Leiomy Maldonado of HBO Max's 'Legendary' finally feels 'comfortable': Here's when she knew she'd made it

"In my career, something that was important was having patience to make the right decisions."

Leiomy Maldonado.
Courtesy WarnerMedia

The HBO Max show "Legendary" is a ballroom-centric take on big-budget reality competition shows like "Dancing with the Stars." Each week on the show, a panel of celebrity judges declares one team (or "house") the victor and sends another one home. While panelists include TV star Jameela Jamil and rap titan Megan Thee Stallion, one judge's opinion seems to matter most to competitors and fans alike: Leiomy Maldonado's.

Maldonado, the so-called "Wonder Woman of Vogue," is a ballroom trailblazer. Known for her hyper-athletic voguing style, she burst into prominence in 2009 when she became the first trans contestant on "America's Best Dance Crew," alongside her troupe Vogue Evolution. In 2010, she choreographed and appeared in Willow Smith's video for "Whip My Hair," and in 2017, she was featured in Nike's "BeTrue" ad campaign.

These days, she choreographs and acts in FX's ballroom drama "Pose." An artform pioneered by queer people of color in which competitors show off their skills in varied disciplines like modeling, lip synching, and dance, ballroom got some mainstream attention in the early '90s, thanks to the documentary "Paris Is Burning" and the hit Madonna song "Vogue."

Ahead of tonight's season two finale of "Legendary," Grow caught up with Maldonado for a chat about overcoming money challenges, making it as a trans performer, and the long road to financial security.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Growing up: 'I was taught not to value money as an important thing'

Ryan Ermey, Grow senior writer: What was your early relationship with money?

Leiomy Maldonado: Growing up, my family really didn't have much money, and I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was taught to not value money as an important thing. It was more just for survival, just to make sure we had the essential things that we needed.

I was raised by my dad until about age 8. He found out he was positive with HIV, and he got really sick. So my siblings and I had to move in with my grandmother, and she took care of us.

It was hard for me, because I knew I was different and that I had to live this childhood — basically my life became being my dad's assistant. I was his nurse, basically. I was taking care of him and handling his medication, because I felt like that was my job. My grandmother kind of put that on me as well. And it was tough for me, because me and my dad didn't have the closest relationship prior to that. I was a child. I didn't really know how to deal with those emotions, but I had to just put that to the side and be there.

Ermey: What was your first job?

Leiomy: The first job that I actually had was working as a peer educator at an afterschool program. Back then, I was a teen, so I just wanted to educate myself more on peer education, and anything regarding drug overdoses and things like that, because growing up, I dealt with that within my family. And even with HIV, I wanted to educate myself more on those things, so I can find ways to give back to the community. I did a lot of internships. They didn't pay much, but it was good enough for me.

Leiomy Maldonado with fellow 'Legendary' judges Megan Thee Stallion and Jameela Jamil.
Courtesy WarnerMedia

Ermey: What was it like growing up as a queer kid in the Bronx, and how did you first get involved with ballroom?

Leiomy: I was about 12 or 13 years old when I started hanging out after school, going out and hanging out with friends. That became an issue with my grandmother at the time. And I didn't come out by choice. My uncle kind of pressured me about it and was like, "I know that you're different. I know that you're not attracted to women." At the time, I didn't know how to express myself and say, "Listen, I'm trans. I feel like I'm a woman." I didn't know how to explain that.

It wasn't until maybe the age of 15 that I came across my first trans mentor, at Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club here in the Bronx. I came across her and she was voguing. That's when I was first introduced to it. A few days after that, she came back and gave me a VHS tape with a compilation of trans women competing and voguing. I was like, "Wow, I didn't know that this world existed." I thought, "I have a place in this world. There's a purpose for me."

Leiomy Maldonado.
Courtesy WarnerMedia

Starting out in ballroom, 'I'd use that money to eat and survive'

Ermey: If you watch "Paris Is Burning" or "Pose" or "Legendary," you start to understand that ballroom culture is, to an extent, about projecting opulence and wealth — even though you're dealing with a lot of people, including homeless queer youth, who don't have it. How did your money situation mesh with that, when you came into this world?

