In 1990, Madonna launched her Blond Ambition World Tour. As over-the-top sexual as it was groundbreaking, the modern-pop spectacle was one of the most controversial concert events in music history. And it changed her life – and the lives of her seven backup dancers.
The tour and the 1991 movie about it that followed, Truth or Dare, skyrocketed the pop icon’s career to the next level and made her dancers – Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim “Slam” Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin and Carlton Wilborn – celebrities in their own right.
As Truth or Dare turns 25, Dutch filmmakers Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould investigate the lives of the dancers in their new documentary, Strike a Pose, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday.
Director Zwaan was inspired by Truth or Dare at a young age. “I was only 11 years old. My step-mother took me to see the film, and I remember coming out thinking, ‘Can I see this again?'” he says. “I got fascinated not only by this larger than life Madonna world but also by these seven fascinating men who were so out and open and true. Of course when you’re 11 years old, I wasn’t recognizing myself in them – but at some point, it was all very inspiring for me to see these guys who were so proud and out.”
Now with their film, they hope to inspire a whole new generation to express themselves, by sharing the seven dancers’ journeys after the Blond Ambition tour came to an end.
“We managed to tell another story about things, that Truth or Dare also touches on – the importance of self-expression – except we tell the story from a different angle. It’s one thing to express yourself on stage and be provocative, and it’s something else to dare to be yourself in your own private life,” says Gould. “It feels a bit like Truth or Dare 2.0: It’s an ode to expressing yourself.”
PEOPLE caught up with six of the dancers, who reminisced on life before and after Madonna – and the family-like bond they still share today.
Making It with Madonna
The singer held auditions for the Blond Ambition tour in both New York City and Los Angeles, and thousands flocked for their chance to show off their stuff.
Voguing pioneers already famous in New York’s underground ballroom scene, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez were two of the first to strut their stuff for the singer – not at a formal audition but at a nightclub in New York.
“It was kind of six degrees of separation from Madonna. Our friend’s boyfriend was friends with Madonna’s makeup artist at the time, Debi Mazar,” says Camacho. “We just thought we would send this video tape in, and we didn’t really hear anything. Then we got a call saying, ‘Madonna would love to see you guys.'”
So they met the singer at the Tracks nightclub.
“Madonna was like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you; I heard you do this vogue thing, can I see?'” says Gutierez. “And I’m in my Saturday evening’s best Gaultier outfit, like, ‘I don’t think I want to drag on the floor right now.’ So she made her bodyguard give me his pants while he waited in the VIP bathroom with a towel. We auditioned, and when the club got wind of it, the whole club turned into an audition. She was like, ‘Sit here with me; tell me what you think,’ and we sat on the speaker for an hour or two.”
Their impromptu tryout impressed Madonna enough to invite them to official auditions, where they scored two of the open slots – and the opportunity to choreograph her upcoming “Vogue” music video.
Salim “Slam” Gauwloos was the third dancer to catch Madonna’s attention.
“I didn’t even want to go in the beginning – I was more into Janet Jackson at the time,” recalls Gauwloos, laughing. “It was really intense: people bringing flowers, gifts, crying. When you work with big artists, they mostly just come for the callbacks, but she was there from the very beginning.”
Indeed, the star would teach the prospective performers routines and even provide feedback during the auditions.
“She made cuts and cuts and cuts, and it got down to a much smaller group. She got up and was giving notes on some of the pieces of choreography, giving her ideas of how it should look, which was just amazing,” says Carlton Wilborn, who first met her in L.A.
Oliver Crumes, who also auditioned in L.A. with his brother, says she was even encouraging in the early stages.
“She kept on focusing on me and my brother, like, ‘Come on, Lance, come on, Oliver, do it harder,'” he says. “She was very, very nice.”
And seeing competition in Crumes and another addition, Gabriel Trupin, actually motivated Kevin Stea to push himself harder and eventually get the gig.
“Oliver was already sitting on the floor with her, she’d already said hi to Gabriel, and I knew at that point, I didn’t have the gig, so in the freestyle, I literally just said: This is my last chance,” says Stea.
“I went for it: I did gymnastics, African, popped, locked, turned, flipped, jumped, leaped, tapped, just to show my range. A few weeks later, I got a call from [Madonna’s brother] Christopher asking if I was interested in being the associate choreographer. I had no idea what it meant, but I was like, sure!”
The singer wasn’t just judging them on their moves, though.
“We were in the process at one point, getting vetted, and she invited me to her house in the hills up in Hollywood for the two of us to hang out, so she could chat me up and see what I was about,” says Wilborn.
As Truth or Dare showed, Madonna and her troupe grew tight early on – and the dancers maintain that today.
