He Literally Wrote the Book on Fabulousness

Posted June 8, 2018 3:27 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — At a vogue ball one recent Saturday night, writer Madison A. Moore whipped out a red bamboo fan, stood up from his judge’s chair in his purple-teal sequined boots, and began feverishly fanning a contestant who was folding himself into a leg split on the floor of a Berlin theater.

The pulsating house music cut out with a scratchy vinyl zip. Multicolored spotlights tracking the dancer stopped. Hundreds watching from bleachers burst into applause after the voguer’s lavish mix of hand gestures, runway walks and pirouette dips morphed into taut muscles frozen in space.

Fanning a contestant at a vogue ball signals the utmost admiration. The dancer whom Moore fanned was a lithe, fresh-faced black French teenager from Paris. But Moore, a postdoctoral research associate at King’s College London, who recently wrote the book “Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric,” could easily have bestowed similar praise on any of the night’s other participants: straight white and Asian ladies who vogue for sport, gay black male dancers from Brussels for whom fellow voguers have become an ersatz family, and even a middle-age German woman with a government job.

“The catwalk is nearly always about self-assertion,” Moore said. “It’s a bit like therapy. People who are marginalized or not cisgender are doing it because it’s urgent.”

What all of the voguers at the Opulence Ball had in common was that they were fabulous — or were aiming to be. That is the subject of Moore’s new book, which describes how marginalized people can “regain their humanity” by leaning into creative strangeness and rejecting boredom — in other words, by becoming fabulous.

“Fabulousness doesn’t take a lot of money,” Moore said. “It requires high levels of creativity, imagination and originality; it’s dangerous, political, risky, and largely practiced by queer, trans, transfeminine people of color or other marginalized groups; it’s about making a spectacle of oneself in a world that seeks to suppress and undervalue fabulous people.”

According to Moore, fabulousness begins with a turning point, a shedding of a past way of living in favor of existing for oneself in another dimension.

It’s also utopian, Moore says, because instead of waiting for things to get better, “fabulous people imagine an alternative universe right now.”

Though Moore began the book as a doctoral student at Yale, he says the work was really “35 years in the making,” tracing back to his childhood in Ferguson, Missouri, where he studied to become a classical violinist.

He based his theory of fabulousness on Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s late-19th-century treatise “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” which satirized conspicuous displays of wealth during America’s Gilded Age.

“Think back to Diahann Carroll on ‘Dynasty,'” Moore said. “She’s performing Veblen’s theory of conspicuousness, turning it on its head. She demands a separate hotel room for her clothes. Yet she’s also that rare black woman in traditionally white spaces. Whether it’s her as Dominique Deveraux or trans kids today who can’t use a bathroom, there’s more at stake than just conspicuous consumption. Fabulousness is an embrace of yourself through style when the world around you is saying you don’t deserve to be here.”

Indeed, the crux of Moore’s theory is that while neither easy nor safe, fabulousness is sometimes the only option in the face of ridicule, harassment or neglect by the majority.

“I wasn’t the first queer person at Yale to wear heels — there was another guy who would always turn up to class in a sensible pump,” Moore said. “But as a black, queer person, when I show up in a look, I’m seizing space.”

What’s powerful about fabulousness is that it exists in an ambivalent relationship with the dominant culture around it, neither embracing it nor challenging it. As Moore puts it, you don’t need a camera to notice you, if you can be your own flash.

“Fabulousness is a mirror held up to society,” said Tavia Nyong’o, professor of American studies at Yale and the author of “Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life.” “It’s reflecting back a different way of being. That’s what’s angular about it: It tackles class and racial inequalities in a way that’s unexpected and innovative.” Moore, who is already at work on a second book, about the sociology of clubbing, says gentrification in cities like London, New York and Barcelona is threatening clubs and other arts spaces that act as crucibles of fabulousness.

“The difference between clubs in Europe and U.S. is that in Europe, club culture is seen as an engine of creativity,” Moore said. “My love for techno — my ability to get lost in that perpetual motion — is due to my love of classical music. It all ties together and merits support. Could you imagine a club in New York getting the same tax breaks as the New York Philharmonic or Lincoln Center? Yet that’s what happens in Europe.”

He also points out something that had been a subtext of the Berlin ball weekend — that in an age of President Donald Trump, populist firebrands like France’s Marine Le Pen, and a global lurch to the right, clubs, ballrooms and other spaces frequented by marginalized people and their allies need to coordinate and fight for their right to exist.

“Clubs are engines of politics,” Moore said. “A day after the ball, nearly all of the clubs in Berlin got together and staged one of the country’s largest protests against the AfD,” a far-right political party whose full name translates as Alternative for Germany, and which now sits in the Bundestag, the country’s federal legislature. The party’s leader has been rebuked for playing down Germany’s Nazi past.

Moore acknowledges that while being fabulous is a way to navigate the world when you don’t have privilege, it does not always pay the rent.

“It’s not easy to be an academic or to speak your mind when you’re gender nonconforming,” Moore said. “But I’ve always told students to just do you — it’s what I’ve done this whole time.”