The next time Paris Hilton walks down a runway, seductively hurling one bronzed leg in front of the other, her hair extensions and barely clad hips swishing to the beat of the music, the guys salivating in the audience should know something: Ms. Hilton learned to walk like that from a gay black man living in Flushing, Queens.
His name is Willi Ninja, and if you remember the 90′s, you’ll remember his name. A fixture in the gay vogue house scene, Mr. Ninja, né William Leake, became a bona fide celebrity at the ripe age of 29 after his head-turning performance in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary about the cultural phenomenon, Paris Is Burning .
That’s right, one of the stars of Paris Is Burning taught Paris how to burn.
Mr. Ninja also walked the runway with Iman, taught Grace Jones some moves and inspired Madonna’s “Vogue” music video, which MTV played incessantly back when it was still playing videos.
“I’m the walking man,” Mr. Ninja said as he slunk across the living room of the two-bedroom apartment he still shares with his mother, demonstrating the strut that has become Ms. Hilton’s trademark.
Unlike most denizens of the 90′s, Mr. Ninja did not fade away. And lately, he’s been sought out by a whole new generation of women-including Amanda Hearst and Lydia Hearst-Shaw-intent on learning how to walk elegantly and sexily, whether it be on the runway or at a charity ball.
In the past, modeling agencies such as Elite would hire Mr. Ninja to work on a model’s walk. Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington were once students, as were many of the mannequins who’ll be walking the runways when Fashion Week starts on Feb. 6. Some of them may even be from Mr. Ninja’s new modeling agency, Eon, which he opened last month.
On Sunday, Jan. 25, Mr. Ninja was still recovering from Eon’s launch party. The soirée had taken place two nights earlier at Crobar, where his 27 new models performed with D.J. Gomi, Barbara Tucker and a group of electric violinists called G String.
Wearing loose jeans, a cream ribbed sweater that zipped up the front and black flip-flops topped with pearls, Mr. Ninja had just stepped out of the shower and was taking a break from cleaning his apartment, which is on the second floor of a building inhabited largely by senior citizens. His long, curly wet hair swayed as he walked back and forth from his closet-sized bedroom to the room where his 68-year-old mother was watching television to the living room, where the stereo was blaring Frankie Knuckles and the walls were painted bright orange.
At 43, Mr. Ninja’s face has changed little since his Paris Is Burning days. His jaw has become wider and his shoulders have more musculature, but the same thin mustache still lines his upper lip, and his petite hips still move with the same verve that made him one of the champions of the late-80′s vogue scene in Harlem.
A hospital nurse was preparing food in the kitchenette area for Mr. Ninja’s mother while a soft-spoken male model who was crashing in the apartment packed a backpack to take the No. 7 train into Manhattan for the day.
Mr. Ninja returned to the living room and fell back into an earth-toned couch as if he hadn’t sat down in weeks. The walls around him were decorated with peacock feathers, ornate fans and a huge poster of Mr. Ninja’s head in the middle of an abstract swirl of fluorescent colors. His mother’s tchotchkes-porcelain pillboxes and glass-encased angel ornaments-were arranged on a glass table next to the couch.
“The launch was amazing, but draining,” he said. “I’m relieved that it’s over with; I guess you could say I’m both physically and mentally uplifted at this moment.”
As he reminisced about his career, Mr. Ninja still spoke in the competitive, head-wagging style of the voguer and peppered his conversation with house jargon.
He explained that he called his agency Eon because “it’s a double-entendre. It seems like ‘Elements Of Ninja,’ since my name is Willi Ninja,” he said. “And also eon -even though it’s a slightly different spelling-means ‘to go on forever,’ which is what we hope to do.” (Mr. Ninja was thinking of aeon , which these days is also spelled eon .)
Mr. Ninja was born in New Hyde Park, but spent most of his life in Flushing with his mother. His father died in 1995, though Mr. Ninja said he “didn’t know him at all.” He came onto the voguing house scene when he was in his 20′s and went on to become a household name among the city’s art and entertainment elite. He attended the premiere of Paris Is Burning with Madonna, toured with fashion and punk-rock impresario Malcolm McLaren, and modeled in Thierry Mugler’s surreal fashion shows. Though the voguing-ball craze has since died down, Mr. Ninja still keeps in touch with many of the celebrities who put him on the map, such as designer Patricia Field, to whom, he says, he “owes everything.” He has kept himself part of the scene through teaching models and just reopened the House of Ninja two years ago.
Mr. Ninja said he chose the Ninja stage name in the early 1980′s because it wasn’t a “fashion name. If you see this neighborhood, it’s mostly Asian, and most of my friends are mostly Asian anyway, so I started going through Asian names. It’s a powerful name,” he continued, “and a powerful word, and it’s almost like an assassin: When they strike, they strike hard. Then they disappear, and you don’t know if they’re going to come back again … and when they do, are they going to come back just as fierce?”
