Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour dancers share memories of life on the road during the iconic tour
July 13, 2015 Interviews, News

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour dancers share memories of life on the road during the iconic tour

Ahead of the “Truth or Dare” film/documentary being shown tonight during L.A.’s Outfest as part of its Legacy Project, Queerty chatted with a number of people depicted in the the documentary.

Cast of characters:

Singer Donna De Lory was first introduced to Madonna by producer Patrick Leonard after Donna cut an early demo of the song, “Open Your Heart.” Donna would go on to sing background vocals on some of Madonna’s greatest hits and perform with her on six world tours over the course of two decades…

On the Who’s That Girl Tour I came in to replace someone. Niki came in a few weeks later. We were both new to the whole scene. In between the two tours we had become friends with Madonna and were creatively involved with her. We didn’t have to audition for the Blond Ambition Tour. We felt like we were all really strong together. It was a really positive, creative relationship.

At age 26, Carlton Wilborn was the oldest of the dancers to be hired for the Blond Ambition Tour. Carlton gained Madonna’s trust early on and was responsible for lifting Madonna in many of the most physical performances. Carlton would would later perform with Madonna on her Girlie Show Tour…

I remember going to the audition in a biker jacket and a caftan. An old Egyptian robe kind of thing. But I think what made me stand out more than anything that day was that I didn’t really care about the gig. When I went to the Madonna audition I was already offered to go on the road with Whitney Houston. But Whitney had delayed the start date for her tour. I went to the audition for Madonna with a lot of confidence because a major icon had already said yes to me.

Kevin Stea, just 20, was hired as dance captain and associate choreographer for the tour. Kevin has had a long and extremely successful career as a dancer working with everyone from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga…

We auditioned in groups of 40 and she took one or two from each group for the callbacks. There were about 150 guys at the callbacks. I auditioned right in front, dead center to get seen for the callback. I had to pull out every style imaginable in the freestyle to get the gig.

Luis Camacho was already well known in the drag ball world as part of the legendary House of Xtravaganza when he auditioned for the Blond Ambition Tour. With fellow House of Xtravaganza dancer Jose Gutierez, Luis would introduce voguing to mainstream audiences around the world…

Me and the other members of the House of Xtravaganza were sort of picked before the other auditions. We did a private audition. Madonna was looking for voguers. We auditioned and were doing well when Madonna stopped the audition and asked if we were trained dancers. She didn’t know that we were trained dancers. She thought we were just street dancers.

Salim “Slam” Gauwloos began training as a dancer in his native Belgium, at the Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. He was the Dick to Madonna’s Breathless during the Dick Tracy-inspired portion of the show. In 2015, Slam reunited with Blond Ambition dancer Jose Gutierez for a “Vogue” tribute video…

I felt that we landed the tour because we were definitely the best and the cutest.

A diverse Blond Ambition surrogate family is created comprising dancers from all different backgrounds and dance experience…

Kevin: Carlton seemed very weird to me at the time. I remember thinking how even 24 was so old. I adore him now. Vincent Paterson [Blond Ambition Tour director] was definitely my mentor and who I spent most of my time creating with. I looked up to Jose and Luis for their genius with voguing. I watched them more often than they knew with admiration and awe.

Luis: Kevin was strange to us. Jose and I were so street. We were so street savvy when we came to California. He was so different from us and what we came from. Kevin was into antiques and vintage houses. He wore shoes with no socks and button downs. It was so different from what were you used to.

Donna: I had a crush on Slam from the moment he walked in. I was like” Oh my God.” He was so beautiful.

Carlton: For as much fun as the tour was to do I didn’t have the opportunity to be in a lot of loose super playful stuff. Mostly because I was trying to stay steady and focused. I was the dude holding the multi-million dollar brand over his head. I was partnering Madonna and carrying her around and I took it very seriously. Some of the guys could go out and party at night and come in the next day and joke around during rehearsals. I didn’t feel like I could risk that.

Although having only four Bobby Brown music videos to his credit, 26-year-old director Alek Keshisian was hired by Madonna and granted unparalleled access to shoot the Blond Ambition rehearsals and behind the scenes…

Kevin: She introduced us to Alek while we were rehearsing at the Disney stages. But the filming sort of grew over time. There was a clause in our contract for a film, so it wasn’t a bolt out of the blue.

