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Venus Xtravaganza Was Murdered on Christmas Day in 1988. Her Case Is Still Cold.

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning Drag Queen Ballroom Performance Movie
Image: Off White Productions

An aspiring model and drag queen, Xtravaganza was found dead before filming for “Paris is Burning” concluded.

Editor's Note: This story is part of our series, Unsolved, Retold: The LGBTQ+ Cold Case Files, which investigates unsolved murders of queer people across the U.S. Find out more about the series.

Thirty-five years ago on Christmas Day, the body of celebrated drag ball performer Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza was found under a bed in New York City’s now-defunct Duchess hotel. She had been strangled to death on December 21, 1988.

More than three decades later, it’s still unknown who killed Xtravaganza. The transgender performer whose brilliant presence is memorialized in Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning,” died while the film was shooting and before it was even released in 1990. She was only 23 years old.

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning Drag Queen Ballroom Performance MovieImage: Janus Films

Born May 22, 1965, in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Italian-American and Puerto Rican parents, Xtravaganza had four brothers and began going by the name Venus early in her teen years. “I was about 13 or 14 years old and I used to do it behind my family’s back, just dressing up until finally they caught on with it,” Xtravaganza said in Livingston’s film.

Xtravaganza’s childhood home in Hamilton Park, New Jersey, where various interviews for “Paris is Burning” were filmed is now a historical landmark. While she grew up in the home, Xtravaganza later moved out in her early teens.

“I didn’t want to embarrass them, so that’s when I moved away,” her gentle voice explained in the documentary. “I moved to New York and I continued doing it.”

Xtravaganza wanted a sex change operation so she could feel “complete,” she said in “Paris is Burning.”

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning Drag Queen Ballroom Performance MovieImage: Janus Films

Louis Pellagatti, Xtravaganza’s younger brother, said she popularized the phrase “fierce,” and was always “stylish and passionate about music.”

“She came up with that phrase ‘I’m fierce,’ and she would snap her fingers twice,” he added.

“She was always out in the streets dancing with her friends,” Xtravaganza’s older brother, John Pellagatti Jr. told NJ.com. “She was voguing before voguing was out,” he added. John also told the outlet that since Venus’ death, he’s become close with members of the House of Xtravaganza and its current leader Gisele Alicea.

John Pellagatti Jr. told NJ.com in June he was glad the Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission recognized Xtravaganza’s birthplace in Hudson County as a significant cultural site. “Not only for my family, but for the transgender community, the LGBTQ community, that’s historic,” Pellagatti Jr. said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling. We spent so many years there as a family.”

The Advocate’s attempts to reach Xtravaganza’s brothers and her nephew Michael Pellagatti weren’t immediately successful.

No arrests were ever made in Venus Xtravaganza’s murder. And she wasn’t the only member of the House of Xtravaganza whose murder would end up a cold case – Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza was killed in a fire at her apartment in Brooklyn on May 11, 2012. Firefighters determined the blaze was “suspicious,” but no arrests were ever made despite New York Police receiving reports that she had been visited by two unnamed men earlier that day.

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning Drag Queen Ballroom Performance MovieImage: Janus Films

Xtravaganza’s killing unfortunately wasn’t her first encounter with violence. She described a scene in “Paris is Burning” where a client she was seeing for sex work threatened to kill her when he found out she was transgender and claimed she was trying to give him AIDS.

“I was really terrified, so I grabbed my bag and I just jumped out the window,” Xtravaganza said in a 1987 interview for the documentary. “Now I don’t like to hustle anymore,” she added.

When asked what she wanted for her future self, Venus Xtravaganza didn’t shy away from her big dreams.

“I want to get married in church in white. I want to be a complete woman. I want to be a professional model behind cameras in the high fashion world,” she told Livingston.

But Angie Xtravaganza, Venus’ drag mother, was always worried that a dark fate would befall her. In “Paris is Burning,” Angie said, “I always said to her Venus, you’re too wild with people in the streets, something’s going to happen to you… But that was Venus. She always took a chance, she always went into strangers’ cars. She always did what she wanted to get what she wanted.”

Angie added that she found out at one of her shows on Christmas that Venus had been killed, four days after her murder.

“The detectives came to me with a picture of her murdered and they were about to cremate her because nobody had come to verify the body,” Angie told Livingston.

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning Drag Queen Ballroom Performance MovieImage: Off White Productions

Because New York Police cared little to find Venus’ real family, Angie Xtravaganza was the one who broke the news to them. “She was like my right hand,” Angie said in “Paris is Burning.” “I miss her. Every time I go anywhere I miss her. That was the main daughter of my house.”

The New York Police Department didn’t immediately respond to The Advocate’s request for comment about Xtravaganza’s case. It’s been three and a half decades and there are still no leads as to who might have killed Venus Xtravaganza, or why.

Angie Xtravaganza bared the brutal truth about Venus’ death her final remarks in Livingston’s film.

“That’s part of life as far as being a transsexual in New York City and surviving.”

Unsolved, Retold: The LGBTQ+ Cold Case Files:

Have information or know of a cold case we should profile next? Reach out to Samson Amore at crime@equalpride.com.
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Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter based in northeast Los Angeles. He was born in Providence, R.I. and earned his bachelor of science in journalism from Emerson College in Boston in Spring 2018. Currently, Samson is a 2023 data fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism. His recent bylines include, The Los Angeles Business Journal, The Boston Globe, dot.LA, The Los Angeles Blade and TheWrap.
Samson Amore is a reporter based in northeast Los Angeles. He was born in Providence, R.I. and earned his bachelor of science in journalism from Emerson College in Boston in Spring 2018. Currently, Samson is a 2023 data fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism. His recent bylines include, The Los Angeles Business Journal, The Boston Globe, dot.LA, The Los Angeles Blade and TheWrap.