The Executive Realness category has been part of ballroom culture since at least the 1980s. Cultural critic madison moore argues that categories such as Executive Realness and Runway can be understood only within the context of white supremacy. For racialized subjects, moore argues in their book Fabulous, simply walking on the street can be dangerous. “In this context,” they offer, “when walking is elevated to the level of performance, what it underscores is survival and assertion—taking space, not waiting to perhaps one day be given it.”
This is why I appreciated the Executive Realness category description written by Advisory Board member Marco West, which planners posted to our Facebook event page: “Executives don’t always have to wear a suit. Tonight we simply want to see your interpretation of an executive. However you must have information about the Peabody Library as you plan to buy the library.” The category demands that competitors “take” and “own” the Peabody Library via performance.
Inspired by Apple’s decision to refurbish and open a store in Washington DC’s Carnegie Library, competitor Janol Balenciaga arrived at the inaugural Peabody ball with a faux-Wall Street Journal article that read, “Apple CEO Janol Balenciaga will Transform Peabody Library into an Apple Store.” As part of the conversion, “the library’s book collection is being relocated elsewhere, with reading rooms turned into product demonstration areas.”
Balenciaga explained his creative process in a phone interview:
I’m a high school counselor. My day-to-day is solely focused on getting young, black and brown, poor kids into college. I definitely value the concept of professionalism and finding ways to allow that to manifest in ways that are natural to me. So ‘Executive’ really gives me an opportunity not only to showcase what I do on the day-to-day and what feels really organic to me, but it also challenges me depending on the category.
So for instance, the Peabody Ball, it calls for us to not bring it like what the everyday executive would look like. So keeping the suit at home, but also showing that you have information on the Peabody Ballroom as you plan on buying it. So I got to learn about the Peabody. I learned that it is one of the premier libraries in Baltimore, and really one of the premier libraries in the country. I learned more about Johns Hopkins. I’m a history buff in general. So it all correlated to things that I’m naturally interested in.
I had to talk to my house father and he gave me some advice on the direction that I should move in, and then I took some of his ideas and capitalized off that. And then, boom, I’m gonna create my own newspaper and I’m going to be the CEO of Apple and I’m going to turn the Peabody into an Apple Store. [I] totally would not want that to happen in real life, but I thought it would be something fun, something that the judges and the Peabody would be like—“oh, like he actually took the time to think of a different way to portray what his interpretation of an executive should be for this ball.”
The fact that I was able to be in a space where all my identities were once not welcomed, it was kind of like a moment where I was like, “damn, I’m sticking it to the man right now.” Like this is what it’s all about. This is what ballroom is about. Like this is what being a queer, black man is about. Showing up in spaces where we’re not always welcome or where we’re not the norm. The ball was like a symbol of our community becoming the norm.
The purpose of ballroom is for you to have a community which you find through your ballroom house, through your ballroom family, through the participants in ballroom. The purpose of ballroom is to truly love who you are as a black and brown, queer or trans person. It’s also a space where you are challenged to grow. The skills that you have, you can hone all those skills and those can help you progress in different facets of life. It’s really like an underground community that supports you in different facets of life that expand beyond ballroom.
I took away the purpose [of the ball] to bridge the gap and start conversations on how Johns Hopkins can show up to be a greater ally for our community, recognizing the privilege that the institution has and knowing a lot of the challenges that our community faces. Knowing that there are a lot of challenges that continue to stifle our community, I really felt like the institution wanted to be an active change agent in that.
Janol Balenciaga competes in the Executive Realness category at the Peabody ball. Image by Gerard Gaskin.
Janol Balenciaga’s faux Wall Street Journal prop. (Click to enlarge.)