Donna: We had met him because he was a friend of Madonna’s. It was explained to us that they were going to be filming the whole process. Honestly, nobody knew it was gonna be this film. We thought, “Oh this is cool. It will all be documented.” We couldn’t picture that our rehearsals and all the work over the next few months would be made into a film.

Carlton: Fairly early on we signed a release. It was not spoken about exactly what the purpose of them filming us was gonna be. But by the time we were more than half way into filming it had been made fairly clear.

They soon learned that their on-camera confessions, performances and interaction with Madonna were intended for much more than just home movies. A full-length documentary film was in the works…

Luis: I was a kid from the lower east side. I saw the opportunity and I took it. I was like, “You want to film me? Sure, from which angle?” I didn’t know when I would ever have this opportunity again.

Kevin: There had never been a film like Truth or Dare. I think most of us thought it would end up as an MTV rockumentary like they did back then.

Donna: They would say, “Show up at room 405 at 10 tomorrow morning in your pajamas and you’re gonna get in bed and do this interview. It was really fun and then it started getting really serious. My mom died of breast cancer when I was young like Madonna’s did so we had that in common. I talked about that. I also talked about my father and their breakup and how I grew up. There were some personal details. I felt in that moment after I had said some things about my family and my father like, “Wow, is this OK. I hope the whole world doesn’t see it” Luckily, that didn’t end up being in the film. Other people had personal things involved.

Carlton: There was hesitancy because I was so riddled with secrets back then. No one knew the quandary I had. [Wilborn has revealed in other interviews that he tested HIV-positive prior to the tour.] I wasn’t a baby to performing like some of the other guys. I had done stuff and been in newspapers when I was a Hubbard Street dancer in Chicago. I knew how to navigate media to some degree. I thought it was great. For me, it was just a matter of being aware of what you say and what you do.

After months of rehearsal the Blond Ambition tour opened in April 1990 in Japan to sold-out crowds…

Kevin: We had very extensive rehearsals where we ran through the show two times per day for two weeks before heading out to do actual concerts. The performance side was locked in but I had never done anything with thousands of screaming fans so I didn’t know what that would be like.

Carlton: You could never hear the downbeat of “Express Yourself ” because the crowd was screaming so loud. All you could hear was the churning of the wheels on stage.

Donna: There were a couple moves we did in that opening routine where we would go all the way back and bend. I remember having so much energy and adrenaline and feeling so strong. Especially that opening number when we came out with guys and it was so theatrical.

The Blond Ambition Tour was Madonna’s most theatrical production to date. Exploring themes of religion, sexuality and female empowerment, the intricate choreography and Jean-Paul Gaultier designed costumes would become iconic with everyone having a favorite performance piece…

Slam: I got to partner her in almost every number. I loved getting to play the Dick Tracy character. We would end up making out at the end of the performance.

Luis: “Like a Virgin.” I just loved the song. I like the rendition we did for the tour. I really loved that it was just me and Jose with Madonna on stage. Even though we were in front of thousands of people that moment felt intimate on stage.

Carlton: “Oh Father.” That was a great moment for Madonna and me. It was just us two. It had a lot of acting moments in it, which I’m always drawn to.

Donna: We spent so much time rehearsing the chair routine for “Keep it Together.” It felt like the whole sentiment of the song — with us being together and being at the end of the show. That was amazing. That show was so strong.

Kevin: “Keep It Together” was my favorite. I loved the costumes. I loved working with the props. The choreography was phenomenal and it really felt like we were a family onstage in that number. In that number we knew we had survived the show, so there was a cathartic joy.

As the tour progressed from city to city Madonna and her troop of dancers began playing the game Truth or Dare as a way to become more familiar with one another…

Donna: It all started out at a dinner with the film crew. We were at dinner one night and started playing truth or dare after dinner. We were drinking Sangria and hanging out. Everyone got really into it. The truth ones were really fun because after spending so much time together you got to know them better. Carlton was really good.

Kevin: Carlton was by far the best in the game. He’d do anything! Donna had some great questions and great dares. Hers were the best questions I think. I realized in that game how I yearned to just be free and open about myself. But I had to do some soul searching and understand who I was first.

Slam: Luis and Carlton had the best dares.

Carlton: Jose and Luis as a team were the most gung-ho when it came to playing Truth or Dare. They were fearless and were ready to do whatever.

Luis: Carlton loved pushing the envelope. Jose and me were just trying to get over our hangovers.

