In the 1960s and 1970s the pageant world was overwhelmingly integrated – for women of color, lightening your skin with makeup was the norm for a chance at winning. In her early years, Crystal worked, competed, and made a name for herself during the 1960s Manhattan drag circuit. She was a fur fanatic who was an epitome of glamour and poise. Ultimately, she went on to win the title “Miss Manhattan”, an achievement which would land her a spot in future affluent pageants. Unbeknownst to her, she would make history on a cold Monday evening - February 13th, 1967. On this night, the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest was held at New York City's Town Hall. Announced as the third runner up & coming in fourth place, Crystal unleashes her long overdue rage at judges and walks off stage. In that moment, she realized the standard of beauty was solely based on race. The winner was announced as a much younger, less than-glamorous White woman. The unforgettable events of the evening would be captured on film in the Iconic 1968 documentary The Queen.
Sick and tired of being overlooked, Crystals good friend Lottie convinced her to start her own pageant. Crystal was the pioneer of civil rights, equality, and integration of pageants. In 1972, Crystal & Lottie LaBeija presents: “The 1st Annual House of LaBeija Ball” at Up the Downstairs Case in Harlem, NY. It was the first of its kind to welcome those from their community, people who looked like them, people who lived like them, people who were them – people of color! The House of LaBeija is the first ballroom house and was the first to host benefits to raise awareness during the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic. In ballroom, a “house” is a safe- haven for queer people of color and a home with a family for those who don’t have one. As with any traditional home, it is structured with a Mother (the head/leader/financier of the house) and Children (younger members of the house). A staple that is still implemented today. There is little information surrounding Crystal’s death in the mid-90s from organ failure due to her extreme hormone regimen, however her legacy lives on. In “Paris Is Burning” her daughter Pepper pays homage - "I am Pepper LaBeija, legendary mother of the House of LaBeija. Not the founder! That was Crystal, I just rule it now”.
What is this underground phenomenon called “Ballroom”? Enter documentarian Jenny Livingston who was giving privy access to the scene during the mid-to-late 1980s. Released in 1990, “Paris is Burning” an Iconic documentary film was released. Working with $50K in grants, the film went on to gross 3.7M in box offices. With an unforgettable introduction to Junior and intimate interviews with Pepper, the world got its first taste of The House of LaBeija. As a multiple grand prize title holder, Pepper was known for her grand and extravagant looks - blouses puffed at the shoulders, beaded gowns, fur, and feathered accessories. One of her many looks was the costume inspiration for Billy Porter’s 2019 Met Gala entrance – a homage well deserved. The Best Dressed Mother Pepper LaBeija would go on to serve as house mother for over thirty years!
A few years prior to her untimely death at 53, the luxuriant woman known as Pepper LaBeija was no longer. He was now living life as William Jackson, his birth name. Under his male identity away from the ballroom scene, William found love with a woman and fathered two children. Little is known about the family as he was adamant about excluding them from his prior life. Throughout the 1990s, The House of LaBeija went on to throw several successful balls. Unfortunately, after Peppers passing in 2003 the house would go through internal controversy, thus remaining stagnant until 2012.
Today, the House of LaBeija is as loud and proud as it was in 1972! With many chapters across the country and multiple internationally the vision of Crystal, Lottie & Pepper is clearer than ever. From being honored on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, mentioned in songs by Frank Ocean, having honorary members like Lavern Cox and being spotlighted on BET, Vice and Fusion TV - LaBeija is once again on the rise. Most notably in January 2020, the house was featured on The Tamron Hall Show for an interview and special performance. It would be the first television appearance in twenty-eight years, thanks to the new/millennial generation of members. Ironically POSE star Billy Porter (whose character “Pray Tell” bears a strong likeliness to Junior LaBeija) also made a guest appearance on the show. To quote the Pioneer Junior LaBeija, “There would be no POSE if there was no Junior LaBeija!”.
Pre-dating the Stonewall riots of 1969, The House of LaBeija has been a staple for the queer community, a historical reference for social/mainstream media and remains a constant presence in ballroom and pop culture. Current members have performed with artist such as Big Freedia, Trina and Legendary Icon Janet Jackson. As Social Media Influencers, they’ve also been in top brand commercials, featured on popular podcasts, stared on reality shows and interviewed on IGTV/YouTube shows. The rich history and continued resilience are the glue that keeps this house together. It all started in 1967, over 50 years ago when Crystal and Lottie wanted change and took action. The only ballroom house with an original name, The House of LaBeija is just that – The Original, The First, The Iconic - LaBeija. “I have a right to show my color, darling. I am beautiful, and I KNOW I’m beautiful!”~ Crystal LaBeija