Actor and artist Yasha Lelonek was intrigued by a project that came across her agent’s desk this past August. It was different from the typical commercial proposal, and it resonated with the 21-year-old. The breakdown seemed like it was going to highlight the trans community beyond the typical tokenization rampant across the media, and as a Black trans woman, Lelonek was in for the ride. The project turned out to be the short film Lambada Dyed Red White Blue, and Lelonek’s instinct was proven correct.
Lambada basks in trans joy, opening with an extended dance scene under the hot Far Rockaway, Queens summer sun. It’s a simple premise, really: trans people of all ages having carefree, blissful fun together. Anchored by Brazilian trans model Valentina Sampaio and Lelonek, the electric dance party blooms with the titular lambada and vogueing, until only Sampaio is left. She begins reading off the names of deceased trans men and women, wondering, “What is it to be an American?” At the edge of the ocean, Sampaio becomes enveloped in white NFT gown that blossoms with blood.
In early September, the cast and crew of Lambada were surprised with a major announcement. The film was set to premiere the night of the Met Gala, in a history-making, true-to-New York way: on the Times Square NASDAQ screen. Lelonek was thrilled. “Maybe a girl out there would see me, and thus see themselves,” she writes in a personal statement recounting the evening.
Sampaio’s role in the film coinciding with her attendance at the 2021 Met Gala was media headline fodder. She received glowing reviews for her trans advocacy, and the bloody NFT gown she wore in the film sold for $300,000, breaking records as one of the highest-priced fashion NFTs in history. It was a triumphant press cycle, as far as any reader was concerned, but the articles failed to mention what happened the night of Lambada’s premiere. NASDAQ executives pulled the film two minutes prior to hitting the screen for being too “socially relevant,” which many, including Lelonek, interpreted as corporate jargon for being too political. The cast, crew, and their friends and family were forced to MacGyver their own premiere: a MacBook Pro on top of a traffic barricade with a speaker underneath it.
The hurt and anger over what happened is still fresh, as is Lelonek’s desire to say her piece. “When people watch this film, I want them to interact with the joy of my community,” she says over the phone with NYLON. “I want them to sit with the realities that we face as a community. I want them to know that behind this film, there are girls on the street every day that are fighting to live their lives with no agency, with no production, with nothing but themselves. And they should be celebrated, too.”
Watch Lambada Dyed Red White Blue and read NYLON’s interview with Lelonek, below.
How were you involved in Lambada Dyed Red White Blue? What drew you to the project?
The casting notice for this came across my agent’s desk, and it seemed like a project that was specifically catered toward the trans community, which it did end up being. She showed me the project and asked if I was interested in doing it, even though it wasn’t necessarily a commercial project. When I saw the breakdown and I read what the objective of the project was going to be, I really resonated with it, because it’s not every day that in the commercial acting industry specifically, a project is centered around highlighting trans people at a consensual level. Most of the time, we are featured as auxiliary talent, intended to fulfill diversity quotas. So when I saw this project, I was like, “OK, this sounds really cool. Let’s do it.”
In the film, there are a number of trans youth that are just dancing as members of the crowd throughout the film, and I was initially cast to be one of them. But when I went to the first rehearsal before filming, and we were taught a couple of steps from lambada, which is the type of dance that is associated with the song in the film, it was very clear that I was a strong dancer. Production recast me to be a member of the band, and my role called to me as a feature dancer.
How was the experience of being on set? From the final video, it seems very joyful.
Set day was a very, very joyful and enjoyable experience. I got there late, because I slept through my alarm. And I got a message from one of my cast mates, and he was like, “Yeah, I just want to make sure you’re good. You should reach out to the producer Goran Macura, and talk to him.” Of course I was scared, because I was like, “Are they about to cut me from the film?” And to my surprise actually offered to order me a car to set. I live in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, and the set is all the way on Far Rockaway Beach. So I was like, “OK, if you want to order me a car, that’s great.”
That’s really nice.
Right, exactly. That’s really nice. And I’m not going to say no! I catch the car and go to set and when I get there, everyone is really happy to see me. The director, Branislav Jankic, and the writer, Jesse, as well as Goran, all give me a hug. And they’re like, “We’re so happy you’re here. Go ahead and go to hair and makeup. And when you’re done, we’ll be ready to start filming. Of course we couldn’t start without you, you’re our best dancer. We need you.” And I was like, “That’s so sweet. Thank you so much.” I go to hair and makeup. We filmed the first shot. It’s very hot under the lights in the summer sun, but I’m trying my best to just serve it to the girls. You know what I’m saying? At the end of the day, I came here to do a job, and that job I will do. It was a very long set day, but it was very joyful.
