Carlton Wilborn: Still striking a pose after all these years…


Madonna’s former dancers in Strike a Pose

Self-confessed fanboy Stanimir Stoykov interviews Carlton Wilborn, former Madonna backup dancer and star of her groundbreaking Truth or Dare film, about his new documentary.

I was born and grew up in Communist Bulgaria. Nobody was allowed to speak out against the Socialist system. Those who did were jailed, murdered and punished.

It was difficult to visit or make any contact with the rest of the world. We were unable to question or to express ourselves. We all lived in the closet.

I always knew I was gay. At an early age I learned to keep this a secret as I heard grownups speak very badly about “pederasts” and “faggots”.

Eventually, the Socialist system collapsed. Suddenly the information channels were open. We got freedom of speech. We got to taste Western “trash” like Barbara Cartland novels. We got porn on VHS. And we got Madonna.

At the time, the iconic artist was all over the media; actively and almost aggressively promoting self-expression for women, personal freedom and diverse forms of love like homosexuality.

In 1991, I went to the cinema to see the much anticipated Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) documentary film, chronicling the life of Madonna and her team of back-up dancers and singers during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour.

This was reality TV before reality TV. Most extraordinary, were Madonna’s dancers. Most of them were obviously gay and they appeared super comfortable with themselves. They were happy and having fun! And they were so beautiful too… I finally met other gay guys. On the silver screen.

I went to see the film dozens of times. Later on I was able to play my VHS copy whenever I wanted to… to pause, zoom and slow the playback. I studied the infamous gay kiss between Gabriel and Slam for days, and the part of the tape where Carlton takes all his clothes off was damaged from being paused so often.

My life as a young gay man changed for the better when I arrived in the democratic South Africa. But occasionally, I still watch Truth or Dare.

Now, the dancers are back in a new “where are they now?” style documentary, Strike a Pose, in which they reconnect to tell their tales, revealing deeper truths about their lives and loves post-Madonna.

One of the film’s stars, Carlton Wilborn, now also an actor, author, life coach and motivational speaker, will be attending two screenings of the film in Cape Town and Johannesburg. To the joy of my younger self, I got to chat to him ahead of his visit to South Africa.

Carlton Wilborn in Strike a Pose

Carlton Wilborn in Strike a Pose

How did this project come to be? What was the process you went through to make the Strike a Pose film

The directors, Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould, reached out to me on Facebook in the summer of 2013. We filmed for four days in LA, and then they met me in Hawaii to document the last day of my Danceformation, five-day life coaching retreat. I’ve been coaching for nearly 10 years.

You are a dancer, among other things. What training did you receive in terms of dance? What dance style/genre do you specialise in?

I am a classically trained, contemporary dancer. I’ve studied most styles, but prefer when there is more emotion to the movement. When I teach or choreograph I do a mix bag of styles. When people ask me what style I teach I say ‘I do Carlton’. [Laughs]

You were a part of several iconic 90s Madonna projects, like the Vogue music video and the Blond Ambition World Tour, which have made a huge impact on popular culture, as well as literally changed the lives of many queer people around the world. How does that make you feel?

I feel truly honoured to have been ‘chosen’ to be a part of the self-expression movement in the world.

Were you ever a part of the underground voguing scene yourself?

No, I was never part of the voguing scene. I never even knew about voguing when I got the Blond Ambition tour.

Madonna is billed as the director of the Blond Ambition show. What was she like as a director?

She was not working as the director. She, of course, had a say in every part of the show, but her brother Christopher was the official director.

You were the only dancer from the original Blond Ambition troupe who danced on stage with Madonna again on her follow up The Girlie Show tour.

Yes, her inviting me back was a big thing at the time, because before then she had never asked dancers to join her for multiple tours. Why? I assume because she knew she could trust me, and we had a very solid partnership on stage.

How did working with Madonna impact the rest of your career?

Well, once you’re linked to an iconic figure like that, you get offered many great opportunities. I get invited to business meetings, restaurants and dates, faster and easier because of my past relationship with her.

You were diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and decided to keep your status a secret for a long time. What was that like?

It was like being in a living nightmare…the way the public, back then, viewed people with HIV. It was exhausting…all the hiding, and dodging my truths. I never felt safe!

Carlton performing with Madonna in The Girlie Show World Tour

Carlton with Madonna in The Girlie Show World Tour

How is living with HIV nowadays different to back then?

Today is great for me, I’m fully undetectable and finally free in my soul. Much of which is attributed to my new movie Strike a Pose, and the way that Reijer and Ester have dealt with me and the issue overall. The way they navigate integrity is truly impressive and on a whole other level.

You appear more guarded and reserved than some of your colleagues in Strike a Pose.

It’s surprising that you perceive me that way. I don’t feel guarded at all in my life now. Sure I’m making ‘boundary’ choices like every responsible and self-loving person should do, but I’m no longer guarded because I’m afraid of what I am or how the world will see me.

Are you single?

Yes… Why, you got some dating prospects for me to meet?

Well, we’ll see what we can do when you get to South Africa… What current projects are you busy with?

Danceformation has been going strong since 2013, Plus, I’m currently shopping it as a docu-series, so my empowerment movement can reach a larger audience. Then there’s a scripted TV series that I’ve co-created and co-written, which is also based loosely on my life. I’m hoping to get that project set up with a strong broadcaster this summer.

Has Madonna made any comment about your new documentary?

No comment yet. But we do know that she has a link to the movie. We’ll see.

South Africa is rich in young and up-and-coming talent. Being a dancer and a performer gets very tough at times. (“The struggle is real,” as the kids say.) Do you have any advice for young dancers and performers?

Much like myself…hang in there, stay in the fight, because you never know how the universe is strategising things on your behalf. Look at all the wonderful success of Strike a Pose… I didn’t see this coming at all. Hope and faith are real shape-shifters, and if you keep them in your pocket and don’t give up, the magic carpet ride to freedom and prosperity can be yours also. That’s for dancers, performers, the stay-at-home-mom, the dentist or miner. Stay the distance and get your life!

Strike a Pose will be screened in Cape Town on the 3rd, 10th and 11th of June and in Johannesburg on the 4th of June as part of the Encounters Documentary Film Festival. Carlton Wilborn will attend the June 3rd screening in Cape Town and the June 4th screening in Joburg.

The Encounters Festival (2 to 12 June) will also feature a number of other outstanding LGBTI themed documentaries, including The Pearl of Africa, Chemsex and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.

For a full line-up, programme and booking info, visit the Encounters website.

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