By: Joe Castel.
In 2016, filmmakers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan united six of the seven Madonna: Truth or Dare dancers from the landmark documentary of her Blonde Ambition Tour. In Strike A Pose, the dancers tell their personal stories about rocketing to stratospheric fame, only to be jolted back down to a harsher reality after the tour. In conjunction with the 30th anniversary of Madonna: Truth or Dare, FilmMovement.com released Strike a Pose virtually last May on their website.
To celebrate both documentaries, dancer Kevin Stea, from the Blonde Ambition Tour, graciously granted Adelantes’s entertainment contributor, Joe Castel, an exclusive interview discussing his life before, during and after Madonna. Stea is one of the three dancers who sued Madonna after her film came out because her company hadn’t honored their contractual agreements regarding payments for them appearing in Truth or Dare. In Strike A Pose, Kevin discusses how suing her created immense anguish in his life, however, Madonna is far from the only superstar Stea has worked with. He’s danced for Michael Jackson, Prince and Lady Gaga, just to name a few. Although Kevin’s put the glory days of Vogue behind him, Strike A Pose has made it possible for him to revisit that iconic moment in time with fonder memories.
Joe: Why did you choose to talk about your Blond Ambition Tour in a documentary, now?
Kevin: It just seemed like the right time, that someone was actually interested. And the way they framed it to me was very positive and also that it was about us, the dancers’ stories. And we don’t often have the opportunity to share our own stories. We were often nameless with no backgrounds. And we hadn’t seen each other forever.
Joe: It was definitely a massive platform to tell your side of the story.
Kevin: I hadn’t really talked too much about it in all those years, because I had left it behind in my past. And I sort of dealt with it on my own, on a personal level after the lawsuit. I didn’t want to appear as though I had used her name to get where I was going and then sued her to make money. It just seemed all so weird. So I just was like, “You know what? I’m not going to put her on my resume. I’m not going to talk about her. I’m not going to say anything,” and I certainly have nothing bad to say anyways.
Joe: I totally get why you sued. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute; you sign up for the tour, but a movie? That’s a whole different thing.’
Kevin: Well, it wasn’t even unexpected. It was in my contract for a movie. And so I just thought when they started saying that they wanted to make it into a movie, we’re like, “Okay, great, then our contract will kick in and they’ll honor the clause that’s in the contract.” And then when the movie was coming out, they still hadn’t addressed it, or talked to us about it, or sent a check for it because it was already a negotiated amount. They didn’t say anything. It was just like, “Uhm, What are you trying to get away with here?”
Joe: The film earned $30 million at the box office, making it the second highest profitable documentary after Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.
Kevin: Well now I feel like, “Should I have asked for more?” Because I was trying to have integrity around my suit and say, “I’m just going to sue for what I have in the contract. Like just pay me.” “Pay me what you owe me,” like Rihanna says. But now after all this time I’m like, “Gosh should I have sued for points or something?”
Joe: Did you feel the filmmakers in Strike A Pose did you guys’ justice?
Kevin: It wasn’t really until we saw the actual movie, that I realized that everything that they (filmmakers) had said was from the heart, and they really did mean well, and want the best for us, and really did have a non-scandalous, non-salacious view of our lives and our time. There was this European sensibility, which really, I think, held the complexity of the story in our lives in a very mature and profound way. It was so touching to see that when we actually saw it in the theater to watch it with all of my brothers sitting there. It made us feel like we had accomplished something in our lives, even if that accomplishment is just touching other people.
Joe: Yeah. A moment in time.
Kevin: There was a large portion of our lives that we would discount, comments to us about Madonna and the show, and how much it meant to them, because we just thought, “Well these are just fans who are talking about her, her, her.” And it wasn’t really until the response to this movie, Strike a Pose, that we actually started to let all those 30 years of compliments land on us, and not just deflect them to her. And so this re-assessment of this ongoing outpouring of love for 30 years that we shrugged aside, and all of a sudden, “Wait, that was real? They did actually mean us.”
It’s so strange to have this one job that was at the earliest, the first year of my career and then, 30 years of non-stop working, and it’s like so much of my career has boiled down into this one gig and these two moments that have been documented in time that relate to the same job. And it’s odd to look back and go, “Oh my God, how has this stuck so hard and so into the memory of pop culture?” And then I might have to identify myself, in such a short period of my life. It’s hard to wrap my head around how much that identifies my entire career.
Joe: Did you always want to be a dancer?
