“Godfather of Vogue” Willi Ninja, a dancer and star of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and the inspiration for Madonna’s “Vogue” music video, died on Saturday of AIDS-related illnesses at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, according to friends and family members. He was 45.
“He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people,” Madonna said in a statement, the Associated Press reports.
Ninja, whose real name was William Leake, grew up in Queens and taught himself to dance by watching videos of Fred Astaire, Olympic gymnasts and martial artists (thus his adopted surname). He performed with dance companies and also helped teach models and socialites (including Paris Hilton) to pose for the paparazzi.
After gaining fame in Paris Is Burning, Ninja advised Naomi Campbell early in her career, modeled for Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler and appeared in music videos and on TV’s America’s Next Top Model and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Two years ago he opened his own modeling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja).
“He was tall man, about 6 ft. 3 in.,” Sally Sommer, a professor of dance at Florida State University, tells The New York Times, “and God gave him the biggest, broadest dance shoulders in the world, so when he would do those things with his arms it was just so impressive.”