Legendary Star Leiomy Maldonado Takes Us Inside The World Of Ballroom & The Metaverse

Photo: Jared Siskin/Getty Images.
Imagine a place where you can be anything you want to be and fully embrace who you are — without judgment. For Black folxs and members of the LGBTQ+ community, this sounds like a dream. Well, the metaverse hopes to make that dream a (virtual) reality. 
With the help of the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, I was able to transport myself into the world of ballroom for the Metaverse Culture Series, Dream House. I was joined in the metaverse by Leiomy Maldonado, star of HBO and Channel 4’s Legendary for an in-depth conversation regarding ballroom culture, LGBTQ+ intersectionality, and how tech is levelling the playing field for marginalised groups through diversity and inclusion. The Dream House series is an effort to create a more accessible entry point into the future of technology for historically excluded communities. In the metaverse, Leiomy lets us into her world and shares her experiences as an icon who shaped her identity and built a vast community via the internet. 
Unbothered: First, thank you so much for having Refinery and Unbothered here to chat with you. I'm a huge fan of the show and of all of the amazing work that you're doing outside. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what Dream House means to you?
Leiomy: Oh, that's a good question. I love the fact that Dreamworld is so open to not only ideas of creating worlds but also creating avatars. It's so much fun. It gives people different options to play around with who they want to be and how they want to be portrayed, especially in a world where being social sometimes is tough for people. I feel like the Metaverse is somewhere where people can be open and open to talk and open to trying different things and exploring. Just being a part of this has been fun for me. I can only imagine for so many people what this can do for them.
Absolutely. How has technology and social media played a part in creating your own identity? 
L: Being a part of ballroom, it's been kind of tough because I [wasn’t always] receiving flowers, or getting good feedback, or receiving love. And being a part of social media at a time when YouTube first started, that's how I got discovered and  how I became as popular as I am today. Without those venues and without those networking experiences, I probably wouldn't be as successful as I am today. I've been able to inspire people in so many different ways, even without trying. So imagine being able to teach classes through the metaverse and teaching movement and just being able to have fun. That's so much fun! [There are] so many opportunities and it's endless.
Earlier you were saying how in the beginning of your ballroom career you weren't getting your flowers. Social media and people with their critiques make that even more tough. How do you think that social media and tech have shaped your views around society and beauty standards? 
L: Well, luckily for me when I was able to go from ballroom into the mainstream and on social media, it's always been great feedback. You know you have haters here and there, but for the majority of it, it has been nothing but love. At times where I felt at my lowest, I've gone through my videos and comments and realised, Wow Leiomy, there are people who believe in you. And that's important. A lot of times we don't want to look at comments because of negativity, but if there's negative comments it means someone is watching. You're doing something good! For me coming from ballroom, I learned to have a tough skin. I expected certain feedback and I expected that being a woman of trans experience and being a part of the LGBT community and being of colour that it was going to be tough for me to be accepted in the world as an artist. And luckily, I've been able to be successful and not have to rely on my transness. Yes, I'm a trans woman of colour, but that's not who I am. I'm a woman. I'm an artist. [But] that's not what you see first. And a lot of times I wanted people to respect me as an artist.  I may be of trans experience, but that's another part of my journey. And I feel so blessed to be able to say that so many people look up to me in so many different ways, not just because of my transness. My transness makes me even more special, of course, but my journey and who I am as an artist and my brand is what I stand for and the fact that I'm here. I'm always shining light on the underdog because I was once an underdog; that's powerful to me.

My transness makes me even more special, of course, but my journey and who I am as an artist... is what I stand for and the fact that I'm here. I'm always shining light on the underdog because I was once an underdog.