Mr. Ninja definitely has a fierce streak in him, and it surfaced when Ms. Hilton’s name came up. Asked how he had come to train the star of Fox’s Simple Life and a green-hued porn video, he seemed taken aback.
“Oooh, who spilled that beans? I don’t want her on my rap sheet!” he said with a laugh. But he wasn’t joking. Mr. Ninja explained that he’d taught Ms. Hilton when she was at T Models, Donald Trump’s agency, before she moved to Ford.
“She’s a sweet girl. She’s got the power, the money, the beauty, but she really is not as into getting into it as she should be,” he said of his former pupil. “I think her attitude is, ‘I’m Paris Hilton, everyone’s paying for my looks and my name, I really don’t care.’” Mr. Ninja recalled that Ms. Hilton would meet him at the T Models office wearing jeans and a top, “but real expensive-it was a label for sure, and it wasn’t one of the cheap ones. She had a dog in the palm of her hand that she would let run around, and I asked her how much it was, and she said $4,000,” he continued. “How do you get through to somebody that has everything?” Ms. Hilton couldn’t be reached for comment.
Working with the Hearsts, though, was a different story. “I work with the Hearst clan; they’re my babies,” said Mr. Ninja, though he recalled that when Patricia Hearst called him to inquire about lessons for her daughter, Lydia Hearst-Shaw, his first thought was: “Patty Hearst! The machine-gun-toting heiress!”
Mr. Ninja explained that it was the designer Zang Toi who referred the Hearsts to him. “He likes to use socialites in his shows. Now we’re friends,” he said, referring to both Lydia and Amanda Hearst, daughter of Ann Hearst. “Lydia and Amanda are totally different from Paris; they really wanted it. They are such sweethearts. They really wanted to improve their bodies; they didn’t want to get up in front of a group and look awkward, especially in a beautiful gown.” He said that he and Amanda were still getting to know each other, and that he was going to be working with her for a show this coming season.
“He works with you on a one-to-one basis,” said Amanda Hearst, “and tries to break everything down so that you learn to make your body look as though it is moving as naturally as possible … even though it feels totally unnatural at times-kind of like a ballerina, I guess.
“The most important thing he has taught me is how important posture is,” she continued. “Whether you are on the runway or the red carpet or just sitting down at a table, posture can make such a difference in the way you look in clothes and feel about yourself!”
“He’s the guy. He’s the dude,” said Jessica Montemayor, a booker at One Model Management, which regularly commissions Mr. Ninja to train its models. “It’s kind of cool to watch [the models] walk down on their own in the beginning and then to see him transform them.”
Mr. Ninja’s transformative powers have been depicted on E! and Style TV, and in the spring he will appear on A&E’s Faking It series to help transform a rural Nebraska resident into a New York socialite. “People are starting to find out about me now,” he said, adding that at his agency’s launch, a man he didn’t know ran up to him and “begged” Mr. Ninja to teach his daughter how to walk for a beauty pageant.
Mr. Ninja said he doesn’t see the irony of a man teaching women how to walk like, well, a woman. “Look at old Hollywood,” he said. “Most of the people teaching old actresses were men. Who created Hollywood glamour?” he added. “I’ve always admired that generation, of old Hollywood, when they believed in grooming and polishing. It was almost like finishing school. The majority of those grooming people were men.” He added that “before the 1900′s, a lot of the women’s roles in film and theater were still filled by men” and recalled “the castrati” of the opera world.
“It’s a very interesting history,” Mr. Ninja said. “Men have always had that dual role, but of course the macho man will always want to forget that. They’ll deny that ever happened and say, ‘No real man ever did that.’” His head weaved like an alarmed cobra. “What- ever ,” he said in an acid voice.
And yet Mr. Ninja admits that he learned most of what he knows about runway walking from a woman: the model Iman. It wasn’t exactly one-on-one instruction. When he was in the early stages of his vogue career, “I used to sit in Bloomingdale’s, back when they used to have TV’s showing models walking down the runway,” he said. “I used to watch Iman walk up and down over and over again. I could sit there for hours, and then I would go home and try to imitate her style. She’s my idol.” When he finally met her in the late 80′s, Mr. Ninja said, “it was amazing.”
Since then, Mr. Ninja has taught what he learned from Iman to a generation of her followers. It has been insinuated in the fashion world that Mr. Ninja taught Naomi Campbell her famous five-alarm strut. But when asked about it, his eyebrows lurched upward and he said with a flick of the wrist, “Don’t go there!”
Mr. Ninja eventually said that he did indeed teach Ms. Campbell how to walk, but that she doesn’t like to admit it. “It’s the supermodel myth-there’s a few that don’t want to admit that they get any help,” he explained.