Truth or Dare would simultaneously capture its subjects at their most provocative and profound…

Carlton: Even today when I think about certain moments what surprises me is just how raw some of those moments are. We’re at a table and I pull my penis out! I was surprised I did that. We didn’t go into any of those moments or those days with any sort of premeditated anything so I was surprised by what I was doing. The fact that by the end of the movie I’m naked…No one knew I was funky as a dog in that scene with Madonna on the bed where I am throwing her around. I was surprised I was that cavalier with Madonna and that I was so ballsy to yank her around.

Donna: I was playing with the guys and would ask questions like ” If you weren’t gay who would you want to be with” Questions like that. Everyone was kissing everyone. It was crazy. Of course it’s always gonna get sexual.

Donna’s dinnertime dare to Madonna to perform fellatio on a water bottle would become one of the most talked-about scenes in the film. Another was Madonna’s revelation that Sean Penn was the great love of her life…

Donna: The thing about the love of her life, you always want to ask your friend that. It was sweet. It was part of my relationship with her at the time. She was like a big sister. Even the way I asked her it was like I was asking my big sister. The other thing with the bottle was just where we had gone with game. We were getting outrageous with it because we had already been playing it for a while and it was like, “Ok, what bigger dares can we do?” It was just in the moment and I saw the bottle there.

There was competition for both camera time and Madonna’s attention…

Kevin: There was some hamming it up for camera for sure. I often shut up when the camera came around. Sometimes it was simply because the others suddenly got really loud and would camp it up for camera. I learned from that job how to always be aware of the camera.

Donna: Madonna was the star and we always had things we wanted to say to her. Her time was limited because she was so busy. It wasn’t a competition, but her time was so limited. So if you were next to her you took advantage of that moment.

Luis: We had Madonna at a time when she was just very motherly and protective of us and that evoked a “see me, see me”-type of response. I don’t think that was as much the case with Carlton as he was older than us.

Carlton: Oliver Crumes was a fucking hog. I love Oliver and he’s amazing, but he is very interested the noise. He’s very intoxicated by the noise. He was and still is.

Claiming they were after him sexually, Crumes, the sole straight dancer on the tour, would often appear visibly uncomfortable around some of the other dancers…

Kevin: None of us were interested in Oliver! Gabe and I hung out with him the most and certainly neither of us was ever making moves or innuendo. Jose, Luis and Slam had a lot of fun teasing him, though.

Luis: We did not want Oliver in any way shape or form. I love him dearly and he knows that, but we did not want Oliver. It’s a good way to bother the straight guy if you flirt with him. If you’re straight and you have a wall up, yeah we’re gonna make you uncomfortable by walking by you and touching you — just to get his goat.

Slam: We didn’t want him. But then again he’s not to be blamed given the times and circumstances. Being gay wasn’t cool at the time. Oliver is a sweetheart. On top of it we were all so young.

Madonna would view herself as den mother to the group and described the dancers as “emotionally crippled in some way. The innocence of the dancers move me. They’re not jaded in the least. They haven’t been anywhere. This was the opportunity of their lives.”..

Luis: Crippled? We weren’t crippled emotionally, but was this big for us? Absolutely. It was something I wanted my whole life. I would stand in front of the mirror and pretend there were fans screaming my name.

Kevin: I was offended by that then, but I’m not now. I wasn’t emotionally crippled, but I was certainly emotionally unavailable and she called me out on that.

Slam: I thought she was the emotionally crippled one. But not in a shady way, if that makes sense. I mean, being her can’t be that easy.

In 1991 very few mainstream films had shown the lives of gay men so vividly. For some younger gay viewers it was the first time they would see two men kissing passionately, going to a gay pride parade or embracing their sexuality so openly…

Kevin: I’m glad we were in an environment where we could be ourselves completely. I was just discovering my sexuality at the same time so it was exploration for me. It was my first time at a gay pride parade; the first time I ever heard of one even. I’m so grateful to have been surrounded by LGBT vanguards who were boldly and happily themselves with very little attention on garnering validation from disapproving masses.

Carlton: I was a little excluded from the rest of the guys on purpose. I was not comfortable with a gay title at the time. When they were in New York and went to the gay pride parade I wanted nothing to do with that. I was nowhere to be found. They were so out and bold and free, but I was never that way.

Slam: I was living my life as who I was. I am proud to have been a part of such a huge movement. We did something that at the time wasn’t cool, but it’s cool now. Looking back I am so happy to have inspired and touched so many people.

