'Legendary' Judge Leiomy Maldonado on Bringing Ballroom to the Masses (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Barbara Nitke/HBO Max
Known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue,” Leiomy Maldonado is a living legend of the ballroom community who has gone on to work with the likes of Willow Smith and Icona Pop, compete on the MTV series America’s Best Dance Crew and choreograph competition scenes for Pose. She even has a signature hair flip, “The Leiomy Lolly,” that’s been replicated by Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and others. So when she was approached by the HBO Max reality competition Legendary about being a contestant, it’s no surprise she said no. “I felt like that wasn't really my place,” she tells ET.
As executive producers David Collins, Rob Eric and Michael Williams continued to develop the series, which sees eight houses largely comprised of gay and trans people of color competing in weekly balls in order to achieve “legendary” status, they came back to Maldonado to see if she would be a judge. “I felt like it was the perfect opportunity,” she says. “I’ve been a part of ballroom for so long and I’ve been able to achieve so much in my career through ballroom and because of ballroom, and so for me, to be in that seat felt very, very special.”
On Legendary, which first debuted in May withe the launch of the streaming platform, Maldonado serves as one-fourth of the permanent judges’ panel alongside stylist Law Roach, The Good Place star Jameela Jamil and rapper Megan Thee Stallion. “For me, being on the panel, I want to make sure that I’m planting a seed into these competitors and making them feel like they can grow,” she says of her role. “A lot of times, we watched certain shows and the feedback is more negative than positive. I try to find a way to let them know the real deal while still planting a seed where they can grow and they can change.”
While there are members of the ballroom community working behind the scenes to bring authenticity to the series, she and MC Dashaun Wesley, who was also initially recruited to be a contestant before being asked to host, are the only ones on camera that have a deep understanding of the competition and what to look for as contestants represent their respective houses in category after category.
And when the series was first announced, there was initially some backlash over the fact that people like Jamil and Thee Stallion had no history or connection with the community. (“We understand our place,” Jamil later told ET about the two coming on as outsiders and being respectful allies of the community.) But Maldonado had no problem taking the time to educate her fellow judges on the competition.
“I felt like that was one of my jobs outside of judging,” she continues, adding that they took time before each ball to go through what they were all looking for. “And even throughout the show, sometimes you see me take the time to be like, ‘Hey, this means this. This means that.’” Ultimately, it helped elevate the panel overall. “As the show goes on, you get to see them learn,” she says.
And when it comes to the feedback, particularly from Roach, who has established himself as a harder judge to please and even sparred with guest judge and Pose star Dominique Jackson in one episode, Maldonado confirms it’s all real. “Trust and believe everything you see on the show is authentic, down to the commentary,” she says, adding, “It’s so fun to see people be in their natural state.”
While Legendary is ultimately a competition, Maldonado sees it as an opportunity to show how ballroom is a culture. “It means more to us than just being on stage and looking amazing,” she says of their community, which has been appropriated by the mainstream for decades.
In one particularly emotional moment during episode five, fans get to see just how much the culture and community means to her. “I express how important and how much ballroom has fought for love and respect and for acceptance,” she recalls, adding that what the show does best is explain why ballroom is so important to everyone involved and the real-life stakes that go beyond trophies or titles or money.
Filmed in the spring, the series wrapped right before the coronavirus outbreak forced many around the country to shelter in place. And when it finally premiered, it came amid the pandemic as well as the eruption of protests all across the country in the name of George Floyd, who was killed by police, and led to a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Maldonado, what’s happening right now, especially during Pride Month, shows just how important and necessary it is to have a series like Legendary, which is from and about people of color, about the LGBTQ community and authentic to its core. “It's everything,” she says. “There's so much going on in this world right now. Trans women are being killed left and right. Black lives are being taken left and right.”
Maldonado adds, “This show is celebrating us. It’s showing people that we are human.”