Kevin: When I was younger, I did gymnastics and I had the potential and facility to use my body in many ways. I never thought that dance was a career, or that it was something I could do for a job or give my life to. However, I was the kid in elementary school, who won the disco dance challenge. I was the one watching Danny Terrio on TV in Dance Fever. I was the one who was dancing down the aisles of the grocery store, leaping and doing ballet, even though I’ve never done it and I had no idea what it was. I was just the one dancing around like a maniac at all times. And so I think on some level, there was an urge to move. But not in a sense that I could go to training or there was a class I could take.
Kevin: Then I started taking a class and then I ran out of money and then I heard there was an agent auditioning, and I auditioned for them. They signed me, and then sent me to an audition. I got that job. From that first Debbie Gibson video that I did with the agency that was in February, and then I didn’t work until October. I did a couple $50 gigs here and there. Oh, I struggled.
Joe: And where were you living at that time?
Kevin: I got a room at some house down at 15th and Alvarado in Los Angeles for 200 bucks. It was six bedrooms. It was huge, Victorian, six bedroom place. But there was no floor in the dining room and it looked down into the basement where people were shooting up.
Joe: It sounds like Buffalo Bill’s house in Silence of the Lambs with the big hole in the basement. “Put the lotion in the basket!”
Kevin: (laughs) Exactly. I had people kick down my front door and steal all my shit. I don’t think there was warm water in the place. I’m sure I was so stinky all the time. Madonna once mentioned, ‘He smells!’ And I thought about it and I was like, “You know what? I probably did smell,” because I would always avoid the bathroom, because it never had hot water.
Joe: And so then you heard about Madonna’s audition in LA?
Kevin: I had a really hard, hard summer of no gigs and no work, and then I cut my mullet off, and suddenly jobs were being thrown at me.
Joe: Oooh, yeah, unless you were Bono, those mullets were not a good look for most of us.
Kevin: She put in an ad in the newspaper and in Variety and then also my agents called. So I went. Several thousand people showed up. Because it wasn’t just the dance community, it was the entire city. So anyone who had thought they had any chance at all was there, or who just wanted to see her, which was a lot of people.
I made it to the end and then they said, “Well, whoever wants to freestyle, go ahead and freestyle.” And by that point, she already knew whom she wanted. She had already pulled Oliver and Gabriel to the front and was chatting with them and talking with them and I’m like, “I’m about to dance and she’s just over in the corner chatting.”
And I’m like, “Okay well, I’m just going to do what I can and maybe try and get her attention.” I did everything I possibly could. I flipped. I was kicking and turning. I literally did every style I could possibly think of. And as I stepped away, Chris Ciccone and Nicki Bolt were there and they were like, “Oh my God, that was so good. You did such a great job.” I was like, “Thanks.” I didn’t even know that was her brother. And I was like, “Okay, thanks. Well, bye.” I went home. And I didn’t hear anything for a while and then I got a call from Chris saying, “I want you to be the associate choreographer.” I was like, “What?” I literally didn’t know what that meant.
So as the assistant, I become the muse and body that everything gets created on. And also, if a movement is needed, then I often provide that. When choreographer Vincent Paterson came in to do it, he kept me on, thank God, as his assistant. And yeah, so most of my memories of rehearsals were really with just me and Vincent in the room together, playing with chairs and mermaid tails and trying to memorize her steps as well as my own, as well as the dancers, and then teaching them later in the afternoon.
Kevin: So it was my job to teach Madonna a lot of her steps and to stage and… well, I think Vincent did a lot of staging to teach the combo’s and stuff to the guys. But I wasn’t a dancer at that point. It wasn’t until the end of the Vogue video that she, in between shots, pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to go on tour. And I said, “I’ll have to get back to you.”
Joe: But you’re in the Vogue video, right?
Kevin: I am. I’m the butler. I’m also in the dance combo, but I’m not front and center, because I didn’t even think I was going on tour. I was just associate choreographer. So I was just like, “Whatever. I’ll hang out and be part of this,” but it didn’t really mean anything to me.
Joe: Did you enjoy making that video? It’s so iconic.
Kevin: I did. I’d done a few videos at that point. I think the videos I had done earlier were so cheesy that when I was on set I didn’t expect much. “Well, here I am in the background of some video.” I wish I had known a little bit more about the business and being seen. But now I’m like, “Yeah, damn. I would’ve taken advantage of that.”
Joe: Now you were 20 years old, right?
Kevin: Yeah. I had just turned 20.
Joe: Wow, that must’ve been something.
Kevin: It’s such a beautiful video.
Joe: It is. And it holds up. And so many videos don’t hold up.