Luis: We honestly didn’t know the impact it would make on others. That’s the biggest gift that has come out of this film. I still hear from guys saying, ” I remember when the film came out and I was in flux with my sexuality. You gave me that inspiration to come out and feel good about myself” It’s a true gift.

Truth or Dare opened in May 1991 with Madonna and the Blond Ambition family attending premiere screenings in Los Angeles and New York…

Donna: That night we were all celebrities. We were at a theater in Hollywood. I think it was on Sunset. There were two premieres we went to. There were some things I said that I was really hoping were not in the movie so I was nervous watching it at first. But then I was blown away at how brilliant and entertaining it was. But I was kinda holding my breath in a couple places. Luckily for me my personal stuff wasn’t in there but other peoples were. I was really feeling for them. Gabriel’s parents didn’t’ know he was gay. That was intense. I was feeling people’s uneasiness.

Kevin: I was so nervous from all the sensationalist press at the time going on and on about Madonna’s flamboyantly gay dancers. When I saw the movie it didn’t seem exaggerated or exploitative, just edited to say what she wanted to say. I was too engrossed in the movie to watch the audience, but we were laughing and carrying on louder than anyone. It felt more like a living room screening of home videos with our family.

Donna: We were so close with the camera crew so we became so natural with the cameras. There were so many beautiful things between us. We really were a family. When Madonna was talking about her mother and went to the gravesite. I just started bawling when I saw that at the screening.

Carlton: I missed the premiere in Los Angeles. At the time I was modeling for Body Glove and I was in Bangkok. My mom had a bigger deal at the premiere than I did. [Carlton's mom is featured in the film meeting Madonna backstage at one of the tour stops.] When it premiered in Chicago her girlfriends took her out to brunch and they all went to the movie. She was a celebrity and it was great for her.

Luis: I saw it in New York at the Zeigfield Theater. I thought it was great. That was what I had wanted since I was four years old.

Slam: I saw it for the first time at the New York premiere. My first reaction was, “Oh my God, my boyfriend (at that time) is going to kill me.” It was surreal but so much fun.

The most truthful moment in Truth or Dare…

Luis: When they did my interview in bed with Madonna, you don’t see it in the film too much. We had a nice conversation in that moment. I was a guy at that time who didn’t know how to deal with endings. When they did that interview with me in bed with Madonna it was towards the end of the tour. I just didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want the ride to be over. I didn’t want the relationship to end.

Slam: The kiss. [Responding to a dare from Luis, Slam has an extended French-kissing scene with Gabriel. Madonna infamously quips, " I'm getting a hard on."]

Carlton: The graveyard moment. I know Madonna’s facial expressions enough. In those moments I saw her face the way that most people have not seen her: the authenticity of vulnerability. I like that version of her. I’ve always liked that version of her. Even from videos she has done since, when she is more humanized, like the video for “Bad Girl.” I just like her as a lovely woman.

In January 1992 three of the Blond Ambition dancers, Oliver Crumes, Kevin Stea and Gabriel Trupin, filed a lawsuit against Madonna. The suit claimed that their privacy had been invaded during the filming of Truth or Dare. After two years of litigation a settlement was finally reached…

Donna: Everyone had his or her own deal on the whole thing- business wise. They had their own deal and I don’t know what it was. For myself, I was smart enough at that time to know that anything I said or did in front of the camera could be in the movie. We didn’t know at first it was gonna be that big of a movie. I mean, how could we? No one even knew at the premiere how big this thing was gonna be. Madonna didn’t even know. I personally wouldn’t have sued. I respect those guys and supported them but I wasn’t involved in any of it.

Luis: I didn’t understand where they were coming from in the beginning. When I did understand I was just like, “You know what guys, I’m not gonna participate.” Gabriel, God bless his heart, had more of a reason to sue. He felt he had been outed. I felt for him in that way but I was already out. My parents knew about me and supported me. I didn’t think I had a reason to sue and I didn’t want to mess up a relationship over it.

Carlton: The cameras were not in secret places. My position was- be aware that this is gonna be seen. If you don’t want it to be seen- don’t show it. I feel that the guys that went a long with the lawsuit found an opportunistic moment to take advantage of her. That’s my position and they know that’s my position. When we are all in bed and Madonna says, “How do we want this to be rated?” and we all scream, “X” there would be no reason for a conversation about ratings if they thought it was just gonna be for her personal library. That makes no sense. I said that in the deposition. We all knew what we were doing. It would have been one thing if every month for a couple hours somebody just had a camera out. But there was a crew. We had interviews set up. They weren’t stupid. That wasn’t for her to go watch in her bedroom by herself.

