Ryan Jamaal Swain | Dressing Up to Show Up
The highly addictive nature of FX’s Pose has been a phenomenon, reintroducing the Voguing world to the mainstream with the same impact Paris Is Burning and Madonna had once done in the 90’s. The Ryan Murphy produced show has not only transformed it’s performers into bonafide stars now on the covers of magazines and in the FROWS of fashion shows but have ultimately established the cast as fashion icons who have brought statement dressing to the next level.
Centered on a family of queer people of color in the late 80s, the show follows Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) a trans matriarch of the House of Evangelista and her family as she traverses living with AIDS, finding her place in the Balls, protecting her children, and the day to day way of life struggling and loving in New York. Ryan Jamaal Swain plays Damon, the first to join the House of Evangelista as the golden son. We are initially introduced to Damon as a runaway with wishes of dance school and by the end of the first season see him grow and find that creative outlet he long struggled to find.
As season 2 premieres tonight we were fortunate enough to talk to Ryan Jamaal Swain as we discuss how his character progresses in the story line, the major fashions, and the ultimate sociopolitical impact the show’s popularity has had on queer people of color at the center of an ever changing discussion on race and gender politics.
Congratulations on season two, it was great! I love it! Jumping right in I want to know more about your background?
I’m originally from Birmingham Alabama. I grew up there, started dancing when I was four, and after eight years I stopped after being bullied. The south has a lot of stereotypes where people just want you to play football or basketball, especially when you’re a black man - they want you in the mainstream. But since I was four all I wanted to do was dance and act and I had a step father at the time, that would come to my football games but not my dance recitals. It made me question myself as a child, which is harmful. All of that weighed on my self-esteem and I stopped trying to do anything artistic.
When I was 14 in 9th grade I went to this public school where there was an opportunity for me to do this after school acting program. That changed my life and that after school program turned into me getting an internship at this art program. Instead of getting the application I ended up auditioning for a show they were doing at the end of the season. That was my first introduction into professional theater and from there on it was no more public school but I went to high school and higher university for acting.
There were not a lot of men in the program, so whoever was in the theater program upstairs since the dance program was downstairs, we were allowed to have them train with us. So I had a dual degree, after that I moved to New York city and graduated in 2016, then a few months after I made my Broadway debut.
How familiar are you with Voguing culture?
Voguing is not in the mainstream program in Birmingham. So I never saw Paris is Burning or any type of documentary surrounding Voguing until I was going to college. I always knew there was something I was missing culturally but I just didn’t know what.
My senior thesis at Howard was about Stonewall and I was doing as much research as I could which led me to find out how the gay rights movement had matured to present day. I happened upon Paris is Burning and thought, Oh my fucking god. How have I not seen this?
In hindsight, that inkling of curiosity built my resume and influenced the work I like to do and what is around my life. It's about being an artist of social change, making sure we are not just stepping into the status quo of what society and the industry wants to place on you. There are so many types of confounds and limits that the industry wants to place on you, especially as a black man, as hyper masculine and hyper fetishized. How we show up in culture and the consciousness of everyone and how we are commodified and showed after being taken from our motherland and being brought here. To answer your question plainly, I learned Voguing when I was on the show. For the character it works because he is also new to that as well.
People of color are fetishized, In a way we, where we are now is subverting the ways we are fetishized. Having it on our own terms. Happy Pride! Let’s talk about your characters progression from the streets to the dance school at the New School and how his narrative is shifting to the balls and his relationship.
What was so beautiful about season one was the naivety of this person who had a lot of things happen to him, but he still had this hunger and thirst to go for his dreams no matter what it was. That was unshakable. Then season two, you get to see Damon take ownership of his own persona and his own individuality. Trying to find who he is and what that means to everyone around. In season two you see him developing love for dance and his family and his world and relationships. He also develops love for himself, which is very important especially for any queer youth or any youth particularly. Trying to figure out how to navigate that space of becoming your own person because we were dropped into his experiences right after he was kicked out of his home at eighteen years old.
We move from 1990 - to now he’s 20, we get to see him navigate his own type of newness and what that means. What is love and his relationship with Ricky. Why are we putting too much emotional weight on each other or anyone, when are we not fighting for ourselves. And I think that that in season two you’ll be seeing him showing up for his life, showing up for his life artistically, and also personally, which is going to be really, really transformative for a lot of folk that are dreamers for the root of who they are and really don’t know the next steps. And feeling loss and self-doubt and imposter-syndrome, trying to find their voice and curating their voice, so that’s really why I think Damon is going to go through season 2 and then beyond, definitely some star making and star quality events will be happening in season 2, which I’m pretty sure everybody will be rooting for their sweet boy Damon, so that’s going to be exciting.
Yeah, I was actually going to say, that’s an interesting narrative that hasn’t been given into the second season that skips the years. Do you feel like there’s quite a gap, two years is quite a gap of time for a young person to be not checked in with in regards to the story and everything, especially in between that 18 to 20 stage, it is completely a different life time, like are we going to get a little preview of how everything catches up to the new season?
