At first glance, you might mistake Joel D. Jackson, also known as JD Balmain, for an educator, lawyer, or family doctor. He does not appear to be someone who walks balls. As he speaks, it becomes abundantly clear that he is not a ballroom monolith (a group of people who are thought of as being all the same). He has a similar background as many disenfranchised youth and he is the epitome of a Ballroom success story.
The 44-year-old Pittsburgh-born, St Louis-raised, Legendary Midwest Father of the House of Balmain was first introduced to the scene in 2001 (age 23) as a member of the House of Simpson. Simpson was a pageantry system house. JD did not participate in the pageants; however, he was a pantomime entertainer who exclusively performed as a male figure artist. In 2002, JD walked the Schoolboy Realness category for the first time. In 2004, he started the House of Efficacy in St. Louis, modeled after New York’s House of Latex. Efficacy distributed safe sex kits and literature and provided access to HIV testing at balls.
Today he works as the Director of Inclusion and Equity Strategies at UChicago Medicine. JD is responsible for developing the hospital’s cultural competence training strategy, and the hospital’s resilience-based care, burnout prevention and stress management programs. He is currently working on his Master of Arts in Public Policy. Here is what JD shared about his journey walking balls, the one thing he wants observers to take away from his experience, and more.
PrideIndex (PI): Tell me about yourself and your journey thus far.
Joel Jackson (JD): My name is Joel Jackson. I am the Legendary Midwest Father of the House of Balmain. I also go by JD Balmain. I have been living and working in Chicago for the past nine years this coming January. I moved here from St. Louis, where I went to middle school, high school, and college. I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my childhood was spent there. I moved to St. Louis when I was 11 years old.
I currently work in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, part of the Urban Health Initiative at UChicago Medicine. I am the Director of Inclusion and Equity Strategies. I helped develop the hospital’s cultural competence training strategy and the Resilience-Based Care training strategy, which includes burnout prevention, secondary traumatic stress management, and compassion fatigue resilience. I also do contract work for other organizations that hire me to facilitate different training sessions related to both of those topics. I am also in school, seeking my Master of Arts in Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy, which is part of the University of Chicago.
PI: Let me make sure I document everything correctly. Please give me the order of all the houses you were a member of.
JD: Sure. In 2001, I was introduced to ballroom. I walked my first ball in 2002 as a member of the House of Simpson in St. Louis. Simpson is a pageantry house. I did not participate in pageants and had never done drag. I performed on stage as a lip sync entertainer and male figure.
The pageantry house members started to walk balls, became part of the ball scene, but were mainly part of the pageantry system. I can claim to this day that I am a member of the House of Simpson, although I am no longer involved with it. The first category I walked was Schoolboy Realness.
As more balls started to occur in St. Louis, we started getting more attention from other cities, allowing national and international houses to plant their seeds. I noticed that when the national houses began to come in, some young people were being read and talked about. I was involved with the National Conference for Community Justice—St. Louis; I would invite young people from the ball scene who were still in high school and put them in leadership training. Some of these kids were seen as throwaways. In 2004, I started the House of Efficacy, modeled after the House of Latex.
I went to Charles Sumner High School in St. Louis, the first black high school west of the Mississippi River, a proud tradition of excellence since 1875. They taught a curriculum called Efficacy. We learned that term means “the power to produce a positive effect.” I instilled this in my members. If you were to ask any of them today, quite a few are legends; what does efficacy stand for? They will say “the power to produce a positive effect.” I wanted our members to know they had that power, regardless of what was happening in their environment or what other people were saying. In 2009, they wanted to become a national house, but at the time, I was not ready for that. I was interested in merging into a national house with similar values, such as the House of Evisu.
The House of Evisu was founded by Arbert Santana Latex Evisu. Arbert was also one of the leaders who founded the House of Latex, so I felt that Evisu had some of the same values I had instilled in the House of Efficacy. Efficacy lasted from 2004 until 2009. I became an Evisu and was an overseer of the House for almost two years; after that, I went to the House of Prodigy in 2012. Later I joined the House of Balmain, which was founded in 2015 by the Icon and Overall Father Rodney Balmain, the Icon Kai ex-Balmain Milan, and the Legendary Godmother Alexis Balmain, also known as the Boss Lady, Nicki. I joined in the fall of 2015. I was still in the House of Prodigy when they formed and wanted to be 100% sure that I wanted to leave. I did not want to burn any bridges within the House of Prodigy because the relationships I built are meaningful. I received the Founding Father Man Prodigy’s blessing when I left Prodigy.
PI: You are the epitome of Executive Realness. Is that one of the categories you walk?
