Kevin Omni (born Kevin Burrus) is an LGBTQ icon and activist who has been involved in Ballroom (also known as “Ball”) culture since 1975. He has been instrumental in integrating community projects and activism into the Ball scene.
The Ballroom scene is a series of events with Ball children (mostly African American, Latin, and LGBTQ-identified teenagers and adults) who belong to non-sanguine families called houses under the care of a mother or father (leaders who nurture and groom their children to walk the runway). The children engage in competitions, and are rated by a panel of judges on their performance of realness (convincing and assertive portrayal of identity) through strut-and-pose, dance, and appearance. Categories of performance include gender archetypes in various status- and work-related fashions (military gear, business attire, street sensibilities, glamour), acrobatic dance, and various genres, such as sex siren and face (emphasizing physical beauty), femme queen/butch queen (feminine and masculine realness), and bizarre (elaborate costuming that needs not be gendered).
Kevin Omni has achieved legendary status as Ballroom pioneer, icon, and lifetime achiever. In the Ball community, there are levels of achievement awarded at major balls that participants can attain if they do well in their categories, help in the production of balls, and contribute to the community. Pioneers are those who were involved with the implementation of categories from the beginning of the Ball scene. Lifetime Achievers are those who have been in the scene for 25 years or more, have excelled in many categories, and have given back to the community. Icons are 20 years plus of excellence, and legends are 10 years plus. Legendary applies to those who have excelled in their categories. These classifications may shift according to house and region.
Burrus was born the fifth of six children in 1958 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City. Trained as a medical technician and in theater, he worked as a volunteer for the sick and homeless, promoted AIDS awareness, implemented harm reduction strategies in response to recreational drug abuse, and produced fashion shows.
In the late 1970s, Burrus joined the Ballroom community. He and Thomas Omni formed the House of Omni in 1980, and he began producing events and videos through Ultra-Omni Productions. But he never forgot his activist and charity roots. Burrus-as-Omni assisted in the production of the Love Ball for the Design Industry for AIDS from 1989 to 1991.
Building a House
Kevin Omni’s house was first made up of Straight and Gay children who worked with him in the business world. Before the AIDS crisis hit, Straight people as well as Gay participated in the Ball scene. Two categories were set up specifically for Straight people: Best Dressed Women and Best Dressed Men. A couple of Straight women who were employed at the bank in which he worked went on to walk in Best Dressed Women as fellow members of the House of Omni. Burrus remembers walking for Best Dressed Men and was successful, but was later told he was not qualified to walk the category because he was Gay. With the advent of the AIDS crisis, many Straights would leave the scene because of Gay people’s negative association with AIDS.
Burrus strove to make the House of Omni distinct by insisting that its members had high ethical standards regarding self-improvement through education. Children of the House were told that the attitude necessary to win a category was as much a matter of self-respect as it was outfits and poses.
For Kevin Omni/Burrus, the House was a family that he and the other members gathered around themselves. Members would find something that made them attractive, be it face, girth, youth, street sensibilities, military bearing, dancing skills, etc., and then learned to project a sense of confidence on the runway. To those house members who were discouraged, wanted to leave the House of Omni for personal reasons, or did not want to follow rules and or regulations, Burrus said, “I’m Kevin Omni with you, and I’m Kevin Omni without you!”
The success and popularity of the House of Omni has led to the creation of chapters outside of New York City in New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Milwaukee, North Carolina, Atlanta, and Paris, France. Each chapter is supervised by its own mother and father.
Expansion of Ballroom Categories
Omni says that, from 1977 to 1980, categories were traditionally drag queen-based. There was only one male category: Butch Mod Face for well dressed, masculine men with attractive facial features. Later, that masculine category was broken into three categories: Face, Best Dressed, and Runway Models Effect. Since then, many other categories, gendered and otherwise, were invented, such as Hi Fashion Evening Wear, Hi Fashion Executive, Leather Versus Suede, Town & Country, Punk Rock Versus New Wave, Futuristic Bizarre, Space Age Illusion, Precision Hair Cut, Shopping Down 5th Avenue Realness, and Ethnic Effect Coming From a Foreign Country. In addition, there were Body & Sex Siren categories for all genders, including Female, Male, and Fem Queen (Drag queen) Body.
The expansion of categories for competition was a welcome development for Kevin Omni, who excelled in the category of Men’s Legendary Face, but went on to walk and win categories such as Best Dressed, Realness, Legendary Hi Fashion Executive, Hi Fashion Evening-Wear, Butch Queen in Drag, and Sinister Eyes. It was in this way that Omni earned the title of legend as a recognized winner with celebrity status in the Ball community.
Omni was critical, however, of including painted (wearing make-up) men as a masculine category. He likens a feminine person to a potential work of art: “You have to have a canvas in order to paint,” he said, “A painted brick is still a brick.”
Kevin Omni produced the first mini ball, a preparatory event in anticipation of the larger full-scale extravaganzas, in 1982. The concept caught on fast, and the mini ball became a staple of the Ball scene. Mini balls have fewer categories (6 to 12), whereas a major ball usually has 25 to 30 categories.
How Do I Look and Community Outreach
Kevin Omni is the Assistant Director of documentary How Do I Look, produced by Wolfgang Busch.
Burrus regularly lectures on sexuality, health related issues, homelessness, drugs, and mental illness, all issues affecting Ball children. He is involved nationwide in furthering the education of HIV/AIDS education and awareness, including workshops for agencies such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and two organizations that cater to Gay youth: The Door and Safe Space. He is also the host of an internet blog talk radio show, The Red Carpet, which deals with issues within the Ball Community and LGBTQ folklife in general.
Kevin Omni on the Scene
In January 2010, Kevin Omni issued the following statement for the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife:
I had been both Mother and Father [of the House of Omni] from 1980 until 2002. I then gave the house to National Legendary Father Taz Omni. I am now the founder and overseer. We never had a real mother per se overall. But the prospective chapters have mothers. Prior to 2002, it was just little ol’ me. I feel that the pioneers, lifetime achievers, icons, and undisputed legends should be the ones who gain status only if they do their research, meaning they need to be knowledgeable and updated and should have the competitor’s resume. Usually you are certified by someone who already has icon and/or legendary status, and it’s usually done at a major Ball event. Status is somewhat changing as the years go by due to the fact that we only had maybe seven to ten balls a year in the early ’80s, which was basically confined to NYC, one in New Jersey, and one in DC. Now you have about 25 balls a year nationwide. So now the scale has changed, and it’s being worked on in this generation. They’re still trying to come up with a formula… It should be advised that status is truly not a “girl friend” thing for those who have rubbed elbows with you, have slept with you, flirted with you, or kissed your ass just to get said status. I feel if a panel is made for this [awarding status], the panel should be made up of undisputed and respected individuals who are honest and fair… The panel would have to be thought out very carefully. No more overnight legends, and the way times are now, no more overnight icons who haven’t done anything other than throw a ball and take your money.
Cunningham, Michael. “The Slap of Love.” Open City 6 (1998). 175-196.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Busch, Wolfgang. How Do I Look. Art From The Heart, 2006.