Yeah, I think what is so beautiful about that gap specifically, and firstly from a writer’s stand point and an artistic stand point is that you get to for me, as a vessel, get to try to fill in those spaces of what can happen in a year and a half gap. Right, like in a year and a half, his love was on tour, he was still in school, and so what you get is him, his world kind of stopping and jolting for a moment, but him still in the pursuit of going forward, if that makes sense?
So there’s this conflict, between like are things going to be the same, or I know I’m changing I'm evolving, that i think will place in season 2 because what you realize is that, especially in those permeable years, you see how the culture has influenced him, and you get to see that, not only through the acting but also just visually. like how he is now aesthetically evolving, and merging, with the places that are around him, like a little boy from the suburbs, from Pennsylvania, is now a full fledge New Yorker, and what that transition is, right? Because that is the only story line in where you get to see him go from a middle-class space, coming from a very normal standard of living, and then get thrust into something that is totally different from his own upbringing.
So we already have that, you know, working into and in conflict, being in conversation with that first season, but then we are also trying to, as any first season is trying to do, is to be introduced to all these characters in a very broad stroke.. In season 2 you get to see, and especially with what they’re doing in the writing with Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Our Lady J, and Steven Canals what they’re doing is really really really just honing in on what that complexity feels like. We’ve had conversations just about how powerful that’s going to be for anyone that is trying to find out who the hell they are, and I think that is an ongoing lifelong pursuit, that could be talked about in that 2 year gap, but I think that where we are ending up, or where we are starting in the first few episodes, you’ll get to see that sort of matriculated self visually, aesthetically and also artistically. It’s really going to be dope. And I’m very humble to be able to be the vessel for such a complex story, right? Like this is somebody that is not even of the world, where there is gossamer, and lace, and big personalities, but coming from a very normal background. And then getting forwarded into this 6-inch heightened reality, six inches off the ground space, -- there’s no middle ground, it’s an extreme.
Six inches? I’d give it 8 inches.
8 inches? 8 inches absolutely. Hahhaa.
You have to account for the platforms on the heels also. I’m actually quite shocked that after two years, Damon from 18-20 is still with Ricky, when he has all of New York City, and Ricky is off on tour. That is actually the most baffling thing I feel. It’s amazing and also really lovely.
Yeah, which will I think kind of be informed by the choices that Damon makes in this upcoming season, how he goes forth in professing his love and his joy, and all of his relationships with everything - not only personally, but also artistically. I think that’s what’s going to be wild, and now talking about it, ‘cause I’m in the thick of it, is this - you know, I have this stuff in my journal, it materializes itself in a way in which It just like, “Oh wow yes, that is what we’re doing. Awesome, great! I’m in line with that. Awesome” So - its good.
And so what is the dynamic moving forward with your character and Blanca and is Electra still going to be back to her own house - How does that work?
I think with Damon and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) you’ll try to find that’s her first born, Evangelista. Tthis place where you’ll just get to see that evolve and we left off with Electra being in the house and we’ll see her kind of how she’s negotiated that new normal. I think with this new season particularly we’re going to see a lot of people, a lot of characters, trying to show up for their dreams and be ready to show for their dreams in a way that they might not be ready - like their ambitions, their goals might be intact, but their physical bodies aren’t there and aren’t ready for that. I think that with that conflict, we deal with that all the time, all of us, even myself with my own personal life. You know I have ambitious dreams, I have things that I want to do, past Pose, past anything that is in my immediacy, but at the same time you have to ask the question, how is this going to work? How is it going to happen?
That’s a very intricate and very powerful conversation that for the viewer, this year, they’re really going to be empowered, be challenged, be inspired by how these characters, who have everything against them, marginally, being ostracized in their own communities, and how they still choose to show up for their lives, and in the pursuit of showing up for their lives, that I think provides agency and vocabulary for us even in this kind, in this day in age, with this administration and all the things that are happening, in the world, to really just -- in the freedom or artistic freedom or artistic prowess is not without fear, it’s in the presence for fear, that you have the courage to create, the courage to live, I think that’s what’s going to really be powerful about this season, and all those characters,
I want to speak about how Indya Moore’s character Angel with your character - you seem to have the most sibling like relationship out of all the narratives through out. What’s the Dramz! - is there going be crazy moments?
Well I can’t tell you that, you know Ryan Murphy would kill me. But, what I will say, in my own personal life, Indya are very close. And I think that you got to see us being siblings, and you’ll continue to see that in season 2, and just how I support them and they support mine, Damon and Angels that’s all I can give you thus far - but you got to check it out! You’ll have to see it.
You know that’s the thing I wanted to discuss is that the cast completely exploded since the premier of the show in regards to the way that you have hit the zeitgeist on the discussion of what is fashion and what is style - like how has your life changed since the first season?
I think that it really streamlined and really shaved away at how I show up in life, I think that I’ve always been by fashion and then you are own Pose and I mean you see the outfits and you see the style, it’s like “Oh shit, oh okay, so we gotta step it up.” So you know just really getting in conversation and deepening my conversation with fashion, activism, and it really deepened that for me. Being a child of Howard University, and doing that it was always being on the frontlines of social change and being about truth and service, and that’s what I have been about.