It was the first time I was ever in a room with transgender children, and I felt so honored to be in that space around them. And I could feel the way that they looked up to me a little bit. And it was also an honor to be able to be somebody that they could look up to, because I know that there are trans performers that I’ve looked up to in my career. And they’ve really helped me find the strength to come to where I am now.
Who are some of these trans performers who have inspired you?
There are so, so many. Of course there are some that are in the public eye now. Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, M.J. Rodriguez. But I’ve been very inspired by the pioneers of transgender women of color specifically, that are not famous in the mainstream sense, but do carry a lot of prestige within my community here in New York. Specifically, people like Venus Xtravaganza or Tracey Africa, and even some pioneers and legends on the ballroom scene that are still alive today.
Walk me through the night of the premiere. What happened?
On the night of the premiere, I’m late again. It’s doll time, you know? I’m frantically deciding what I’m going to wear, because to my knowledge, this is the biggest night of my career. To have a film go up in Times Square, I automatically knew that there were going to be a lot of eyes on it, and I just wanted it to be a really special occasion. I wanted to look my best. I put on a custom look made by one of my fellow trans sisters, and headed to Times Square. I got there about 20 minutes late. And when I arrived, it was very clear that there was a very serious, almost somber energy throughout the crowd.
I didn’t really think anything of it, because I was feeling a little bit of a worried and anxious state because I was late. I was greeted by Jesse Ball, who is the writer of the film, first. He gave me a hug, and I asked him if I missed it. And he said, “No, there was a delay.” And I didn’t think anything of it. I was actually very relieved that I didn’t miss it. After a couple of minutes, the director made the announcement that the film would not be shown on the NASDAQ Tower. According to him, executives at NASDAQ pulled the film about two minutes prior to the premiere time, on the grounds that it was too “socially relevant,” which Branislav and the rest of the cast, including myself, interpreted to mean that it was too political to be shown.
Too “socially relevant” is so bizarre. How did you feel getting that update?
At this time, I just go into shock a little bit. I think that it was a lot to wrap my head around at the moment. I was there for work essentially, I tried my best to save face, especially for the children that were present. I didn’t want to show too much of my disappointment. We ended up watching the film instead on a MacBook Pro, on top of a traffic barricade with a speaker underneath it. And that’s how we experienced the film. I remember it was a really strange mixture of emotions. As I was watching the film, I was delighted. I felt I looked beautiful, and I felt that all the rest of the cast and the children looked beautiful. And I was sad that people weren’t able to see this on the big screen.
But then all of those emotions were moved aside in the second half of the film, when Valentina started listing the names of my deceased transgender siblings. I was very struck by the thought that, and it’s no shade to Valentina, but at the end of the day, she is this successful white-passing trans woman, although she is from Brazil. And she was not there, she was at the Met Gala, while we all stood there in silence, as we experienced this tragedy. And she was the one who was wearing the [Bloody NFT] dress. And she was the one who was saying the names of these dead trans people, most of which are people of color. And I just felt naked and debased, and just extremely disappointed. I went home with my sister, and I laid down on her lap on my couch, and just wept.
It’s especially disappointing and heartbreaking because, like you mentioned earlier, if this were Pride Month and there were no statistics to make people feel uncomfortable, the video would’ve shown.
Absolutely. And to me, it felt as if this film, which was intentionally and originally intended to benefit the trans community, and specifically trans people of color, and the fact that it was going to premiere on the NASDAQ Tower would have driven so much, not only visibility, but also opportunity for people to actually engage with our joy in a genuine sense, rather than us being, like we said before, some kind of diversity quota in a project that is not designed for us.
Did you hear back anything from NASDAQ, anything more specific, other than it’s too “socially relevant” to screen?
I personally have not had any contact with any representatives from NASDAQ. I, however, have been in direct contact with members of the production team of the film, particularly after my Twitter thread and Instagram carousel with Polaroids from the night of the premiere went up online. I was contacted by the director, and he told me that immediately after my post went up, it was flagged by people who work at NASDAQ. The production team was contacted by some of their representatives in an attempt to, one, backtrack on their initial statement that it was too socially relevant, and instead attribute the reason why it was blocked to internal red tape.
That feels just as vague.
Right. And they also asked them to get me to change my statement.
Talking about it right now, how are you feeling?
There’s a lot that has happened since the night at the premiere behind the scenes, even aside from my posts or my video. And it’s been a time of a lot of conflicting emotions, but I think right now in this moment, I’m filled with a sense of determination, of resolve and a fighting spirit. And I feel like the time has come for me to say what I need to say.
What’s one takeaway you want people to get from Lambada Dyed Red White Blue?
When people watch this film, I want them to interact with the joy of my community. I want them to sit with the realities that we face as a community. I want them to know that behind this film, there are girls on the street every day that are fighting to live their lives with no agency, with no production, with nothing but themselves. And they should be celebrated, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. NYLON reached out to NASDAQ for comment.