LeeLee James’ lifetime love of fashion is a guiding light for the Twirling Tech Goddess, a professional ice skater turned software engineering student.
BY SARA BRUSKIN
PHOTOS BY DRUMMOND WEST
LeeLee James’ fashion influences span decades. She remembers her grandmother in Mississippi getting dressed for church in outfits she’d made herself. While touring as a professional ice skater, James learned from the designers who made her costumes. And of course, Beyoncé has been blessing James and the rest of the world with fashion inspiration since Destiny’s Child debuted.
These days, as James competes in the Denver ballroom scene, she’s endlessly amazed by her peers’ fashion endeavors. “We turn literal trash into treasure,” she says. (For those who have never watched “Pose” or “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the ballroom scene is a subculture founded by Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ individuals who perform in competitions that celebrate drag, fashion, dancing and community.)
James, who is studying software engineering at CU-Boulder, incorporates technology like soft robotics and 3D printing into her own creations, bringing in fashion elements that past designers could never have anticipated. She’s working with other students in CU’s robotics lab to develop a garment incorporating artificial neural networks, which pass signals to scales that move in response to the wearer’s arm and leg gestures, enabling a beautiful sartorial display. The garment is intended for drag performances, and James plans to wear it to a ball in Denver when it’s done.
James pursued software engineering after touring as a professional ice skater for eight years. Working as a full-time athlete and traveling the world was immensely rewarding, but it also meant her career had an expiration date, which she felt more acutely when she hit her 30s. “It’s right at that time when you start to feel all of your sins,” she says, “and it just became clearer that as much as that lifestyle is amazing, it doesn’t really afford you the opportunity to take the best care of yourself.”
James’ years spent touring gave her insight into what she should do next. “We would travel all over the world, and I was picking up languages really quickly,” she says. “I could be dropped off in the middle of a brand new, big city, and I would never get lost. I realized I had this knack for language and code switching and maps.”
Linguistic adaptability and talent for navigating complex systems lend themselves to software engineering, and the challenge was appealing to James. She also realized the tech industry desperately needed more diversity because a limited fraction of the population’s demographics can’t design products and services that work for everybody. James recalls reading articles about early airbags and seatbelts that were designed for male body proportions, leaving people of smaller stature at risk.
“All of that stuff is the result of a lack of diversity in the production space,” James says. “Reading those articles also made me feel like there was an awareness in that industry of its own disparity, and that made me feel comfortable to come over because at least I’m in a room with people who know that they need me there—or should want me there.”
She decided to put down roots in the Denver metro area, first working as a drag performer to get involved with the local community and establish a financial history in the United States after being out of the country for so long. She began learning software engineering at the Turing School of Software & Design in Denver before enrolling at CU-Boulder.
There, James’ love of fashion reasserted itself in her professional aspirations. She took a class in wearable technology and made a 3D-printed, heart-shaped headpiece that moves on its own. She posts videos documenting her work on YouTube under the username Twirling Tech Goddess and has accumulated a dedicated fan base, with lots of support from her ballroom community.
Her experiences learning software engineering haven’t always been positive. She considered dropping out of school several times, but she’s endeavoring to be the person she needed when she was struggling. She hopes her videos inspire other unique individuals to leave their stamp on the world.
“I want more queer and trans folks—people of color, especially—being able to live in their truth and provide their unique perspective,” she says. “That’s what I hope to look up and see: people having completely made their own lane that nobody else has thought of because they couldn’t, because they’ve never walked in our shoes. In our society, we value everything that exists in rarity except for human beings. And so, I refuse to be told that I’m not valuable when that model is the basis of value for everything else in the world.”
You can check out LeeLee James’ videos on YouTube and support her work at patreon.com/
LeeLee James in BLDG 61, the Boulder Public Library’s makerspace, holding spools of filament used for 3D printing.