xtravaganzas, and other houses come together to celebrate Venus by voguing and dancing, Reed doesn’t offer the runway-ready portrait of ballroom that one sees in Paris Is Burning-inspired hits like RuPaul’s Drag Race (which has totally helped introduce Venus and Paris Is Burning to another generation) or HBO’s dance challenge show Legendary.

The Pellagattis at the ball | Participant

“I’m always more interested in the scene-behind-the-scene than the scene,” Reed explains. The director says it’s great to see ballroom celebrated in hit TV shows, but she credits Jackson and fellow executive producer Jonovia Chase, who has served as a ballroom consultant for numerous works, for rooting the film in the reality of ballroom culture.

“If you don’t understand the real foundation of ballroom culture and the fact that it’s there to prop up a lack of support with biological families—it has been doing it for decades and decades—it can be misunderstood as a social club that has fabulous gatherings that can be seen as presentational,” Reed says.

“It was important to us to make sure that ballroom was not presented in this camera-ready, highly-polished way,” Reed continues. “The first time you really see ballroom in our film is at a protest. It’s rooted in the streets. It’s a political movement. It is a reaction towards police brutality and the killing of a member of their community. That’s why they started voguing.”

The dance lives on as the light of Venus Xtravaganza burns brighter than ever.

I’m Your Venus premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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