By John Russell
New York’s ball culture as we know it today — as depicted in Paris Is Burning and Pose — grew out of a backlash to the rampant racial segregation of the city’s queer masquerades and pageants. These glitzy bashes held in Harlem venues like the Hamilton Lodge and Rockland Palace began as far back as the mid-19th century.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, balls were diverse events that attracted the likes of Langston Hughes, who wrote that they were the “strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles.”
Despite the balls’ inclusivity, black and brown queens were often shoved to the sidelines. By the middle of the 20th century, queens of color had had enough of being overlooked and tokenized in pageants and beauty contests. Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary The Queen captured Crystal LaBeija calling out the judges and organizers of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest — including Flawless Sabrina and Andy Warhol — for what she considered to be blatant bias toward white contestants.
Crystal LaBeija would go on to establish the House of LaBeija a few years later. The house’s inaugural event, which was called (get ready) “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija Presents the First Annual House of Labeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem,” kickstarted the scene that would give rise to vogueing and dozens of legendary houses.