“I don’t want another fight with her. We don’t talk anymore,” Mr. Ninja continued. “But I can prove that I trained her over and over again-it’s on the videos. But that’s why we don’t talk anymore.” Then he added, as if acknowledging that Ms. Campbell could be as fierce as they come, “I don’t want any more trouble from her.”
Ms. Campbell responded (via e-mail): “Although my mother taught me how to walk, I would definitely ask Willi for advice on certain attitudes when walking down the runway.” She didn’t refer to Mr. Ninja’s claim that the two don’t talk anymore. “He was always very supportive to me-showing me new and unique things to do on the runway,” she said. “He is a great guy who I always wish the best and much happiness in everything he does.”
Mr. Ninja said there haven’t been many models he hasn’t worked with, save for Brazilian models Gisele Bündchen and Adriana Lima. What about Cindy Crawford? “No-she still needs training,” he said with a smirk. “I’ve worked with her in shows,” he added, but not privately.
Not all of Mr. Ninja’s students have been women. He remembered teaching the currently sidelined Orlando Magic guard Grant Hill while the athlete was at Duke University-though not how to walk like a girl. Mr. Ninja said he was working there with a dancer and professor named Sally Summers and taught a dance course on the side. “Grant Hill was in my class-I think a lot of the guys needed an extra credit,” he said. “The guys were a little nervous about gay stuff-like they were worried if they got into it, people would think they were undercover. But I conquered them by showing tapes of women on the runway.”
When it comes to the women who make their living sauntering down catwalks, Mr. Ninja contends that the glory days are over. “Supermodels are over and done with,” he said. “It’s coming back, to a point, but I don’t think we’ll ever have that genre again-not the same as it used to be-because they got into that heroin-chic crap, and then the models had no personalities coming in.”
Indeed, in addition to the Ninja walk, the founder of Eon models said that his mannequins will distinguish themselves from the pretty pack with … personality! “I want them to have an expression, I want them to feel the clothes, I want them to be the best they can be,” Mr. Ninja said. “Supermodels have bad attitudes.”
And attitude is the one thing Mr. Ninja won’t put up with. “I don’t have nobody with attitude,” he said. “I don’t put up with it, because I’ve been with the real thing.” By this, he meant people “who should have attitude and don’t.
“I’ve had dinner with Prince Johannes of Germany, at the House of Parliament; I’ve eaten with English minor royals, sitting down to dinner with them, and they treated me like royalty,” Mr. Ninja said. “I remember I came back after that to do a show for Tischman Speyer, and their staff treated my dancers like dirt. [In England,] I’m being treated like royalty by the real thing, and in this country, I’m being treated like shit by wannabes.”
Mr. Ninja said that if students give him attitude, he refuses to work with them. He recalled a time when two Dutch models from Karen’s modeling agency felt they didn’t need to learn his walk. “I said, ‘I don’t want to work with these bitches!’, and they were kicked out the following season because they couldn’t walk.”
Mr. Ninja gets his clients through bookers at modeling agencies that call him in to teach about five girls at a time. He watches them walk normally, then starts to fix their posture, the movement of their legs and the way they swing their arms. “If you really want to have a smooth walk, you have to fully extend the leg,” said Mr. Ninja. “A lot of times, they’re bending the knee too much or they’re not using their arms properly-and you’ll see girls at shows zigzagging across the runway, and their arms are everywhere .”
He lines the girls up and has them walk toward him and then away from him. Next, he walks across the floor himself while they watch. After that, each girl walks across the room, individually imitating the way he moves his hips-”naturally swaying, not exaggerated”-and each one walks and walks until she gets it right. Mr. Ninja demonstrates his moves in flats, but brings along a pair of heels “for those that doubt.”
“A lot of times, I physically jump on the floor and grab their feet to have them put in the proper place, and I’ve had my hands stepped on-but a lot of girls and guys don’t get it visually, so you have to physically break it down,” he said. Classes last anywhere from one to three hours. “We just go at it and go at it until the girls get tired.”
That said, however, Mr. Ninja explained that he’s more interested in promoting the models in his agency than his walking lessons on the side. With Eon Model Management in its nascent stage, Mr. Ninja said he’s ready for Act II of his career to begin, but-not surprisingly for a guy who’s seen the traps and snares of fame-Mr. Ninja wants his comeback to be different from his initial burst upon the scene. When he sees celebrities mauled by camera crews and reporters, he said, it makes him realize he prefers to stay out of the limelight. “I don’t want everyone to know what I do, or else you have everyone hitting you up like they are now,” said Mr. Ninja. “I like my privacy.” He glanced up at the colorful poster of himself that stared back from across the room, and remembered the Paris Is Burning premiere with Madonna. “The press mobbed her. I just don’t think I could deal with that,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is not cute.’” Fourteen years after he declared in Paris Is Burning that “I want to be a big star, known in every corner of the world,” Mr. Ninja is singing a different tune. “My goal is success, not notoriety,” he said, sounding like a man content to let someone else walk the walk.