Kevin: They really did their research and Madonna brought in this beautiful book of old Hollywood photographs and they chose images that they wanted to, not recreate exactly, but that would inspire the shots of the video. So every shot that they chose was really inspired by something that was very timeless already. And I think that certainly helped give it the timeless nature that transcends old Hollywood and new Hollywood and Madonna, the past and future. She just looked… she was in the prime of her beauty. Just so gorgeous.
Joe: I have a friend, Art Porter, who owned a special effects company and they did a number of Madonna videos back then. I’ll have to ask if he color corrected Vogue.
Kevin: Is he the one that had to scrub out Madonna’s nipples from her lace top in post edit?
Joe: (laughs) I’ll have to ask him.
Joe: Were you out to your family when Truth or Dare came out?
Kevin: I don’t know that I was really out to myself. It’s so easy just to say, “Oh, Madonna and her gay dancers,” because that was the tagline.
Kevin: But on the tour I was questioning. I had never dated a guy at that point. I had fooled around with a guy, but sex and romance are different things, and so I had just come from breaking up with a girlfriend before I left on tour. And so for me, although it felt right, and I was at ease with myself trying new things and just being a horny 20 year old, I wasn’t completely sure what it all meant until about the time that the movie was coming out.
Because on tour I got to see this wide range of our LGBT community, and who that consists of and being able to see that being gay doesn’t define anything about who you are. It’s one tiny aspect of who you are. That gave me the freedom to then accept who I am and my sexuality and what I wanted and what I was all about. I think there was a lack of information that had me confused about what it actually meant to be gay.
And so I didn’t know how to self define as gay until I realized that it isn’t a self definition, it’s just you are you and you’re also gay.
Joe: It’s just one aspect of you.
Kevin: So then my mom… I’d never talked about sexuality with my mom at all, anyway. So it didn’t really come up until many years later. And with my dad, I’d only just found him a year and a half before the tour. And so certainly we’d never talked about sex or anything. So we never had any kind of sexual talk until I was 31, and it wasn’t even a particular big conversation. It was more like I said, “Dad, I think I’m keeping you at an arm’s length and I want you more involved in my life. I didn’t grow up with you and I want to know you, and to know you, I think you need to know me, so come to LA and visit me and I want to take you out to dinner and meet my friends and we can all have a dinner and I want you to meet my boyfriend and get to know everybody.”
And that was all of coming out to him. It’s not that he didn’t know, it’s just that we never talked about it. So I was like, “Why aren’t we talking about it? I want to be able to talk about that stuff with my family. Why shouldn’t I?”
Kevin: I realized too that a while into being out, loud and proud, and just being myself around everybody, then they felt the freedom to be more freely themselves around me. So in a way, I think I got to see some of my own family feeling empowered to share their own truths.
Joe: I think my family never had a problem expressing themselves, not in the slightest. We’re part Mexican and Italian. It’s a bad combo for keeping things in. Are you still with your boyfriend?
Kevin: Oh no, no. Unfortunately the boyfriend that I had at the time took his own life a couple years ago.
Joe: Oh my God. And you were together at the time?
Kevin: We were engaged and . . . we were together for 10 years, but then when we broke up. We definitely had our conflicts, but we stayed close friends, like family. And he had some difficulties and yeah, I think he just thought we’d all be better off without him and I hope no one feels like that.
Joe: Oh, I’m sorry.
Kevin: It’s a delusion. I’m currently single. But here’s the thing. No one that I’ve ever loved, have I ever fallen out of love with, I’m friends or at least loving with all of my exes, even the one I wanted to kill. We just spoke two days ago, actually, chatting on the phone for hours.
Joe: That’s great that you can have that kind of relationship with them. What was it like after coming off tour with Madonna?
Kevin: I had spent every penny on clothes and food and stupid shit. I think I had $800 in my account when I came back, and had no apartment or nothing. I was like, “Oh, shit. I got to get a new place.” I had a car. I slept in my car a couple nights when I was looking for a place. I’ve been broke. I’ve been dead broke not eating broke. There were many days I didn’t eat and was starving. Not even a quarter or a dime back then to make a phone call. I had a beat up Vespa that I was using to get around town. I couldn’t afford to replace the brakes, so I was stopping with my shoes.
Joe: That’s dangerous.
Kevin: Yeah, it was dangerous as fuck. I’m surprised I’m still alive.
Joe: Who’s been the best performer you’ve worked with during your career?
Kevin: Oh my, gosh. That’s such a weird question.
Joe: OK, what about the performer that you enjoyed working with the most.
Kevin: Because there’s different things that impress me from different people. Like Michael Jackson, I loved the way he was never nervous about performing on stage and singing, there wasn’t an ounce of hesitation or concern or worry. Totally relaxed.
