Take a pose! My night at a fancy ball with Malcolm McLaren

It was late September 1988: George Bush was up against Michael Dukakis in the first of their two TV debates. The presidential campaign was hotting up and Dukakis was faltering. I switched off the TV and headed for Bond Street off Broadway, New York City, where Malcolm McLaren was living with Lauren Hutton. We were off to see a voguing ball downtown. Four of us ended up in the cab: McLaren, myself, the writer Richard Price and his wife, Lorraine Adams.

McLaren was in full flight, doing a hard sell on the idea of voguing: Price had been invited as the possible scriptwriter for a film that McLaren was pitching. I was just along for the ride. I was seeing a lot of McLaren in those days: I was trying to interview him for a book I was preparing about the Sex Pistols. He was fantastically evasive and this became a kind of game. At this stage, McLaren was deep into his role as the interface between underground subcultures and the mainstream: first it was hip-hop (Buffalo Gals), then mbaqanga (Duck Rock) and the brief fad for pop-opera (Fans). In 1988, he was still just ahead of the curve.

The cab pulled up in front of a nondescript public school in the Lower East Side. There was no hint of what was inside, which was madness: a full-on voguing ball with judges who included Debbie Harry, celebutante Dianne Brill, André Leon Talley, then the creative director of Vogue, the photographer Steven Meisel, king voguer Willi Ninja and McLaren himself. As the competitors hustled and bustled, the judges were called to the stage, and the representation began.

I didn’t realise it at the time but it was a pivotal moment. This ball was the latest variant in a tradition of black American, drag and gender-crossing balls that dated back to the 19th century in New York. The “house” system had begun in the 1970s as a way for gay black and Latino kids – many estranged from their families – to create their own community. As the houses grew in numbers, highly sophisticated dance-off categories proliferated. These included concepts such as “realness” and “face”.

With its name taken from the magazine (a portal of beauty and wealth from which the dancers were debarred), voguing developed as a way of further defusing aggression: it was an angular, stop-start, lightning-fast dance of real power, at once beautiful, aspirational, mocking and vicious. As the MC that night explained to us punters: “Voguing is a dance inspired by different poses from magazines incorporated into a combination of ballet, gymnastics and soul dancing.” In the actions of a master such as Ninja, it could accelerate, stop and freeze time.

This ball was being held by the House of Field, a major difference in itself. Designer Patricia Field’s House was, as Les Fabian Brathwaite has written, “the first downtown white house to walk the uptown balls”. With the cast of predominantly white and well-known judges from the music and fashion industries being exposed to the full gamut of cutting edge black American and Latino style, this was a crossover moment in the making.

Ninja kicked off proceedings by judging the category called Voguing in a Latino flavour. As the evening wore on, the atmosphere got more and more tense, whipped up by the MC’s caustic commentary. Shade was being thrown at high velocity through the school auditorium and hurled back with no quarter. As the insults piled up, Price turned to me. “Why are they being like this?” he asked. “Because it’s a competition,” I replied, “and that’s the way some gay men talk to each other.”

The rest was a blur of white light, dazzling representation and barely suppressed aggression. It was a freeze-frame moment, but the ball had repercussions. In May 1989, McLaren released Deep in Vogue from his Waltz Darling album, as “a special tribute to the Houses of New York”, that basically launched the style in the UK. Ninja featured heavily in the black and white video. I met him that spring in London: he was a gentle, courteous man with an underlying steel, obsessed with the grace of old-style glamour.

A month later, I returned to New York City with the director Constantine Giannaris to shoot some interviews for Out on Tuesday, Channel 4’s new gay series. The idea was to present the gay roots of house music – seemingly neglected by the UK music media. While in New York we filmed Vince Aletti (the first writer to track disco), disco PR maven Ray Caviano, and the famed DJ Frankie Knuckles, who described house music as “disco’s revenge”.

We needed something dynamic and current to balance the talking heads, and Ninja came up trumps. He found a close friend to vogue for us: Giannaris set up the location, grabbed his Super 8 and we blasted out Break 4 Love by Raze, the Spanish Fly mix – its minimal, brutal sound offset by heavy breathing and progressively more intense sex noises. The resulting footage was sensational: the intensity of the music matched by the sheer precision and presentness of the performance.

On that particular trip I finally got my interview with McLaren, in which he revealed that he had signed his voguing screenplay to Columbia Pictures. It never happened, but Ninja did get to star in what’s now regarded as the landmark voguing film, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, which was released in autumn 1990 – six months after Madonna’s Vogue hit No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.