“She was the matriarch of our little family,” says Camacho. “You think of all these rich kids who grow up in the limelight and how they’re pampered and stuff like that, like North West. We felt that for a moment, like, ‘We are with Madonna; we can do no wrong!’ We were brats sometimes, so she would be like, ‘Don’t act like a brat!’ and look at her security and be like, ‘Make sure they don’t get in trouble.’ She was really just looking out for us, and we felt taken care of.”
Sure enough, all the dancers but Wilborn were generally new to dancing in a professional setting. So at the time, the tour was more than just a job.
“When I got into this little group, besides loving everybody almost instantly, you can’t help but get intimately connected to the people that you’re sharing this incredible experience with; it’s a lifelong bond,” says Stea.
“The Madonna I knew was very accessible, very caring, could be callous but loving. It was very apparent that she wanted a family, and she was very open about that. I was happy to step into that spot for her for the time that we were together: We spent holidays together, we spent my birthday together, we spent her birthday together, we spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together … It felt like family.”
For more on Madonna and her dancers, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
For some, that bond even lasted well after the tour wrapped. Camacho and Gutierez recorded an album, and Madonna actually sang backup vocals for them.
“It speaks directly to her wanting to help, wanting to take care of us,” says Camacho. “It was her giving back to us. I loved teasing her that she was doing background on my songs. Who can say that?! ‘Madonna, I love that you’re doing background!’ She was like, ‘Whatever, bitch, let’s get this goin’.’ I love her.”
Still, some of the guys say they didn’t really blur the lines between work and life too much.
“That was a gig. I got really friendly with some of them, but no part of me thought: ‘Because we’re in this concentrated amount of time, we’re a family.’ I think a lot of that is positioning, for her, and it kind of put us in relation to her in a certain way that I guess she thinks is of benefit to her. But I didn’t feel like we were a family. It was a job, and it was really cool, and we were sharing our art; that’s what my relationship with her always felt like.”
And while Wilborn says she wasn’t a maternal figure for him, his fellow dancers are his brothers.
“Coming back and being reconnected to the guys the way we are right now, I absolutely feel like those are my brothers,” he says. “They’re still my family, and we will not let that kind of gap in time happen again.”
The Madonna They Knew
At the time, the public knew Madonna for her over-the-top antics and overt sexuality – but up-close and personal, her dancers say she was normal.
“Here’s the thing that I wish people could get the chance to know about her: She’s a super-regular chick hanging out,” Wilborn says, recalling his visit to her Hollywood house. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is like a really normal-person house.’ I thought I was gonna see freaky s— hanging from chandeliers, but it was super elegant and classy, and that’s kind of who she is. She’s a freaking underground artist, at the core. And she just happens to have a lot of money given to her to produce her projects.”
Adds Camacho: “She was our home girl. It was like going over to a friend’s house: reading the latest fashion magazines and gossiping and talking about whatever was on your mind,” says Camacho. “She had her Madonna persona that she would put on when she dealt with business – she put on her Madonna face – but with us, it was just a laid back girl next door who happened to be a major pop star.”
And Wilborn actually remembers the first time he saw the icon put on her Madonna face, literally.
“I remember once, during rehearsals, Madonna was having her makeup done,” Wilborn says. “She went to check her face in the mirror, and I was just blown away. She instantly morphed into Madonna. Just looking at her face, the way she was studying her eyebrows and her mouth and the cheekbones … She knows how to become a mega-superstar just in a look.”
Still, in the more intimate settings, Camacho says some of his favorite memories in life were spent with her.
“We did a lot of beautiful things with her that I will always treasure. She was tough, but she was so generous to us,” he says. “One time [Jose and I] went to a Prince concert with her, and we got to go onstage and dance with Prince. Afterwards, we were having a race between Prince and Madonna s limos in New York. We were like, ‘Is this really happening?'”
A Front-Row Seat to the Provocative Production
As Truth or Dare chronicled, the Blond Ambition tour sparked international controversy: from arrest threats for public indecency in Canada to a call for a boycott from the Vatican.
Gutierez says the drama sometimes fueled them.
“I remember in Canada, they wanted to censor our show. So that night, we were extra explicit,” he remembers with a laugh. “It was funny, you could see all the [police] from the stage, their badges flickering by all the exit signs in the arena. We were like, ‘Yeah, grab a tit! Grab a crotch! Let’s go to jail, even more!’ Who gets excited about getting arrested?”
After the show, of course, no one was arrested, and the authorities said it wasn’t too explicit after all. (Jokes Gutierez, “I think they just wanted free tickets to see boys rubbing on each other.”)
And all the dancers agree their diva’s work ethic and willpower inspired them.
“Seeing her in action – in life and in her art – gave me a road map to unashamedly be myself and be empowered to explore my own creativity,” says Stea, who insists Madge wasn’t pushing the envelope for attention.