Dominic Lucero always told me during the Bad Tour, he had five-minute breaks where he let the crowd sizzle and he wasn’t off stage waiting, anticipating, tensing his fingers, and wondering when to go back on. He would go off stage and play video games.
Joe: Sort of like Elvis going back and having a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
Kevin: (laughter) Yeah, he’d just be like, “Okay, I’m going go play a video game.” . . . I didn’t choreograph any of Michael Jackson’s videos. I was associate choreographer, but I did Blood on the Dance Floor and Black or White.
Joe: What about Prince?
I’m a die-hard Prince fan, so Prince for me is just the ultimate musician. The ultimate. The connection to his instruments, all of them, is just from God. I would love to be able to express and share and create on that level with such a direct connection to the heart and instinct.
Joe: But did you dance with him or choreograph, were you part of the tour?
Kevin: With Prince, I did Erotic City, which was his show at this club downtown, and then did a couple videos for him and Carmen Electra and I did Ulysses as well. But I think the giddy fan in me was just always so excited for both Erotic City and Ulysses, we were given new music that had not been released. And we were dancing and creating these fantastic pieces to unreleased music, that no one else had heard. It was heaven. Just absolute heaven.
Kevin: And also knowing that we were inspiring him and that he was so happy to give us these songs because he was inspired by what we were creating with him. So he had a room up in the corner that was behind the mirrored thing and he would sit up there and watch us rehearsing and watch the shows, but he would never tell us when he was there. And we’d get notes and compliments and things. It was just really good.
Joe: And Lady Gaga?
Kevin: I did the video Poker Face, and that was an interesting one, because she wasn’t really super famous yet. So she came to the auditions straight from Australia, in her little Magellan jacket and this white leotard and she was like, “Okay, you all had better live dance. You shouldn’t have anything else in your lives. No girlfriends, no other girls, no music, no other careers, dance has to be your life.” And I was like, “Oh, I have a boyfriend and I’m doing my own music . . .” She was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work out.” But then she offered me the video, but she offered me the video with the most absurd pay. It was really ridiculous. I was like, “I can’t. I can’t do that.” Like as co-chair of Dancers Alliance, who’s tasked with fair and equitable rates across the industry, I couldn’t just undercut everybody and jump into a job at not a proper rate.
And so I called them back and I said, “I will do this video, because I really like Lady Gaga and I like what she’s doing, but I’ll do it for free. Because I can’t in good conscience take that rate and live with myself and take a stand for the rest of the community. And she got that. That’s why I was sitting next to her on the couch and we agreed to get dancing. I had a really good time, and from what I understand, from that point on, she paid everybody our Dancers’ Alliance Rates.
Joe: Standing up to Lady Gaga, cool. So what is your proudest moment of your career?
Kevin: I try not to look at my career in terms of pride. It’s hard for me to pat myself on the back. But I also embrace that, because I understand that that is a piece of who I am and that is what allows me to continue to push and strive for more, and for better performances. If I sat back and say, “I’m really proud of that,” then it almost cuts off some of the energy moving forward into new projects and new things that I’m evolving into. Not to say that I can’t be proud of things. I’m proud of the Blond Ambition Tour, I’m proud of Strike a Pose.
Joe: Do you feel like there’s something you still want to do?
Kevin: Oh, God, there’s so much I want… are you kidding?
Joe: Such as?
Kevin: There are so many more things. I released two albums under the name That Rogue Romeo and did videos for them, and I did my own graphics for it.
Joe: Is it on iTunes or Amazon?
Kevin: It’s everywhere. Everywhere. thatrogueromeo.com
Joe: Is Romeo you or is Romeo someone else? Or is it your alter ego?
Kevin: It’s an alter ego. I chose it because I didn’t want my art tied to my ego. And looking at Britney Spears the brand, and Ricky Martin the brand, it’s like that’s them, their person, and their actual selves as the brand. And that is not appropriate for me. And initially I thought, by giving myself this other name, I can give myself permission to live in fantasy. Whatever I choose to share, I can share and it doesn’t have to be real or anything. And what I found is, by giving myself this alter ego is that I gave myself permission to be super, super personal in a way that I had never been before.
Joe: I look forward to listening to it. Well, Strike a Pose is very popular. I think it’s very poignant. There’s a little bit of sadness about some of the dancers too, but lessons learned and coming full circle. I enjoyed it.
Kevin: Every 25 years we (dancers) should have another reunion.
Joe: If that’s the case, the next one might take place in a nursing home.
Kevin: Yeah, the next one we’ll be in our wheelchairs, just yelling at each other and still dancing around.
Joe: Chasing the hot orderly. Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you.