I think with so much of what Pose is about - every project that I’ve been on - Choir Boy to Pose to my off-Broadway debut with Kill Move Paradise, it’s always been about forwarding the conversations around black and brown people, and really making sure that the ostracized folk, the marginalized folk, the minorities have a voice, and all these unsung heroes that have not been given the opportunity to speak because they transitioned on and moved on, being their voice, and being my ancestors’ wildest dreams. So, I think for me, in this last year, it just really asked all about are you really about this, and if you are, how are you showing up for your communities? Not only just LGBTQ communities, but also black people, and also people of color, and also first-generation college students, and all these different subcultures and sub-categories. How am I making sure that symbolic annihilation doesn’t happen, which, essentially, is when you don’t see yourself represented in a narrative, in a story, in a conversation, you feel that you’re not important. I think that this last year, it radicalized my urgency around these problems, because it seems as though we’re getting a little deep and deeply dark.
We’re living in dark times right now, but for a reckoning to happen thereafter. But, in these times of very dark, dark, dark issues and dark situations coming to the surface, I think what it allows all of us to question as a civilization is how are we showing up for our future? How are we showing up for the next set of folks that are doing the work, and that are going to be behind us doing the work and making a difference? And, if we’re not doing that, then how good are we as a people? I think that’s what has happened, and how it’s radicalized in all of us.
It’s a very golden moment, because now there’s a point, I feel, where there was always discussion, but never at the level of appearance and progressive experience that’s placed onto the public, not just in our own type of communities - it’s a worldwide conversation. It’s important, and also, it’s amazing to see it actually being seen and viewed.
Yeah, and I think that for us being on a hit TV show, and a cast of “pantheons of culture” or just being the curators of culture, what is that presently? And, we’re all telling everybody to get off their phones and wake the fuck up. That’s really a radical shift, because people aren’t used to glamorized people being so connected to the center of civilization and what’s going on. I think that when you have that, when that’s the immediate, when that’s something that is a consistent, then it asks everybody - from the janitorial staff all the way up to the president - to really check their privilege and check to see how they can dismantle it. And, I find that when you’re a public figure or “someone that is seen publicly” in a glamorous or uplifted, holier-than-thou light, and you’re really talking to the heart of current events and current issues, it closes the margin and it makes everybody understand that things are really happening, and we need to do something about it.
I wanted to go back to you as a person who is now part of pop culture. You are part of the conversation. You guys are no longer the underground concept. You guys are very much Met Gala. You guys are Vogue. You guys are social media. How has that interaction been with fashion? What has that been like for you?
Oh, my goodness. Well, for me, I’ve always been a kid and a person that dug the androgyny and the androgynist aspects of blurring the lines with fashion. Because, I honestly feel that skirts are geometrically and anatomically made for men more so than they are made for women, just because of the shape and how they lie on the body and what they’re supposed to do. So, I use my platform specifically because we’re being thwarted in to this Met Gala, Vogue, Interview Mag - all these different publications - Flaunt magazine, we’re being thrust into the center of it. So, we really need to have a conversation about how we can merge masculine and feminine energy always, and it still be very, very, very much societally a norm.
There are too many things that are trying to just make shit black and white. When you try to put confines and boundaries on a person, or an individual, and what they’re wearing, then you lose sight of the personality. F me, just as much as Rihanna, my fellow Piscean sister, said, listen, fashion shouldn’t be a self-expression. It’s how I show up for my own personality and it’s individual to me and quite honestly, that’s what I love. You know, I like to always, with any type of staple that I’m trying to make, have some type of grace and essence of royalty, while also being connected to what has been unisex and what is culture, and how we can have that conversation. Men should wear more skirts. Men should wear wigs. Women should wear suits.
I hate that it’s a taboo thing - “Oh my god, Lady Gaga just wore a suit to this” - just no. I mean, we all have in us submissive and dominant energy, and masculine and feminine energy, so why try to put a stifling on that? I feel like everybody that has been somebody that has been a style icon has done just that. It lives in all of us, and I think that when we allow ourselves to be seen in that way, contrary to what I just said in regard to when it is such a “Oh my god! They’re wearing a harness on the Oscars” or Billy Porter wearing a tuxedo gown, it’s just, like, yeah, we should be doing that. We should be having those conversations. Because, quite honestly, it is accessible to all of our parts in us, and it liberates us. It frees the individual, and it frees so many people. So, I use fashion as an extension of my activism and my artistry because, quite honestly, that’s what it is. I love garments. I love stepping out in a cute Thom Browne piece, or the Ungaro piece which I wore last night to the premiere. All these things that situationally are form-fitting, and help you say what you need to say without you having to say it, it makes a staple before you open your mouth, and I think that that’s intentional.
It’s part of your statement. Awesome! Anything we should know?
Men, quit making decisions on women’s bodies, and feminine-centered folk’s bodies. And stop trying to keep away people from living with these transphobic, homophobic, xenophobic laws and statements. And, America, just wake up and really truly see what’s going on. We’re on the precipice of a huge, huge reckoning and a breakthrough, but it takes work, it takes diligence, and it doesn’t just take anger. You need to have a plan of action, and a call to action. So I think that’s all I want to say.