“To have someone call you out on that level and still say, ‘This is my artistic expression. Get over it,’ – that took some ginormous balls. Or ginormous, boobs, if we’re going to be feminist about it,” Stea adds.
Not that Madonna took the criticism lightly.
When the Pope called for a boycott of her show in Rome, “She was concerned. I remember when we were on the plane heading over there, and she was writing that statement that she made,” says Stea. “She was really deep in thought, and it wasn’t something flippant. She really did want to say the right thing to express herself as an artist. You can’t take a Pope’s declaration lightly: You have to respect that and then declare your truth and your intentions. I think she gained a newfound boldness, that at that point she could really do anything and still get away with it.”
The Family Falls Apart
After Blond Ambition came to an end, the dancers and Madonna began to drift apart, and today, most haven’t talked to her in over a decade.
The first fracturing came in 1992, the year after Truth or Dare came out. Three of the dancers – Crumes, Stea and Trupin – filed a lawsuit against Madonna for various grievances with contracts and footage from the film.
“I was completely shocked that it even had to get to that level. I had a bug in my contract. My mindset was: ‘Why is this an issue?’ I was hurt, confused by her response and upset,” says Stea. “But would I do it again? Not because of the money but because I did exactly what she told me to do. I got this little Christmas present from her once that says: ‘Kevin, grab life by the balls and don’t let go!’ And she always said to be strong and stand up for yourself. So here I am. I did. I did exactly what she told me to do. I took her advice. I told her, too – ‘I know if this happened to you, you would do the exact same thing. And I love you.'”
The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1994, and Stea and Crumes say there’s no bad blood today.
“The lawsuit was the lawsuit. That was the past,” says Crumes. “As far as her as a person? I still look up to her. 25 years later, I still love her.”
Where Are They Now
As Strike a Pose‘s U.S. premiere approaches, each of the dancers has overcome their own struggles – but they’re all still dancing and expressing themselves, but in different ways.
That is, with the heartbreaking exception of Trupin. Sometimes called Madonna’s favorite from the tour, he died in 1995 of AIDS at just 26 years old. In Strike a Pose, his mother, Sue, speaks for him to share his legacy.
After the tour ended, Camacho, now 46, moved to L.A. After struggling with addiction for years, he cleaned up his life and has been sober for 13 years now. He appeared in The Bird Cage with Robin Williams, as well as the Austin Powers threequel, but his focus is still on dance, and he’s currently choreographing a charity show.
In addition to choreographing the hip-hop routine in Vanessa Williams’ “The Right Stuff” music video and doing backup for his personal idol Michael Jackson, Crumes, now 43, moved to Las Vegas and starred in the popular Splash show. Now married, he teaches dance with Revilo Hip-Hop, his studio under his wife’s company Musicology Academy.
Belgium native Gauwloos now lives in Brooklyn with his partner, and he still teaches dance and choreographs fashion productions. And as we learn in Strike a Pose, he’s been living with a secret: He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987.
“I was told in ’87: ‘At age 18, you have five years to live.’ 29 years later, I’m surviving. I just want to let people know … you can be successful and have a real life,” he says. And while Madonna was an outspoken pioneer in advocating for HIV and AIDS treatment and awareness, Gauwloos, now 46, was afraid to share his diagnosis with her, his fellow dancers and even his family. “On top of the denial, I just wanted to be treated like everybody else. In 1990, people still treated you differently.”
A New York native, Gutierez still lives in the city working in the industry. He just finished work on Baz Luhrman’s The Get Down, a new musical Netflix series costarring Jaden Smith about the Bronx in the ’70s.
Now 46, Stea is based in L.A. He has a musical side-project, That Rogue Romeo, is currently editing a movie he shot with his father, is writing a memoir and still works in dance.
“I totally support Madonna in her ageism conversation because I love dancing. In some ways I dance better than I ever did before, adn yet the jobs are not available to me,” he says. “I can’t be dancing onstage with Justin Bieber, like, ‘Why is Justin’s dad dancing in the corner?!’ I understand that side of things, but f—ing A! I dance for my soul, but love to perform, and I wish there were more jobs and more work. And at this point, I’ve danced backup for everybody.”
Still living in L.A., Wilborn, now 51, has made a name for himself as an actor and author, is still dancing and has found a second career as a life coach with his company, Dance Formation. While on tour with Madonna, he also had a secret, having been diagnosed with HIV in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis.
“I was aware she was doing all that she was doing for that [movement], but back then we knew that people were getting fired and let go. I think that yes, she would probably take a stand for me – but I didn’t know if she would want to work for me because we were sweating and rolling around and I’ve got to grab her and touch her,” he says.
“I do wish that I had the courage that I have today, when she was doing what she was doing because I would have loved to have been able to share some of those conversations with her for the public. Absolutely.”