JD: Yes. Executive Realness is my main category. That is the one in which I earned my legendary status at the Midwest Awards ball in 2017. I made history that night because I was awarded the Leader of the Year Award; I won the Grand Prize category that night, Executive Realness for $1,000 cash. It was only the second time it was offered for $1,000.
PI: It does not seem fair that you get to walk for Executive Realness because you are a real-life executive in your everyday life.
JD: I did not start off that way. I started walking Schoolboy Realness when I was 21. I transitioned to walking, Thug Realness, as I got older. The Executive Realness category was rare in my city. I was exposed to the category when I started traveling to other cities. In fact, there was a ball I walked at in Louisville, where it called for a thug to walk as if they were high rollers at a casino. It was the first time I walked a ball in a suit. I liked it and thought to myself, I need to think about switching to Executive Realness. I worked as a specialist then, not in an executive in a leadership role like today. Therefore, I have grown myself. Ballroom groomed me into the image of an executive. Once I got the education and experience, I could move into that role personally and professionally. Thank you for calling me the epitome of Executive Realness. Others have said similar things. I try to remain humble, though. (Laughs)
PI: Now that I have started to attend balls again, I am excited to see the progression; participants come from different life points. They are not a monolith. What do you have to say when people say you are not a monolith?
JD: I would agree with that. The scene has evolved, and there is more opportunity to win cash, which gives the incentive to be more creative when you walk. It has become much more diverse in terms of individuals in their professional lives participating. Father Ron Lanvin, who lives in Ohio, gave a TEDTalk about the ball scene. When you think about shows like “Pose” or “Legendary,” they show how balls have crossed into the mainstream. On “Legendary,” my House, Balmain, competed in the first season and won $100,000. I was not on the team, but we [the House of Balmain] are the first $100,000 House. Ballroom is not a monolith. I think that has a lot to do with how the world has evolved, and more opportunities have been given to LGBTQ people of color. The scene has many talented makeup artists who’ve done makeup for celebrities, choreographers, professional dancers, producers, actors and many others, not just voguers (Jacen Bowman Moncler, Leiomy Maldonado, Dashaun Wesley Basquiat, Jack Mizrahi Gorgeous Gucci, Kornbread Jete Balmain, Tiffany the Artist 007).
PI: Are you a father, an overseer, or both for the House of Balmain?
JD: My title is Midwest Father, and I am based in Chicago, where I reside. We have members in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Tennessee.
PI: I first became familiar with your work when you appeared on a panel to discuss the film “BLACK AS U R.” I was impressed with your story. I was surprised because your demeanor gave me the mannerism of an educator, a doctor, or a lawyer. What do you say to people like me that say, “This guy does not walk balls”?
JD: I appreciate you asking. There is a saying that you cannot judge a book by its cover. My life story helps to broaden the worldview perspective of any individual who believes that ballroom is a monolith or that individuals with an educational background like myself do not participate. I am not unique. My perspective and experience add to the diversity of the ballroom scene. Whenever someone says something like that, I appreciate their acknowledgment of my visibility because it allows me to share a little about my experience. You saw me as an educator because I did study education at Washington University in St. Louis. I was one credit short of having an elementary education degree, though I was the first male to major in Women’s Studies at Washington University. My experiences lend to my role as a father figure for kids in the House of Balmain and others.
PI: A house is a house. They are all over the spectrum regarding goals, status, location, and age. What makes the House of Balmain different from any other house?
JD: Good question. Balmain is the third national-level house I have been in; before Balmain, I was a member of the House of Prodigy, and before that, I was an Evisu. All houses have a similar makeup, structure, and conflicts they face. Some houses are better at covering up their issues. The House of Balmain is seven years old and, on the way, to having legendary status. Our strong, spiritual focus and family values makes us stand out from other houses. We have had members that have gone through some very traumatic things, yet I have seen members come together to support and extend love. We have members who do not even walk balls express how they appreciate being a member because of the family aspect of what we have. We pray together and pray for each other. We are not perfect, and we are truly a family with all of our imperfections.
PI: What is the one takeaway you would like everyone to get from your work and the example of leadership?
JD: That is a great question! I would love for every young person or anyone who reads this interview to think of themselves as a developing person. We have no choice but to grow in life; otherwise, we are dead. And to realize we have a choice in how we grow. Ballroom gives a relatively safe space for members of the LGBTQ community and allies to develop a sense of family and structure. At the same time, it is always important for everyone to ask themselves, “Does this relationship make sense for the person that I am becoming?” That is an important question to ask no matter the relationship, inside and outside of Ballroom.