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An Interview with Kiddy Smile: Resistance Movement

An Interview with Kiddy Smile: Resistance Movement

This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the fall of 2018.

Interview by Alice Pfeiffer. Photography by Noel Quintela. Styling by Tahi Guy.

During the day Kiddy’s wardrobe features athleisure staples and luxury accessories, while for evening he’s regularly to be found in fabulous sequined jumpsuits—but for a function with the president of France, with all eyes of the nation on him, he chose a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Black fag and son of migrants.” Meet the irrepressible face of Paris’s booming ballroom scene, shaking up attitudes toward gender, race, and body shape throughout France using dance and his music—and bringing unprecedented visibility to the country’s minorities.

“All French men are suave, rakish fops who smoke very thin cigarettes while quoting Baudelaire, reciting Sartre by heart, and being very, very sensitive indeed,” wrote Chris Leadbeater in the UK newspaper The Telegraph last year.

For many born-and-bred Parisiennes like myself, the gap between tourists’ rose-tinted gaze and the city’s daily reality is both comical and problematic. Light years away from breakfasts of croissants and existential philosophy, the city’s population is just as modern, multicultural, and queer as London’s or Berlin’s. But while the latter pride themselves on their diversity, France has traditionally done precisely the opposite: the only figures exported are systematically bourgeois, white, heteronormative, and waif-like, leaving little or no room for alternative representations.

From the day he was born in the modest Parisian suburb of Rambouillet, Pierre Hache, today known as Kiddy Smile, was well aware he was never going to fit into that minuscule box. Raised by his mother, a first-generation immigrant from Cameroon, he rapidly grew to be taller and larger than most Gallic men, and openly gay. As he faced layers of clichés, he also found there was no role model to look up to.

Little did he know that his journey towards self-love was going to carve out a space for many silenced Others, and push him to a level of national fame. The French Prince of Voguing, as the local media calls him, is at the forefront of Paris’s bubbling ballroom scene; his much-anticipated debut album, One Trick Pony, was released last month; and Climax, indie director Gaspar Noé’s latest film, in which Kiddy has a role, is following closely behind.

When we meet in a Parisian cafe on a sticky summer day, heads turn: shot by ASOS for its latest campaign, his face is currently plastered all over walls of the Métro, and also appears on the cover of French magazine Le Bonbon. Today, he is wearing an effortless mix of luxury accessories and streamlined athleisure staples: T-shirt, shorts, and cap. Later that night, he is to change into a disco-inspired sequined jumpsuit and cat’s-eye sunglasses for a fashion cocktail. As for his upcoming vogue ball, he has opted for full-on contouring and a glamorous, Golden Age of Hollywood-style evening dress.

For him, activism starts by questioning the simplest habits, including getting dressed in the morning. Clothes, like gender, are a performance to play with and turn on its head. “Masculinity is so silly, a leftover from patriarchy. I hate its implied superiority to femininity… These qualities are like emotions—you can be happy one day, sad the next, and perhaps even both at the same time,” he says about the transient, transformative power of clothing. “I can never conceal my height or so fashion is one of the few spaces for reinvention and challenging expectations.”

This quest for self-exploration started as a teenager. Loud-mouthed and angry, he decided to inject his energy into dancing—first through hip-hop, followed by funk, disco, and music from the early-’90s Chicago and Detroit club scenes. To this day, he jokes that Sylvester and Grace Jones are his spiritual parents.

However, after an accident that almost led to his right leg being amuputated (he was trying to jump over a wall to sneak into a school party he had been banned from), he found himself having to take on softer styles. On discovering waacking, locking, and other dances from queer scenes, he understood that, just as with a simple item of clothing, a single dance move could be highly political. “My accident meant I had to explore more ‘feminine’ styles, which made me also question my gender identity. Dancing became a form of escapism and expression, all without requiring to speak, or label myself,” he remembers.

His cherubic face, striking chic, and large repertoire led him to be cast for numerous music videos, including for George Michael’s An Easier Affair. Later, he found himself sitting next to Beth Ditto at a fashion show, before she had reached worldwide fame. “I bet they just sat us together because we’re the only two fat guests,” she joked to him.

This was the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration, including a joint performance with Gossip at Coachella in 2010. Going on to work with indie and queer bands such as LCD Soundsystem and Hercules and Love Affair, he nevertheless regularly found himself rejected from mainstream scenes. Casting directors found him talented but too “different-looking”, too visible. Realizing he would never blend in, Kiddy decided to build his own path, one that would require breaking down each oppressive expectation. “If you’re tall and black, people are surprised you don’t play basketball. If you’re fat, people assume you’re single and have no sex life whatsoever,” he says of the intersection of the classism, racism, homophobia, and fatphobia he was confronted with every day.

Although openly gay, he was to discover another unsuspected challenge: the unspoken but normalized discrimination within the LGBT scenes. “These are white-centric, cisnormative environments,” he says. “I didn’t fit it, I was far from the ideal or the norm, but I refused to reject sweater by KENZO

what was so essential to who I am.” Instead of looking for a community, he worked on making peace with himself, and slowly grew into a character. He adopted his stage name after falling out with a friend who had nicknamed him Biggy: as an apology, the boy gifted him a bag adorned with a large smiley face. Kiddy Smile was born. “I feel more ‘kiddy’ than ‘biggy,’ and I try to keep smiling,” he says with a giggle.

