Remembering Willi Ninja

As the ball scene mourns the death of Willi Ninja, star of Jennie Livingston’s trailblazing documentary Paris Is Burning and one of the true great icons of voguing, I am not sad but rather blessed to have made his acquaintance. It is a rare occasion that one would meet someone of Willi’s stature, free of excessive self promotion. He was kind, easy going and exuberant.

“His travels around the world to places like Japan and other places introduced voguing to all,” said Mark Avant-Garde. “That’s not something that everyone can claim, most kids have not been outside of our country, and Willi on the other hand lived life to the fullest.”

“My first exposure to Willi was in the “Deep in Vogue” video, and I wondered, what are those girls doing?” It was artsy, bizarre, and subversive, right up my alley. But then the lights illuminated the silhouettes, and I gagged. They weren’t girls; they {Willi Ninja, Aldonna Field and Adrian Magnifique} were GUYS! I was in awe,” said Aaron Enigma, Moderator of House of Balls Yahoo Group.

Legends Magazine was first introduced to Mr. Ninja in 2004 when he was selected on our list of the most intriguing people in the ball scene here’s the original story as it appeared back then.


Legends Magazine Most Intriguing People in the Ball Scene 2004:

EON: Willi Ninja

When Willi Ninja is home alone he enjoys resting, reading Sci-Fi novels. He also likes to watch the Discovery Channel or those design home improvement makeover shows such as Trading Spaces on TLC. “It would be nice if they would come to my house,” said Willi. He could certainly show the designers a thing or two about style.

Willi Ninja is the international icon adored by ballroom fans and supporters the world over. Yet the 22-year veteran of dance and performance voguing shows very little arrogance that one might rightfully expect of a person of his stature.
He’s knowledgeable, eager to share his experience and very soft-spoken. He’s open to sharing suggestions and rarely puts his house on a pedestal. “Willi’s voguing style is a unique blend of the grace and elegance of ballet, improvisation of modern dance combined with the exaggerated movements of a contortionist,” said an unnamed Legends Magazine adviser.

Willi attended his first ball as a spectator in 1981 but did not walk as the house of Ninja until 1984. “We had to perfect our moves before we started to walk balls,” he said. “Back then you had the first Hector Xtravaganza, and folks like Michael Dupree, they were unfuckin’ unbelievable. There were many others such as Stevie St. Laurent, Andre Christian, Rodney Ebony and Ronald Lamé, all them were among my favorite voguers.” The house of Ninja’s first housefather was a Jamaican-American named Archie Butcher. Benjamin Ninja was one of the first white members of the house. By 1988 he closed the house of Ninja to join Patricia Field in the house of Field where he remained through 1991.

Willi has been many places that many of us dream about. He has traveled extensively throughout the world teaching models how to strut their stuff on the catwalk of the fashion capitals of Paris, Tokyo and beyond. He was featured in Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning showing his voguing skills. He also can be seen in Wolfgang Busch’s How Do I Look.
In 1991 he re-opened the house. “I am not ashamed to say that the house has opened and closed,” he said. Today the house of Ninja has over 100 members following the legacy of excellence started by Willi. “We have members in places such as Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida,” said AJ Ninja of the Chicago chapter. “We the members, under the leadership of Bango and Monica, will make sure that the house of Ninja will keep on bringing it for years to come…”

In the annals of voguing achievement, you will find the names of many pioneers that have contributed to ball scene. Among the names of Pepper La Beija, Lamé, Corey, Dupree and others, you will find Willi Ninja, his contribution is immeasurable.

“We had to perfect our moves before we started to walk balls,”…..“Back then you had the first Hector Xtravaganza, and folks like Michael Dupree, they were unfuckin’ unbelievable. There were many others such as Stevie St. Laurent, Andre Christian, Rodney Ebony and Ronald Lamé {Milan},” Willie Ninja.

About Willi
His voguing is influenced by gymnastics, yoga, and the dancing of Fred Astaire.

Hector Xtrava I and Hector Xtrava II, Paris Dupree, Pepper La Beija, Dorian Corey, David Ultima, my favorite voguers: Ronald Lamé {Milan}, Steve St. Laurent, Ronald Ebony, André Christian, Michael Dupree and many others.

Number of wins: I honestly cannot say how many wins I have.

Favorite Food: Most Asian cuisine.

My dream is to see: the ball scene voguing reaches the point where it would be like the Olympic event.

Outside the ball scene I like to: Dance and teach supermodels how strut their stuff on the catwalk, I‘ve opening a production & EON an entertainment firm.

Legends’ words to Willie, you could really make it hot if you would: walk “bangy realness;” other categories would be far too easy. The kids would live for you if you walked and won.

”He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people,” Madonna.

“We’ll miss Willi. He was a real character, a nice man, and we had a lot of fun with him on the show.” Jimmy Kimmel (Willi appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show in April of 2005)

My first exposure to Willi was in the “Deep In Vogue” video, and I wondered, “What are those girls doing?” It was artsy, bizarre, and subversive… right up my alley. But then the lights illuminated the silhouettes, and I GAGGED. They weren’t girls, they were GUYS! Willi Ninja, Aldonna Field and Adrian Magnifique. I was in awe, and that’s when the research started…

I met Willi over the phone, when I was going to go to NYC to attend and walk my first ball. A mutual friend still had his number and suggested I talk to him regarding what to expect for my first time. Now mind you, he didn’t know me from Harry the Hatband, but he took time out to tell me what I needed to know, and in essence oriented me into a community I had only heard about. That always stuck with me. So when he contacted me years later to tell me he would be working a gig in Chicago, I was totally honored to help show him the town. That started one of those friendships where you see each other all the time, but you never forgets the impression left.
I was elated to see the personable smile and hug when he came to Chicago years later for the “How Do I Look” screening and lecture series. Then off to the after party at a predominantly straight venue… but did this stop Willi? No. He made his typical grand entrance, huge bamboo and silk fan “frrrrrrrumping” open and commanding the attention of all, who just figured it, was a celebrity that they weren’t up on, come to rub elbows with their pseudo-hipness.
I want to remember Willi as I knew him: a true legend that didn’t have to give himself a title. He truly earned the respect of people WORLDWIDE, and we should all aspire to his legacy. R.I.P. William Leake, aka Willi Ninja. Aaron “Enigma” Brown