Introducing Tommie LaBeija, Interview with An Icon

Photo By Tommie LaBeija

The Royal House of LaBeija was founded in 1972 by Crystal and Lottie in response to the racially oppressive drag pageant system of 1960s America. The “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija First Annual House of LaBeija Ball” is thought to be the birth of the ballroom/houses scene—as it is known today. 

The House of LaBeija is a short documentary film that pays homage to the House of LaBeija through letters from its members. The film will screen at the Tribeca Film Fest on Sunday, June 12, Tuesday, June 14, and Thursday, June 17. 

I interviewed Tommie LaBeija, the house father from 1986-to 2016, via Facebook and email. I was excited to learn some fascinating history of the House of LaBeija firsthand from an eyewitness. It reminded me of my endless hours of conversation with Idle Sheet creator and ballroom historian, the late great Marcel Christian LaBeija. Below, Tommie shares his background, memorable battles from balls he walked, and his promise to Pepper.

Pepper and Tommie LaBeija Photo By Chantal Renault

PrideIndex (PI): Tell us about yourself. How did you become a member of the House of LaBeija?

Tommie LaBeija (TL): I was born in the Bronx, NY, to minimal means. I have three siblings of which I am the oldest. Due to my father’s struggles after the war, he became very abusive due to the trauma of war, and as a result, we were put in foster care. I was placed with an affluent religious couple who taught me how to obtain the American dream and acquire the best in life. At that time, the foster care system was designed for couples of means who wanted to help the less fortunate and humbled beginnings with the hopes of providing a fresh start to a better life. Unlike the foster care system of recent years, it is all about a check! After being brought back to my family, I decided I wanted to continue living the life provided by my foster parents and knew education was the key. As a result, I hold multiple degrees, affording me to live very comfortably.

After receiving my first degree and finding myself as a gay man, I ventured to the village in New York City, where I met a few individuals. At the time, Traxx NY was one of the happening spots, as was Midtown 43 and other clubs. I heard of the ballroom scene, and my snooty circle of friends looked poorly on the kids on the stage and thought of ballroom kids as fab bums. They were fabulous in the ballroom, but many had nothing in real life. I was in Traxx one day and was learning to drink and was torn up from the floor. While sitting in the back of the club, a non-binary, not the term used at the time, individual came in and was met with all this love and admiration. I quickly noticed that they were someone. When they made their way to my section to greet one of their friends, she had on this foxtail coat that was shedding. When my cousin checked on me, he asked if I was ok, and I said, yeah! I’d be much better if this B***H coat were not shedding in my nose! The said person turned around and apologized about her coat and said she would take it off for me. We then started a conversation when she told me I was cute and asked if I had ever walked a ball before? I said a ball, no, that’s not my style, and she then introduced herself as Pepper LaBeija! I thought I was about to get jumped because this is a premier ballroom personality. I just insulted earlier. But it turns out we became good friends, and we dated and lived together as a couple for five years. Early in the friendship, I was being groomed for a father position. Unbeknownst to me, Pepper invited me to a ball she was to commentate in Philly, a scene on the rise. And I did, and although it was lackluster, I saw the potential and what the hype was all about. 

Pepper and Tommie LaBeija Photo by Brian Lantelme

PI: What categories did you walk and win?

TL: I was not enamored with the ballroom, but you had to be ballroom worthy because of the role I was being groomed. That meant I had to walk balls. I knew that my position was a great accompaniment to Pepper, for she was the star. After all of her failed relationships, with those being with her for ballroom notoriety, I was a better fit because I was not consumed with wanting to be ballroom fabulous and I knew how to play my position in the background, unlike the others. My first ball was a fluke where the category was Realness. Those that walked were not real at all. If they were in my hood, they would have been called f*****s! In her shady way, Pepper smirked and said, “can I see Tommie LaBeija?” I was looking around for this Tommie LaBeija and knew then if I was to be a part of this house, I had to be Tommie, but I wanted to be called Polo LaBeija. One of Pepper’s kids came over and said Pepper is calling you, so I walked up the runway, and all these 10’s sprouted up from the judges. I received the Grand Prize.

My second ball was in NY. The category I walked was Linen v. Suede; I wore a cute outfit made by Dorian Corey. I am an on-time person, so I arrived before my housemates. When the category was called, there were not many in attendance, and the commentator walked around and said, “I know y’all are here, so come and bring it.” He walked up to me and said, “aren’t you Tommie LaBeija?” Puzzled, I said yes, and I thought to myself, How does he know who I am? He asked, “are you walking?” I did not know I could walk without Pepper and the other LaBeijas in the room. I walked, and the commentator said, “Grand prize Tommie LaBeija!!” When the house finally arrived, my trophy was already on the table, and they all asked if I had won. Yes, I did, and they screamed, “Work!!”

The third time I walked a ball was the one that put me on the map. I walked Head to Toe Overness against notables such as the dynamic duo Chris and Efrem Dupree, David Xtravaganza, and Kim Penda’vis; I “caused an upset dripping in Byblos,” the newest designer at the time. It was a tie between us all. Taniel Dupree was on the judges’ panel; she stood up and stated it was Grand Prize for LaBeija. Right then, Father Tommie LaBeija was born. I was also dubbed a legend because you instantly became one if you walked and beat a legend back then. After all, it was almost impossible to do so. 

