William Roscoe Leake, known as Willi Ninja, was an influential American dancer and choreographer recognized for his role in the documentary film Paris Is Burning.
Willi Ninja Cause of Death
On September 2, 2006, in New York City, Ninja sadly passed away due to AIDS-related heart failure. However, even after his death, his legacy continues to inspire numerous artists and music DJs.
Ninja's impact extends beyond his music and transcends into fields such as LGBTQ studies, gender studies, and performance studies. His influential presence is highlighted in works like the book “Black Sexualities” by Juan Battle and Sandra L. Barnes.
In recognition of his enduring influence, Ninja was honored with a Google Doodle on June 9, 2023. The Google Doodle served as a tribute to his artistic contributions and celebrated his enduring impact on the music industry and beyond.
Willi Ninja Age
At the time of his death, he was 45 years old.
Willi Ninja Family
Details about his family are not known.
Willi Ninja Career
Ninja, who was a gay man and widely regarded as the godfather of voguing, emerged as a prominent figure in Harlem's drag ball culture. His unique style of dance and movement drew inspiration from diverse sources such as Fred Astaire and the world of haute couture. Director Jennie Livingston discovered Ninja and prominently featured him in Paris Is Burning, which propelled his career forward. Following the film's success, he performed with various dance troupes and took on choreography assignments.
In 1989, Willi Ninja gained further exposure when he starred in the music video for Malcolm McLaren's song “Deep in Vogue,” which sampled footage from the unfinished Paris Is Burning. This brought voguing into the mainstream, and it received even more attention a year later when Madonna released her chart-topping song “Vogue.”
Born at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, Willi Ninja was a self-taught dancer who mastered the voguing style by his twenties. He had a mixed racial ancestry, claiming Irish, Cherokee, and Asian heritage alongside his Black mother. While Ninja didn't invent voguing, he refined and elevated the dance form with his clean, precise movements, reaching an exceptional level. His influences included Kemetic hieroglyphics, young Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire, Olympic gymnasts, and Asian culture.
As the Mother of the House of Ninja, Ninja participated in Harlem's drag balls alongside the “children” from his house. The House of Ninja served as both an extended social family and a dance troupe. Ninja mentored his children, teaching them late into the night on the old Christopher Street pier and at underground clubs.
Ninja's career encompassed various music videos, including appearances in Malcolm McLaren's “Deep in Vogue” and “I Can't Get No Sleep” by Masters At Work featuring India. In 1994, he released his single “Hot” on Nervous Records, produced by Masters At Work.
Ninja's later endeavors involved runway modeling for Jean-Paul Gaultier, performing with dance companies under Karole Armitage, and providing instruction to Paris Hilton on refining her walk. He even opened a modeling agency called Elements of Ninja in 2004. Ninja also made notable appearances in the documentaries Paris is Burning (1990) and How Do I Look (2006).
Ninja showcased his dance skills in two music videos from Janet Jackson's album Rhythm Nation 1814, including “Alright,” which featured a remix with late rap star Heavy D, as well as cameo appearances by Cab Calloway, Cyd Charisse, and The Nicholas Brothers. He was also featured in “Escapade.”
In addition to his artistic pursuits, Ninja dedicated himself to caring for his mother, Esther Leake, who had Parkinson's disease and used a wheelchair. Their trips to the ballet and the Apollo Theater served as inspiration for Ninja's later dance endeavors.
In 1982, Willi Ninja founded the House of Ninja alongside Sandy Apollonia Ninja. Despite not fulfilling the usual requirements of winning grand prizes or being part of a house previously, they established their own house. The name “Ninja” stemmed from the house's Asian and martial arts influences, and their sudden appearance in the ballroom scene added to the mystique.
The House of Ninja became known for its multiracial composition, which was unusual at the time, as most houses were predominantly African-American, except for the Latino House of Xtravaganza. Although the house temporarily closed in 1989, it reopened in 1991 and again in 2003. Today, the House of Ninja boasts over 220 members worldwide, with Archie Burnett Ninja being the oldest living Ninja.
Ninja's talent extended to film and television, with appearances in several productions. He appeared as a guest on The Joan Rivers Show in August 1991, alongside fellow Paris Is Burning cast members Dorian Corey and Pepper LaBeija, as well as director Jennie Livingston.
During the episode, they discussed the documentary and encouraged audience members to participate in a “walk” as if they were at a Drag Ball. Additionally, Ninja starred as a dancer in the 9-minute short film Anthem, directed by Marlon Riggs, also released in the same year.
Willi Ninja Net Worth
At the time of his death, he has an estimated net worth not less than $3 million.