As Pride weekend kicked off in Philly, international dance star Kemar Jewel shone in his hometown.
Jewel, who made his name at Philly Pride events, took the stage in front of a packed audience Friday night at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
“I do this for our legendary ancestors who aren’t able to see the legacy they have left before us,”Jewel declared before performing.
The event was a Pride weekend kickoff for LGBT of color that paid homage at the opening ceremony of “Legendary: Inside the Ballroom Scene,” an exhibition showcasing the work of Philadelphia-based Gerard Gaskin, a renowned photographer whose book documented the scene.
The ballroom scene is an underground LGBT subculture that has long set the standard for defying gender and social class norms within the gay community.
It originated during the early 1960s as a response to the discrimination cross-dressers faced when they wanted to participate in national pageants.
Today, Pride weekends across America have given them the safe space and outlet to flaunt their originality and identities.
In 2010, Jewel, then 19, participated in his first Philly Pride and was a crowd favorite – chosen as the Youth Grand Marshall for the parade by The Attic Youth Center, Philadelphia's youth center that exclusively serves LGBTQ youth.
“Pride has always been like a holiday to me,” he says. “It's that special time of year when I can perform, network, and enjoy all of the gayness that the city has to offer.”
Over the next several years, the recent Temple University grad etched a name for himself in the Philly gay scene and beyond. Shortly after his debut at Philly Pride, he became a staffer at The Attic where he would continue to showcase his love for performance and ballroom culture as a dance teacher.
But in 2013, he decided to break away from his familiar parade circle. He finally had his “Britney Spears no-longer-a kid act” moment. Jewel performed outside of the Attic Youth orbit and went his own creative route as a “sex slave” in a Rihanna-S&M-themed performance. It was then that he discovers his inner love for drag – the act of cross-dressing for a performance.
“That was the first time that I felt that the Philadelphia performance community was finally taking me seriously,” Jewel said. “I loved doing drag and doing performances as a woman.”
Last year, the rest of the world was introduced to Kemar after a video he uploaded on YouTube of himself and fellow dance partners’ vouging — a highly stylized, modern house dance — at various Septa stations across the city went viral.
“Vouging Train” received over 80,000 views and was featured on the Huffington Post, NPR, MSNBC and many others. A follow-up video called “The Runway Museum” attracted a following that would be more international than he ever expected.
When famed gay club hit-maker Bob Sinclar reached out to him and offered a slot as a performer in his summer European tour in Paris, France and Ibiza, Spain, Kemar realized his life wouldn’t ever be the same.
As a result of his growing persona outside of Philadelphia, Kemar made the tough decision to leave his post as dance teacher at the Attic Youth Center – but not without a “show stopping final act.”
“I want to give them one last gift by choreographing their Pride performance with the theme of the TV show Empire,” he said. “Hopefully this performance will win an award again so I can leave The Attic with a smile on my face.”