It sounds like social media and technology have given you an opportunity to explore the many facets of yourself. And I love that. So being as wise as you are, being as legendary as you are, knowing what you know now, what is something that you would share with your younger self if you had an opportunity to talk to her?
L: I would tell my younger self to be open to change. I feel like that's something that as a child I wasn't really open to. I wasn't really open to change. And being a woman of trans experience and transitioning, I felt like before my transition, I didn't really have a purpose in life as a person because I didn't feel like I related to the body that I was given. And it wasn't until I started transitioning that I started living honestly. And without that I wouldn't have been able to be who I am today. I've always had issues with change because when life is comfortable, it's okay. Especially when you go through a lot inside like anxiety and mental health issues.
Change is very good. The world feels like it's changing. We’re opening up way more and having more conversations about gender and identity. I think the metaverse is obviously creating a space for us to have real allyship. What does allyship between transwomen and cis women look like for you?
L: For me it is mainly accepting one another. Everybody wants to compare and contrast. And for me as women, we go through a lot of the same struggles — Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically. I've had conversations with women where I'm like, “I get harassed for being a woman on an everyday basis.” And I've been told that that's because I chose to transition and I'm like, ”What kind of bullshit is that?” And it's crazy to even have those kinds of conversations, but I had to be open and let them know everyone, whether you're man or woman, we go through being harassed on an everyday basis regardless. A lot of times people don't view it as the same thing, especially when it's a man being harassed by women. For me, it's about opening eyes through facts and through real life experiences. Yes, a lot of people may not understand that women of trans experience are women because they don't have those experiences. Just like a lot of women say, oh, 'You can't conceive. You can't have periods.' But there are [cis] women out here who have complications, who cannot conceive, who go through certain things, and that doesn't make them any less of a woman. And as a woman of trans experience, I love to acknowledge the fact that women go to certain things that trans women will not go through. And I can't take that away from you, and I will never take that away from you. But you shouldn't be able to take away my experience either. 

I want to be visible in the most visible way possible but ... I have boundaries and I deserve to be respected. There are certain things that I will not allow. I don't care. I'm not public property. 

Period! Obviously you are an icon in your own right. I'm curious to know who are some of the icons for you in your life?
L: Oh, that's a tough question because coming up watching TV I never had anyone who I saw myself in. I didn't have those representations. My icon would have to be one of my mentors, my gay mother, Tyree. He's been a huge, huge, huge support with my transition or just my life overall. Without him, I don't know if I would have been able to even say that I love as deeply as I do. He taught me how to love. He taught me how to see the beauty in life and also to embrace flaws. I didn't learn that at home. And being young, I was lost mentally and he guided me in a way where he wasn't telling me what to do, but more so giving the options of what to do, how to live, and how to make decisions on my own.. [He] wasn't someone who was pushy. Sometimes you come across mentors who have a mental list of how they want you to live based on their own mistakes. And my gay mother wasn't like that.
He gave you the autonomy to be yourself, find your own way, and just be that underlying guide for you. All amazing things. You are a woman of many talents. What would you say is your overall mission in life in the work that you are doing , the art that you create, and the way that you amplify other voices?
L: For me, I want to be the most relatable person there in the public world. I want people to understand that I'm okay with talking about mental health issues. I'm okay with talking about the good and the bad in life. I feel like a lot of people, especially on social media, are living fake lives. They post all these things for likes and they talk about their lifestyles, and they show you all these things. But they're empty canvases. I can sit here and have honest conversations with people and share things that people would be like, ”Wow, I would have never thought that she goes through the same things.” And when I do share those things, the feedback I get from my followers and my believers is so beautiful. I have so many people coming up to me telling me, ”I'm okay with being depressed because I know things will get better because you were depressed and things got better for you.” Nowadays I want to be visible in the most visible way possible but in the sense where you're still going to respect my boundaries because I'm a human and I have boundaries and I deserve to be respected. There are certain things that I will not allow. I don't care. I'm a public figure, not public property. 
Come on! Come on!
L: I just want people to know that no matter where you are in life, you should never forget where you came from. And that shining light on underdogs is the best thing ever because we are the ones who make the world go round.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series