In 2014, the venerable Houston Ballet dancer Harper Watters received a pair of six-inch pink heels as a joke gift from a friend leaving the company. Having already amassed a sizable online following with videos showcasing his technical abilities, Watters, who’s been with Houston Ballet since 2011, saw the shoes as an opportunity to do something a little different. The result? A now-viral video of him and fellow dancer Rhys Kosakowski, clad in heels, strutting and twirling on a treadmill—all set to Fergie’s 2006 hit “Fergalicious.” 

The 27-year-old parlayed that moment of digital fame into a popular Youtube series called The Pre-Show, offering that trademark sass and humor along with a glimpse into the backstage action of America’s fourth-largest ballet. Now, he’s leveraging his platform in the dance world to become an outspoken advocate for queer and marginalized communities. This summer, Watters modeled for Ralph Lauren’s Pride capsule collection as well as MAC’s Love Me lipstick collection—flying to NYC to attend the historic World Pride parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The glitz and glamour have been appealing, but Watters says he’s still first and foremost a dancer, and Houston is still home. Here’s how he moves On Texas Time: 

On finding a work-life balance: 

I normally wake up at 7 am to walk my dog and have breakfast. I aim to leave by 9:15 to make it to the studio by 9:30. Then I do some cardio and maybe hit the treadmill—not in heels—before our technique class at 10. After that, it’s three hours of rehearsal, lunch, and then another three hours. We do this Tuesday to Saturday for six weeks, then we go into shows, which is a totally different schedule since we perform at night in the theater. It’s busy for sure, but dancers love to go out as well! Many of the patrons of the Houston Ballet are restaurant people, so we’re always out eating or drinking. I love to have drinks at Anvil, Double Trouble, and Poison Girl. For restaurants, I like Coltivare and El Tiempo. You can’t beat the Tex-Mex food here. 

On moving to Houston: 

I’m from New Hampshire originally, and I moved away from home at 14 to go to performing arts school and moved to Houston at 16 to do the student program. A big part of the apprehension was the stereotype that Texas was too conservative. But I was really surprised by how diverse Houston is, and how creative the city is. The Houston Ballet is one of the largest in the United States—for a city to support that, it means it appreciates the importance of culture and the arts and what it can do for a community. With each new year, there’s better food, better shows and exhibits. 

On going viral in heels: 

When I had 10,000 followers on Instagram, I was like, “This is it. I’m Kylie Jenner. I’m a celebrity.” At the time, there had been dance Instagrams that showed the extreme things dancers could do—extension videos, turn videos, jump videos. The heels were a joke, and we barely did anything in that first video; we were just walking. Afterwards, I put “Fergalicious” on it and I shut off my phone. (Remember, back then you didn’t keep refreshing to watch your likes). But after a couple hours when I checked, I could not believe it—it was notification after notification. In that moment, I was like, “This is what a viral video is. I have to do more to give people what they want!” And now I get to use it as a way to bring people into my world and the world of ballet. 

Amitava Sarkar for Houston Ballet

On bridging his identity with his craft: 

I’m gay and black and adopted—my parents are both Caucasian. I’m Harper, on and off the stage, so I don’t know if I even have a specific “label” for that. But at the beginning, I thought I had to act like the male dancers who were at the top. I thought I had to try to be hyper masculine and subdue other elements of who I was. Everyone struggles with that. But after the heels videos, I got so much positive feedback that I thought, “Why not bring some of that into my dancing?” So I started making choices, playing with the music in a different way, and adding sass to help convey what I wanted to say with my movement. And my dancing became better because of it. 

On his fledgling modeling career: 

When Ralph Lauren reached out, I thought I was getting Punk’d! I was honestly so excited because I’ve trained my whole life as a classical ballet dancer but I do have these outside passions. I didn’t want to be part of something that used the queer community as just a marketing tool, but they explained to me that 100 percent of proceeds from the shirt [I modeled] was going to charity as well as 50% of the rest of the collection. Ralph Lauren is arguably one of the most iconic all-American brands, so to have them find me and say “you’re part of our family” is not just important to me, but to the community I represent. 

On his message of confidence: 

When you look at my content, you see there’s a level of sass and flamboyance. You see the heels, and the humor of me dancing in heels or wearing them on treadmills. But it’s not about the shoes—it’s about showcasing an overall attitude. I hope people find their heels—literally and figuratively. It’s like my superhero cape. Find that thing, moment, or outlet that lets you walk confidently with your head high. Boys don’t enroll in ballet classes because they worry about what people will think. They could be the most talented dancer, but society holds them back from what they have to give. It makes my heart break because we need diversity in ballet. I want people to see my content and understand that there are no rules or boundaries. 

On what he’s most excited about right now: 

This year is the 50th anniversary season for the Houston Ballet. I’m working on ballets and roles that are really special to me. And my best friend, Oliver, is the first soloist in the company to create a ballet for the company. It’s happening on September 19th and then we’re going on tour to NYC to perform at the NYC Center for Shows. We’re ready to send the message to the rest of the America that great ballet exists in Houston. 

On Texas’s changing landscape:

Just look at what Beto did in the last election. I was devastated afterwards. But my dad, who is a state senator in New Hampshire, told me: “It’s going to feel like a loss, but it isn’t. As a dancer, you know nothing happens overnight. You have to put in a lot of work.” And it’s starting in places like Houston. I’m proud to be a part of it. I always thought I’d have to leave Houston—to go to Los Angeles or NYC. But the people in this city have lit a fire under me, to put us on the map and show that we can hang with the rest of the big guys.