Tattoos gradually covered his body, first to conceal the scars from his accident, and later as a way of reclaiming his own skin. “Tattoos are empowering because they are chosen, unlike everything else about your body,” he says. A unicorn, quotes from RuPaul, the words “Damaged,” “Fight Like a Girl,” and a Sailor Moon figure (“She is a feminist and has great style!”) all create a parallel, personal narrative.

A HOME FROM HOME

Voguing came as a surprise. Kiddy was approached by Harlem-based Lasseindra Ninja, who had decided to expand her New York-based House of Ninja to Paris. “Honestly, at that point, I didn’t know or understand the movement. I didn’t get why all the men were doing the splits and rolling on the floor,” says Kiddy. But once he understood its political dimension, he realized he had finally found a home. “There is a category for everyone, regardless of your abilities, your body, your looks… Voguing is a space where misfits can find acceptance and a family.” He became a part of the House of Mizrahi, and opted for the runway category because of his injured leg, where he provocatively mimicked model poses.

Today, the scene has grown to a full-blown movement. Its power lies in its adaptation to the local context: not a literal, cut-and-paste revival, but a reinterpretation of its philosophy. “France’s history is very different from America’s, and tools needed to be developed to address our own colonial context,” says Lissia Benoufella, known as Ari De B, a dancer and activist in Kiddy’s house. The competitions have allowed her to explore her own Algerian identity, by adding traditional Arabic elements into the figures and costumes. For others, Caribbean zouk and Ivory Coast’s coupé-décalé dance styles have been merged into the classic routines, leading to a hybrid, multicultural aesthetic. The aim is to “decolonize the dance floor, add a sense of historicity and political context, in a world where models twerk and wear cornrows,” adds Benoufella.

This mission was made apparent when Kiddy released the video to his hit song “Let a Bitch Know,” from his EP of the same name released in 2016. Shot in Kiddy’s hometown, it features him surrounded by dancers in full drag—thigh-high boots, crop tops, fur coats—all doing the splits in the middle of council estates and parking lots. The video went viral: provocative, pop, queer, sexy, it provided a counter-representation to the thuggish stereotypes of banlieue masculinities.

WHEN VOGUING IS IN VOGUE

Fast-forward to today, voguing has become mainstream, picked up by Dior, Vogue, and H&M, to name a few. Something that Kiddy struggles with. “The problem is that castings for more mainstream audiences only pick light-skin, skinny—and bad—dancers, who are not concerned with what the movement defends. Suddenly, all voguing becomes a consumerist good, something to give you an ‘edge,’” he says, frustrated that many dancers, including himself, were frequently rejected.

This thin line between exploitation and visibility is a recurring debate for Kiddy in all aspects of his career. In addition to his presence at numerous queer festivals and in militant groups, he also works with global brands including Jean Paul Gaultier and Balmain, and recently appeared in a Smirnoff campaign. Today, he is even represented by Next Models, an agency that also handles the image of A$AP Rocky, Jamie Bochert, Alice Dellal, and Anja Rubik—a significant move in the chiefly fatphobic society and luxury world of Paris. While some have accused Kiddy of selling out, others believe “his visual presence and image speak volumes. He is doing something never seen in France before, and proves today’s consumers are looking for role models with depth rather than shallow norms,” says Saif Mahdhi, president of the European branch of the agency.

Unsurprisingly, Kiddy has used his power and contacts to help his cause: Gaultier agreed to be part of the jury of a recent ball; Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s creative director, personally designed outfits for him. “These jobs fund my other activities, give me a platform, and are a marker of success and evolution in France, not just for me but anyone who doesn’t conform to the classic norms,” Kiddy says.

And it is indeed: he is reaching an iconic level in Paris, is frequently stopped in the street for selfies, and One Trick Pony was released with a level of fame and coverage incomparable with his EP. And, like everything he does, it is intrinsically political: “I talk about my life, which is intersectional. It is politicized by default.”

His album expresses his desire to not be associated with a simple trend, but prove himself as an artist. It can be read in many different ways, and also enjoyed for its pure musical value. “I was looking for something both personal and universal,” he says of the record, which was inspired by early house, techno, and R&B, such as the band Inner City, DJ Joe Smooth and the singer Robin S—all while remaining intimate. The track “Dark Knight” focuses on learning self-acceptance when you have no point of reference; other topics include the struggle to find love or give trust when you struggle to find yourself.

MEETING MACRON

This summer, Kiddy faced further controversy when he was invited to play for President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace (the French equivalent of the White House) for a national day of celebration of music.

The same dilemma arose—but more poignantly than before, since it meant performing for a system that recently requested the dismantling of all migrant camps, and has shown no support for LGBTQA+ communities. Accused of participating in pink-washing by some, praised for bringing media attention to his cause by others, he took on the challenge, which he delivered with something of a manifesto.

“I’m well aware of the oppression of QPOCs [queer people of color], and the repression of migrants by the government. But I firmly believe in hijacking a system from within, and in the creation of a discourse in places where all visibility is absent. This is an opportunity to spread what I stand for,” he wrote on social media the night before the gig. On the day, he wore a T-shirt bearing the words “Fils d’immigrés, noir & pédé” (black fag and son of migrants) and donated his full payment to BAAM, a leading NGO for migrant rights.

Featuring cross-dressing dancers in high heels posing with the First Lady, as well as next to Macron himself as he tried on a pair of futuristic sunglasses, pictures of the performance went viral. And those shots infuriated homophobic, racist, and conservative groups, all outraged by his presence at a national event. “How can this be France?” tweeted one far-right voter. Mission accomplished.

© 2020 RAIN Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

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