American Masters

FULL EPISODE

Crystal Labeija: The Queen Who Reinvented Ball Culture

A proud Black trans woman, a drag mother and, a pageant girl, Crystal LaBeija was the cause of an iconic moment in drag history that paved the way for house culture, voguing, Paris is Burning, and the TV series Pose.

AIRED: September 24, 2021 | 0:05:38
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TRANSCRIPT

- Crystal LaBeija, the myth, the legend

and the founder of the House of LaBeija.

She was a proud black trans woman, a drag mother,

a pageant girl, and a force to be reckoned with.

LaBeija could read someone

like a description for a set of steak knives, honey.

She was sharp, could cut to the chase

and she rebelled against the drag pageant system

in an iconic moment in drag herstory

that paved the way for House culture.

Hi, all, I'm Peppermint, New York City's delightful diva

and welcome to Masters of Drag

where we're telling you stories of American drag pioneers.

Just look at this infamous moment

from the documentary "The Queen".

The year is 1967.

We're at the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest.

- [Announcer] Our third runner-up in the 1967 nationals,

from Manhattan.

Ms. Crystal.

Ladies and gentlemen,

let's hear it for the third runner-up in the 1967 nationals.

(record scratches) - Hold up.

Third?

Oh no, no, no, no, no.

Ms. Crystal wasn't having any of that.

And yep, there she is sashaying right off stage

before the winner is announced.

Spoiler, Ms. LaBeija did not come back.

And that, folks, is the moment that paved the way

for a little thing called House Culture in New York City.

You may have seen examples of this

from the iconic documentary "Paris is Burning"

or the TV show "Pose".

How did she pave the way you ask?

Well, we'll come back to exactly what happened a bit later.

But first, let me give you a little bit of context

on what happened before that night

and a short herstory on Ballroom.

What is now known as Ball Culture

has been around a long, long time.

It started with just a few courageous spectators,

but over the years grew to thousands of participants

and observers from all around the country.

There were feathered head dresses

and long, slinky evening gowns.

And at the end of the night,

prizes were given for the most beautiful gown

or most feminine impersonator.

While Ball Culture was created and led

by black and latino queens, it, like everything else,

was affected by class and racial barriers.

Now, at these events,

white performers could afford the best costumes

and black performers were expected to lighten their faces

just to be able to compete.

This is the backdrop for LaBeija's rise in the Ball scene

in the early '60s.

Not much is known about her early days,

but we do know that she originally began performing

and competing using the name Crystal LaAsia.

Her name evolved after she heard latin queens

calling her La Belleza, Spanish for beauty,

and took on that mantle with great pride.

During this time, LaBeija was one of only a few black queens

awarded Queen of the Ball title

at a white-organized Drag Ball.

She knew her own worth.

And when she walked off that stage

on that fateful evening in 1967,

she was protesting what she believed to be a rigged contest

in favor of a white, blonde queen.

Now, let's see what happened backstage

moments after LaBeija's exit.

- Fixed for Harlow.

She said, Crystal, darling, don't go,

because you're not going to get it.

And that's why all the true beauties didn't come.

- It's in bad taste and you're showing your colors-

- [LaBeija] I am, I am doing it, babe.

But I got, I have a right to show my color, darling.

I am beautiful and I know I'm beautiful.

- LaBeija wasn't the type of queen

who went quietly into the night.

In fact, this experience led her to organize her own Ball

for black queens in 1972.

It was Crystal's friend Lottie, a fellow Harlem drag queen,

who first suggested that they promote the event

by starting a group and naming it the "House of LaBeija".

The event was called "Crystal and Lottie

Presents the First Annual House of LaBeija Ball".

And Crystal would become known as Mother of the House.

This move changed everything.

And other black and latino Queens were soon inspired

to form their own Houses and throw their own events.

And House culture was officially born.

Each Drag House consisted of either a Mother or Father,

or sometimes both.

They were the bosses of the House

and looked after their drag children,

teaching them dance, fashion, and makeup techniques

to help prepare them for the Balls.

In the 1970s and '80s, dozens of Houses sprung up,

including the House of Xtravaganza, House of Dupree,

the House of Corey, the House of Dior,

and the House of Wong, and so on and so on.

They weren't all just about fashion and style either.

They were also safe havens for displaced youth

who had either been discarded by their biological families

or were living on the streets for any number of reasons.

The Houses provided a bed, a support system,

and a sense of belonging.

One of the most famous alumni of the House of LaBeija

was Pepper LaBeija.

♪ Pepper LaBeija, Pepper LaBeija, Pepper LaBeija, ♪

Who took over as Mother of the House of LaBeija

after Crystal's death from liver failure in 1982,

and reigned over the house for 30 years.

Crystal LaBeija's influence on the development of Ballroom

and drag culture was monumental

and the tradition of Houses has transcended beyond drag

into modern LGBTQ culture today.

And now, it comes full circle into the mainstream.

Just look at Rupaul.

Generations of drag families have competed on the show.

Drag herstory is longer than most of us think,

and we are only just beginning.

(upbeat electronic music)

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