Leiomy: I dealt with a lot within the ballroom community, because I was so different. The ballroom scene is about being opulent and showing off your best and being the best and looking your best. I fell in love with the passion of voguing, and I didn't even really understand how important ballroom was until a few years after I started competing.

I thought, 'I have a place in this world. There's a purpose for me.'
Leiomy Maldonado
judge on 'Legendary'

A lot of people, they criticized me based on how I looked, they criticized me based on the fact that I didn't have the latest fashions. These were times when I didn't have much, and I would go to the ball, win money at the ball, and then I would use that money to eat and to survive.

I didn't really care about fashions and things like that. And I dealt with a lot of shade, because the ballroom scene is so fixated on that. They didn't know how to support me and to respect me, to understand that the things that mattered to them didn't really matter to me. It's crazy that we're having this conversation, because that's something I've had to deal with, and it's something that I've never talked about.

Ermey: You're well known as an amazing dancer. How did you begin your career trajectory as a dancer? Did you ever take lessons?

Leiomy: I've never taken a dance class. When I found out about voguing, something about it sparked this passion in me, and I just fell in love with the style itself. When I came onto the ballroom scene, I emulated it to my best understanding. And at first, they didn't accept it. What I was bringing to the table, although I thought it was voguing, to them, it wasn't, it was completely different. I helped evolve the style of voguing to what it is now, how it's so athletic and so high-energy.

Leiomy Maldonado.
Courtesy WarnerMedia

I struggled a lot as a woman because I was so athletic, and being in the ballroom scene, I was always attacked for that. This style is something that, if you literally vogue every day for a year or two, your body would be, like, amazing. It's like going to the gym. And for a long time, I fought myself because I didn't know how to accept my body type. They kind of made me feel like I didn't belong.

Through dance, I found myself as a person. I found my confidence. I found my womanhood. I learned how to be strong and to be vulnerable at the same time. Had I listened to the ballroom, I would have never been able to explore my body as a dancer.

Voguing as a career: 'Wow, this is a green light'

Ryan: When did you realize that you could make a career out of voguing?

Leiomy: Around 2008, we started Vogue Evolution, and then in 2009, we were a part of season four of "America's Best Dance Crew." To me, it was groundbreaking, coming from the ballroom scene and being underground for so long. I felt like being on the show kind of put voguing on the map, where dancers and parts of the mainstream would respect it as a dance form and not just some gay thing.

Not winning [the show], I was OK with that. I didn't care about winning; I wanted to show the world where voguing was coming from. And it wasn't the end. The year after that, I was approached by the Smiths to be a part of the "Whip My Hair" video. That, for me, was like, "Wow, this is a green light."

Ermey: How has your career and your decision-making around money grown from there?

Leiomy: In [2010], I started traveling overseas and started teaching dance. Teaching people, and seeing how confident they become through dance, and being able to share my journey and my life — that has kept me really, really humble. It has kept me in a state of mind where I know that any day I can lose this. I can lose this platform. I can lose my health, my body. I can't really do much if I can't walk. So I try to appreciate everything.

I realized that in my career, something that was important was having patience to make the right decisions. I don't have a manager, I don't have someone finding these gigs. Being able to be the boss, I can say, "No, I don't want to do this; OK, I'll do that."

Ermey: When did you feel like you'd made it financially?

Leiomy: Honestly, that wasn't until recently. And it took a long time. I don't think people understand how hard it is as a dancer, especially when you're solely dancing for a very long time. I've dealt with being homeless and not having a place of my own, or staying with friends. It wasn't until a few years ago that I was finally able to say, "Oh, wow, Leiomy. You're finally in a place where you're comfortable."

But honestly, I still feel blessed because I came from ballroom. My career has been built on ballroom. And although I didn't always get the love and support from the ballroom community, if it wasn't for that community and voguing, I don't even know where my place in the world would be right now.

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