Hailie Sahar is no stranger to the ballroom scene. Years before appearing on FX’s Pose as the dynamic Lulu Abundance, she walked plenty of categories, for the first time as a teen, before becoming — for a period — the youngest House Mother for the LA-based House of Rodale.
“Ballroom is such an amazing experience. It is so profound, the way that we have come together [on Pose] and made something so glamorous out of it,” Sahar says, reflecting on how art mirrored her reality. “For me to be able to give back to the community where I came from, where I felt comfortable enough to pursue my own dreams and just be my authentic self, I was honoured to do that.”
In early June, the Ryan Murphy-created series officially wrapped after three Emmy-winning seasons. The show, which drew from real events, moments and figures from the 1980s and 1990s ballroom scene, made TV history as the first series with a mostly transgender cast, including stars Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Angelica Ross and Sahar herself.
“I think [Pose] brought visibility and started the conversation, but I’m going to be honest and say that the conversations have only just started,” Sahar says. “I think that the real leg work comes now after Pose. [The show] has educated people on a few things, but there’s so much more to learn.”
For me to be able to give back to the community where I came from… I was honoured to do that.
We recently chatted over the phone with Sahar at her home in LA, as she walked us through ballroom culture, filming Pose‘s final season and the ongoing dangers for trans women of colour.
Category is… ballroom
In the 1980s, New York City’s African-American and Latinx LGBTQ+ community started an underground subculture in which people compete (or “walk”) for trophies and accolades from peers. Ball culture features a range of categories, including Best Dressed, Body, Face, Virgin Vogue and Hands. Aside from Pose and Jennie Livingston’s classic 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, FX’s Legendary is the only other mainstream series to highlight ball culture in-depth, from the floor performances to forming houses. For the uninitiated, House Mother (or Father) is a pseudo parental figure to members of LGBTQ+ youth who are estranged from their biological families. A House Mother — which Sahar was for a time — sometimes resides with her “children” in the same home, and they appear (and perform) together as a family unit at ballroom events. You perform as a house, you win (or lose) as a house. Historic houses from the ’80s include, House of Xtravaganza, House of Ninja and House of Labeija.
For Sahar, her IRL initiation to the ball scene happened by accident when, as a teen, she and a couple of friends watched Paris is Burning on an old VHS tape. Flash forward and Sahar found herself at her first ball. “I was just taken aback by all the glamour and confidence and voguing,” she recalls. “After the ball was over, there’s a thing they call the ‘let out’ where everyone’s let out of the club, and we’re just standing outside in the parking lot talking.”
It was there, standing on the hard concrete outside the venue, that Sahar found her path. “I was so timid, I was so quiet, and this beautiful, beautiful woman walks up and hands me a flyer. She was like, ‘come to the next event.’ I thanked her and then someone told me she was a trans woman. I was like, ‘what is a trans woman?’ They said, ‘well, she was born this way.'”
For Sahar, it was at that moment that something clicked in her mind. “[I had] these memories of growing up and feeling like I was in the wrong body,” she said. “That’s when I first started connecting the dots.”
The next time Sahar made an appearance at a ball, she walked her first category — although when asked what category she won, she’s quick to point out that the term is now quite problematic. “It’s become a bit controversial now in 2021, but we have to remember these categories were created long ago,” she explains. “There’s a category called Realness, and it means that you are passable [as a woman]. It means that if someone that is not in the community were to see you out in public, they wouldn’t detect that you are a trans person — they would automatically identify you as a cis woman. This is a category that still exists today, but it’s problematic because it excludes people and it actually sends a negative message to the cis world.”
[I had] these memories of growing up and feeling like I was in the wrong body,” she said. “That’s when I first started connecting the dots.
But back then, walking her first category came with a heavy learning curve for Sahar. “They told me to sell it,” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘what does sell it mean?’ I didn’t have knowledge of the verbiage that was used in our community. So, I was like, ‘I don’t have anything to sell. I don’t have money,'” she adds with a laugh.
