Leiomy Maldonado is unstoppable.
The choreographer, actress and model is known as the "Wonder Woman of Vogue" for a good reason: her gravity-defying spins, dips and backflips are legendary within the ballroom scene.
She's worked with the likes of FKA twigs, Willow Smith and Icona Pop, fronted Nike's inspirational #betrue video campaign, and choreographed the ballroom scenes in the revolutionary 2018 TV series Pose (and starred in the finale!).
Plus, Leiomy has made her voice heard as a transgender activist, telling E! News she wants to see a greater respect and "understanding of trans issues".
"[I've realised] my purpose is more than just dancing," she says. "My purpose is about sharing my story and having people in the world see me and to see that they're not alone."
E! News caught up with the Bronx native while she was in Australia to judge Sissy Ball, the country's biggest vogue competition, presented by Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Red Bull Music.
What's your earliest memory of voguing?
I was about 15 or 16. I was going to a Boys and Girls club at the time and I came across my first trans mentor. I saw her voguing and I was like, what is that? She started explaining what voguing was and I still didn't get it. The next day she gave me a VHS tape and I put it in at home and saw all of these trans women of colour battling it out and all this amazing energy. Automatically a passion sparked in me. I'm like, I have to do this.
After that, I attended an after-school program where I found out about other young kids who were going through the same things that I was and also competing, and that's when I got into the balls. The first time I went to a ball I was actually chopped—I was no good! But I didn't give up. I felt honoured to be there at this event because a few months before I was watching the same people on a VHS tape.
It must be an amazing shift to go from competing in balls to being a judge at an event like Sissy Ball in Sydney.
That's very, very true. With judging, I don't try to chop people because everyone starts on their own level. I don't want someone to feel like they don't have what it takes.
Last year's event was super exciting. The most epic thing was seeing all the trans women. That for me made my whole trip. For them to be here and to celebrate what [House of Slé mother] Bhenji Ra and Red Bull has put together has been amazing. I'm looking forward to seeing how many new faces come out this time.
How do you manage injuries? Are they inevitable with the style of voguing you do—or are you invincible?
I am invincible! I've had injuries but nothing major, God forgive. It's more lots of floor burns, lots of skin burns, things like that. Nothing major.
Another incredible thing you've worked on recently is Pose. Has it been an emotional experience to get such great feedback to season 1?
It was emotional to even find out they were putting together this amazing show. And another thing to find out the majority of the cast is trans and of colour—you've never seen that. The fact that they called me to be a part of the choreography of this show, it was epic to me...On top of that, the fact that they asked me to join the cast and play a character [Florida Ferocity]—I would have never thought that. Because me coming in as a choreographer, I wouldn't be thinking, oh, you'll be acting.
To watch the show myself, I was in awe because they touch on so many important issues. And although it's based in the '80s, a lot of those struggles we still go through to this day. Knowing that they got it right and knowing our stories are being told by our own people, it's beautiful. The fact that so many people have reached out to me and now understand what my community has gone through, what my community has endured—it makes me feel proud to say I was a part of it.
Are you involved in season 2? What will you be working on?
Yes, I am! You'll get to see it when you watch the show. I'm super excited about season 2 and I can't wait to see what they create.
Something that comes across so beautifully in Pose is the importance of togetherness and family. Is that crucial to you?
It's very, very important. Three years ago, I decided to open up my own house. In ballroom, we have houses where we create our own family. As you know, they call me the Wonder Woman of Vogue—so I decided to name my house after Amazon. The most important thing about creating this house was family, unity, and just being supportive, empathetic and open. A lot of my kids are from all around the world.
You have a lot of fans, but one of the big names that follows you on Instagram is Rihanna.
I love Rihanna! I met her a few years back and her team reached out to me because she wanted to meet me. I went to her concert and after that I was pulled to her dressing room. Just meeting her and her being so personable and just so real—I fell in love with her. Me and her got together in the studio and we worked a little bit. I love Ri Ri.
Artists like Beyoncé and Britney Spears have been inspired by your moves—how does that influence on pop culture make you feel?
I have mixed feelings about that. When the moves were first being used and my moves were inspiring these artists, of course in the beginning I was in awe. Like, oh my god, this is amazing, they see me. But as the years went by, I felt like that should have been me teaching them those things. I'm not mad about it because they still celebrated me. People knew where it came from.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras & Red Bull Music Present: Sissy Ball is on February 23 at Carriageworks, Sydney.