Devine Chanel Profile

By 1989, when famed dancer Alvin Ailey died of AIDS-related complications, the word dominated headlines around the world. Dancers at The Ailey School frequented the underground balls in New York City and walked the performance categories, modifying learned techniques to spin and dip. A month later, Black couturier Patrick Kelly died. Heavily influenced by the culture, Kelly mixed trends seen in ballroom with his French ready-to-wear designs. By the end of 1990, almost twice as many Americans died from AIDS-related causes as died in the Vietnam War. An alarming number of those people who died were Black. Devine Chanel sat glued to the TV after school every day, witnessing death after death of celebrities and local legends, and understood the gravity of the situation. Over the subsequent years, she attended talks by community activists and researchers to learn as much as possible about HIV/AIDS to educate others. Eventually, after becoming the mother of the House of Chanel, she married ballroom and HIV advocacy to prevent more people like the Aileys and Kellys of the world from disappearing.

“My mother had gay friends, and they all disappeared,” Devine stated in an interview. “One of her friends, Miss Shelley, a drag queen, lived down the street. I would stare at her long, natural nails. Her colorful rayon shirts, tight jeans, and roller-set hair that was feathered. [The look] was so alluring and flamboyant. There was always something to look at.”

Devine deduced that Miss Shelley’s absence, like many of her mother’s friends, was due to AIDS.

The CDC released a report in January of 1991 (the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) stating that “an estimated one million persons in the United States are infected with HIV; of these, an estimated 165,000-215,000 will die during 1991-1993.” Roughly 95,000 died in the states.

“My first time seeing a ball was on videotape. When I finally saw a ball in 1997, it was a party. Another way to gather. The way people go to the club and sweat themselves into a coma. Ballroom was just another part of underground life.”

The epidemic decimated the ballroom scene so much that organizers administered free HIV tests. Notable figures who died due to HIV/AIDS include Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, Danny Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja.

“AIDS impacted ballroom then and still impacts ballroom today. People were not open about it. We knew from how the ending looked. Stigma impacts us because we are a vain group of people. No one wants a stain on their image or legacy. Some people choose to disclose.”

She continued, “I had a best friend, a sister, who was trans. She was one of the first persons I knew to [disclose their status]. She looked like Aliyah and had the same build. She was fashionable not because it was trendy but because it was who she was.”

Devine hosted an AIDS-themed rumble ball on February 4th to commemorate National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and will host a ball on December 2nd for World AIDS Day.

“I’ve had children in my house that I had to get into care and have lost plenty. Seeing them regain their confidence, feel alive again after learning how to take their medications, and become undetectable. They no longer feel like they are going to die. That brings me joy.”

After one of her children tested positive at a ball, she learned a valuable lesson and applied that information to her balls. Due to stigma, people were reluctant to test at balls. Therefore, she arranged that people could test before her balls, their names would be added to a list, and then they would receive free admission to the ball.

“We lost a lot of amazing people, mothers who raised their children and beauties who walked this earth. It stripped us of a lot of valuable people. Everyone is valuable, but the ballroom members we lost are even more valuable because we can’t get to them any longer. We can’t hear them, we can’t get their advice, we can’t revel in their beauty.

Mother Devine Chanel was deemed an icon by RR Chanel, the founder of the House of Chanel in 2016. Leaders in ballroom are deemed icons because of their history, excellence in their category, leadership within the community, or wisdom learned from experience. Because of preventative measures and treatment, Mother Chanel strongly feels less people will disappear and more of us will be able to experience the magic of ballroom and witness the birth of future Black LGBT leaders in the arts.

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