The challenge, it turned out, was to sell herself to the judges as a glamorous woman. “I was very dramatic, which is the last thing that you’re supposed to do when you’re walking Realness,” she said, a smile in her voice. “It’s supposed to be like, ‘this is me, touch my skirt, hear my voice, everything about me is Realness.’ Instead, I was turning and twisting and pulling my hair. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I won.”
Finding her true authentic self
Sahar revealed that she’s working on a book. More than a memoir, it’s set to encapsulate her entire life, from growing up in a religious household in Los Angeles to transitioning as a teenager and beyond. Although she understandably wants to save a few nuggets and anecdotes for her passion project, Sahar is open to sharing some of her journey.
“Transitioning as a teenager was scary, but once I made the decision, it was liberating,” she recalls. “There was absolutely nothing that could prepare me for the journey that I had decided to embark upon. I had no clue how difficult it truly is to live authentically as a person of trans experience. [I had to] realize that the world is really not cut out for me.”
Although she still has her dark days, Sahar always harkens back to the word “liberating.”
“There was a lot of trial and error. It was a lot of back and forth — depression today, liberation tomorrow. It was, it is, a journey,” she said. “Now I’m in Hollywood. Now I have a voice. Now I have a platform that’s growing. My star is rising. That’s a whole different way of strategically navigating in a space that really hasn’t been carved out for you, where someone else hasn’t really done before you so you could follow in their footprints.”
The ongoing dangers for trans women of colour
According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), this year is on track to be the deadliest for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States. The HRC has been tracking such statistics since 2013 and, so far, at least 28 trans women have been killed in 2021. Most of the victims were Black or Latina women. Although there aren’t currently Canadian stats available (likely because trans and gender non-conforming people are being left out of reports on femicide, according to this CTV News report), the dangers to marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community are just as prevalent on home soil.
“The death rate for black and brown bodies, people of trans experience, is extremely through the roof,” Sahar says. “It’s time to do the work. For all the supporters of Pose, it’s now time to do the work because these stories are people’s real life experiences and the topics of sex work, unemployment and drug use, these are all real and vital to this day in 2021. We need to continue to do the work outside of the show.”
The death rate for black and brown bodies, people of trans experience, is extremely through the roof
And after spending three years ingrained in the 1980s as Lulu, Sahar doesn’t think there has been a real evolution in terms of the current social climate. “For trans women and trans men, not much has changed. There’s still not much protection, even within our own community,” she says, referencing a season one episode of Pose which featured her character getting thrown out of a gay bar. “There’s so many marginalized spaces and sometimes it feels like there’s a [hierarchy] within our community. For people that don’t have the privileges that I have now, it’s extremely dangerous. That’s why I feel it’s my duty to speak the truth and to be a role model and voice for people.”
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What she hopes people will take from her career
When asked what message she hopes her career conveys not only to the LGBTQ+ community, but society as a whole, Sahar doesn’t miss a beat.
“Authenticity. Love. True passion,” she says. “Love because love is pure, love is kind, love is patient, love is what people really need. Passion, because without passion, you don’t put the intention behind breaking down these walls of hatred to get to love. And authenticity because, only by being authentic, will you reach your goals.”
She points out the lack of authenticity often attached to large corporations and businesses who plaster Pride flags on their windows and social media accounts during the month of June, but don’t put in the work year-round — especially when so many, specifically trans people of colour, are still struggling.
“[They] talk a good game about inclusion, but wait until Pride to do things. It should be a yearly thing where we are prideful,” she says. “I just want us to really think about [the fact that] Pose is one show, but the experiences of the trans community have been around since the beginning of time. It’s only now that this show has become popular that everyone suddenly cares about the subject matter, but the show is over now. The thing that concerns me is… what’s going to happen next? We have to truly be authentic with the intention behind moving that needle of love and passion forward.”
She adds, “While I’m connecting with you [during this interview], telling you my journey and what I’ve been through, I’m dropping gems and knowledge on how I got to be where I am. These things are very important for our community. We don’t have a guidebook. I didn’t have someone telling me where to go and what to do next. I want to give back because that’s truly showing up and opening the door for other people.”