This year marks the 25th anniversary of that infamous documentary Paris is Burning. If you haven’t seen it you really should. So much more than a pageant or a competition, a “ball” is a unique entity in it’s own right. Gay men and women walked the walk, talked the talk and literally, battled it out on NYC dance floors for the ultimate accolades. How high fashion are you? How well do you Vogue? and just how convincing is your Executive Realness?
“Executive Realness”, that really caught my eye. The legendary ballroom category required its contestants, young aspirational gay men, to dress and look so authentic that they could pass for their straight and legitimate executive counterparts- the real deal. Your ‘realness’ is measured and success is awarded. Granted, categories encompassing “realness’ were in the 80’s all about the “blend”. Your skills, measured on how well your image blended seamlessly into a world of heterosexual prowess when in reality your every day life as a broke-ass gay man is just one obstacle after another devoid of opportunity. Pretty grim, but these balls provided hope and the dream that once you at least looked the part you were one step closer to achieving your goal: all that to which you appeared to be.
Ok, luckily, today things are slightly different. More liberal corporate environments mean there’s alot more equal opportunity and gay guys feel less pressure to “blend” in in order to be successful. In fact it could be argued it’s less about blending in and more about standing out, but lets not be too naive – the power of illusion is at the crux of this and the power of selling your self via your image is still as crucial a concept as ever, even in todays progressive boardroom.
“There isn’t any room at the top for local girls like us” – Personnel (Olympia Dukakis)
“I’m not giving up” – Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith)
I remember growing up watching Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill in my favourite movie Working Girl. Not a world away from the ideas portrayed in Paris Is Burning. Griffith’s character Tess came from the wrong side of the tracks and couldn’t catch a break, its only when she started speaking, dressing and looking the part did anyone take her seriously and in true risk-taking entrepreneurial style she ran with it. She donned her scrupulous boss’s expensive suits and cut her hair to play a role, dupe her allies and close a major deal. It was only when she mimicked the type of person she wanted to be that she became exactly that and was taken seriously. Category? Executive Realness. She rocked it. Like the boys walking the ballroom in Paris Is Burning she believed in who she was, and everyone else around had no reason to believe otherwise. Working Girl is an 80’s zeitgeist fairytale but in small ways we all play different roles for different audiences every day- it’s important to focus on your inner executive when the time is right and there’s a deal to close. Ulitmately though Executive Realness is not to be confused with duplicity. I’m not saying you should be a total fake but rather accentuate your best points and characteristics with a conscious flair. You’ve still gotta be real, you still gotta have the smarts to back up your new found persona and air of confidence. Tess was smart but in order to quash stereotypes and to showcase it she had to up her image game. As long as you’ve got the smarts and skills to back it up, role playing is intrinsic in business and often the boardroom is the stage in which it is played out.
Working Girl – With a white lie or two and the right hair anyone can make it:
You’ve heard it a thousand times- ‘fake it till you make it. Dress the part. Dress for the job you want not the job you have.’ Seldom will people admit it but image really does matter. When I say ‘image matters’ believe me I don’t just mean wearing the right clothes (although it helps) Image really is e-ver-y-thing: you’re demeanour, how you dress, how you speak, you’re confidence, your eloquence, your intelligence. (and maybe throw in some big hair for good measure) If you cultivate these aspects of your being, those around you will respond positively. And believe me a positive response in the boardroom is half the battle.