Could I have used the extra funds that they got? Absolutely. Am I aware that Madonna made a ridiculous amount of money off the DVD and we didn’t make any because of the contract we signed? Absolutely. But that’s my fault and my team’s fault for not going over the contract and having things handled beforehand. You can’t say yes and then blame her. That’s not fair.

Kevin: I’m fine with everything that was captured of me on film, I’ve never had a problem with any of it. I am constantly surprised though that no one seems to have understood the basic reason for our lawsuit… a movie was in our contract with a rate and not paid for. I’m quite annoyed at being sort of demonized by everyone’s ignorance, and imagine it must have been purposeful on the management side because no one seems to know that a movie was a clause in our contract. ‘Invasion of privacy’ was one of gabe’s issues, and he was forcibly outed at a time when that wasn’t so simple. There were repercussions for his family and partner and his partner’s child. We were all lumped together for better or worse, but I’m at peace with standing beside Gabe in solidarity, even though I know she meant well. I agree with her completely in a bigger picture even then, but he felt sacrificed and as one of my best friends I know how he suffered. I wish he were still alive to answer that question himself. We’d probably be groaning and laughing about it.

Truth or Dare propelled Madonna’s singers and backup dancers into the spotlight in a way that was completely unique and unheard of. They were now inextricably linked with the superstar…

Carlton: It opened doors. I have an acting career now that was launched because of my attachment to Truth or Dare. I know I was invited into rooms in the 1990s, and some now because of my involvement with the film.

Kevin: It definitely cost me some jobs back when artists wanted their dancers to be their dancers. But in the bigger picture it got me a lot of respect from all sides of the industry. It also allowed me to use that visibility occasionally to be a voice for the dance community, which I am extraordinarily grateful for.

Luis: It was hard to get a gig after. I was known as a Madonna dancer. Now it’s not a big deal. You go on tour with Taylor Swift or Katy Perry and you can jump on another tour and it’s cool. Back then it was different. We got off Madonna’s tour and tried to audition for Janet’s tour but we were considered Madonna’s dancers. After a while we were just thought of as Madonna dancer.

Donna: Over the years so many people have told me I should do a cover of one of Madonna’s songs. For a long time I fought that and thought I needed to do my own thing and write my own songs and everything. Now Niki and I have recorded “Rain”. We made it our own and it feels really natural. We sang it with Madonna on stage but we have our own connection to that music and it feels natural that Niki and I are singing it. I embrace that. I see more of the positives of it now. I’m more secure as an artist. I have my own voice and I don’t doubt that. I have no problem singing Madonna songs now and reminiscing about those times.

A quarter of a century later, Truth or Dare has had a different impact on everyone involved…

Donna: My favorite tours were the Blond Ambition Tour and the Girlie Show Tour. I was the most involved in those shows. It was also a time in my life where I was immersed in the spotlight. It’s kind of like a fantasy. In a lot of ways Niki and I were at our peak-physically and vocally. We were being challenged and it was just a great peak experience. We were both there together. In the film, 20 Feet from Stardom they describe the feeling of how you bond with someone when you sing with them. There is a fit with our voices, tonally and vibrationally. We just had a fit.

Luis: A few years ago my partner and I got into a conversation and he said, “Oh honey, no one knows who you are.” I said, “Ok, whatever.” We literally walked into the Yogurt Stop and the 18 year old behind the counter nearly has a heart attack and says, “Oh my god, you’re Luis Camacho.” I was like, “Honey, can you please take our picture? Snap!”

Slam: I really love the fact that I am still inspiring generations. It’s very touching and empowering.

Kevin: As time passes it becomes very apparent that it was a career defining moment and the impact of the tour and movie is still being felt today on a level deeper than most of the high profile gigs I’ve done since.

Carlton: I’m surprised that it still matters to people. I still get fan feedback response to them seeing me in a movie. It’s amazing that I’m time capsuled in something as iconic as Truth or Dare. The enduring lasting legacy of Truth or Dare is the statement of Express Yourself. I am still to this day in the practice of doing that. I think that’s a powerful message.

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