How Montreal's Elle Barbara Got Invited to Join Madonna On Stage at the Celebration Tour
The musician and founder of the House of Barbara was picked by Madonna's team to take the stage at the Queen of Pop's Bell Centre concert as a guest judge during "Vogue."
Elle Barbara — Montreal musician, community organizer, and mother of the House of Barbara — joined Madonna on stage during her Montreal show on Thursday, to provide the queen of pop with her expertise during the show's ballroom tribute. The concert at Montreal's Bell Centre was part of Madonna's Celebration Tour, which was rescheduled after the performer contracted a serious bacterial infection last summer.
Madonna, who helped bring ballroom culture and voguing to the mainstream in the '90s with her song "Vogue" and the Blond Ambition Tour, has been showing love to the ballroom scene on her Celebration Tour, bringing out guest judges at each show. In Toronto, she was joined by drag queens Sapphira Cristál and Veruschka.
When Barbara first heard from Madonna's team, though, she didn't believe it.
"I thought that it was a scam," says the Montreal-based artist, who has championed the local ballroom scene, organizing balls and founding the House of Barbara. The superstar's reps reached out to Barbara two days before the show and she met them the day before, confirming that it was real. But she still doesn't know how the team first came across her. "You never know who's looking," Barbara reflects.
On the day of the performance, Barbara brought her House of Barbara community with her to the Bell Centre, with makeup by Imani Khalaf and styling by Omar Antabli. As she was waiting to go onstage, she felt a sense of imposter syndrome. "I was having a conversation with myself and going like, Elle, she confirmed you," Barbara says. "She said that she wants you to join her on stage. So, this is your moment."
The internal pep talk worked, and as Barbara took the stage in shining silver boots, she wasn't shaking. It was the largest crowd she had ever performed to, with thousands of Madonna fans cheering the pop star's rendition of "Vogue."
Barbara's task was to help Madonna judge a mini ball during an interlude in the song. "I was just in the moment,” Barbara says of the whirlwind experience, where she was joined by Bob the Drag Queen — season eight winner of RuPaul's Drag Race — who MCed the segment. “I felt in my right place.”
Barbara says that Madonna guided her through the choreographed performance. The two judges sat in matching fishnets and holding up scorecards as Madonna's dancers — including the star's 11-year-old daughter — vogued down the runway towards them.
Barbara says the experience was a reminder for her to not give up, despite the challenges of the music industry and adversity she's faced during a decade of making music in Montreal. "Because a lot of us have to contend with the reality of having to have day jobs," Barbara says, “it’s hard to remain creative and to remain authentic to who you are and what you feel like you’re on Earth to do." Her takeaway from the Celebration Tour, though, is to keep going, and to keep being herself. She imagines Madonna as a fairy, helping her to learn a lesson.
As well as fundraising for trans health and advocacy organization ASTTeQ, Barbara just put out new remixes of her 2021 tracks "Délice Créole" and "Peach Purée," and is planning an upcoming album release. For her, Madonna is a source of inspiration, especially when it comes to understanding pop as a whole way of life.
"I’ve always been a proponent of that idea, that pop is not just about music, but it’s also about community, it’s about politics, it’s about fashion," Barbara explains. "I don’t think of it as just a musical genre, and I think that she’s very much that. She’s just an icon.”