Many did not know that at the ball back in Philly, I designed many of Pepper’s looks, but Dorian Corey sewed them. Back then, as a butch queen, it could not be known that you did anything fem. You could not snap your fingers or use any gay slang other than shade. The ballroom could not even realize that your role in bed was a bottom, or you lost your realness points

I recall the time the LaBeijas walked Designers Delight as a house. Modavia LaBeija, Stephine LaBeija (RIP), Apolonia LaBeija Ninja (RIP), and Pepper walked, accompanied by one of the LaBeija boys, including Alex, Anthony, Danny, and Eddie. I pretended to sketch the garments, handed one to each member, and they took the sketch and a swatch of the garment fabric to the judges. They repeated this until the finale was Pepper’s turn to walk. One of the judges chopped us, then stood up and said, “he did not design them. We all know Dorian Corey makes Peppers clothes!” One of our house members stated, “yes, Dorian sews them, but Tommie designed every one of these garments. And the category is called Designers Delight, not Sewer’s Delight!” The judges gagged. Hence the Grand Prize went to Tommie and the House of LaBeija!!

PI: What was it like to attend your first ball?

TL: It was scary at first, but I was with Pepper and knew I was protected. My first ball was in Philly. That’s the ball where I’d mentioned where I won, where Pepper called me to walk for Realness. I did not get the full scope of what a ball was until the next few balls I attended in New York. I learned that houses are families. The competition was on the ballroom floor, but we fought the forces of oppression together outside of the ballroom.  

PI: Give us some LaBeija history about Pepper, Crystal, and Junior.

TL: Pepper was a father of two and my wife. They were one of the sweetest people I have ever met. She loved the simple but finer things in life. She loved the House of LaBeija, and its members and wanted nothing but the best for all. Her ballroom lessons were so vivid and clear, and she explained things about ballroom with so much detail; if you closed your eyes, you were there in the moment. Pepper demanded loyalty and respect. That was one lesson that I will take to my grave because finding true devotion in the ballroom is rare. It does exist, but it is rare! Pepper was so loyal to me that she let a whole house leave after an ultimatum to get rid of me or they were going to go. It was all because I wanted better for the house than those who hung out at the pier in the village all night, slept all day, and just lived for the next ball and she bid them adieu! 

I had a chance to meet with Crystal. I remember the many stories Pepper shared about her. It was clear that she wanted an all-female house. She started the house with Lottie because, as transwomen of color, they were not treated very well in the white pageantry scene. Women of color were often far more attractive than their Caucasian counterparts, but they never took home the crowns because they were not considered beautiful. As a result, the House of LaBeija was born because Crystal and Lottie decided to create an all-inclusive pageantry system. We are a civil rights house, and it is now a worldwide Phenom. 

Junior was the first male and butch queen to be inducted into the house. That was no small feat because Crystal wanted an all-girl house. 

Junior is known for his commentating. He walked ethnic categories and created many ballroom winners. He’s an expert in the English language and uses words better than any academic I know. His knowledge of ballroom history reads like a well-written novel. Junior is still a major force in the House of LaBeija, and one of the ballroom’s most highly respected. Today’s commentators must give him credit for making a space for them.  

PI: Do you still walk or judge balls today?

TL: My participation in the ballroom was short-lived as far as walking. 

I walked a few balls to be ballroom worthy, and the wins just stifled me. I’m often asked to judge balls, but I pass the privilege to the new generation of the house kids. My role was to be a figurehead and the father and not a ball walker. 

PI: What do you think about the scene today vs. that of Pepper’s heyday?

TL: Today vs. yesterday is very different. Back in the day, (Laughs) sounds so dated, but it was not about status. In the ’80s, life was uncertain with the AIDS epidemic. There was no accounting for us living past that era because the epidemic was taking us out. There was no guarantee one might live the number of years to obtain legendary status. We worked off making a name for ourselves. You made a name by being a mother or father of a house, walking and winning, being the person to beat in a particular category, beating legends, and from the memorable productions. Today, it’s about how many cash prizes, the amounts of money you’ve won, politics, years, house affiliation, and many other factors. 

Femme queens, who started the scene, have minimal categories, and there are more butch queen participants. The ball scene has evolved; it is now worldwide and no longer ours. The ballroom is now a source of income for the participants and the promoters, with enormous cash prizes, in my opinion, ruined the scene. Gone are the days of just making a name for yourself and being adorned with a trophy or the sport of competition. Often, if the category is not for cash, some opt-out of competing. We wanted to be more “mainstream,” and here we are. 

PI: The House of LaBeija short film is playing at the Tribeca Film Fest this month. Did you participate in the movie?

TL: Tribeca is a wonderful achievement. It’s one of many first for the House of LaBeija, but no, I was not a part of the project. I am very proud of the house because this is a big deal. We were the first to have a national commercial for our 50th anniversary aired on the VICELAND network. We were the first house:

  • To give a ball for a celebrity, Frank Ocean, thanks to our former mother, Kia LaBeija. Kia was also responsible for the House of LaBeija being featured in a fashion photo spread in W Magazine.
  • To perform at the Barkley Center in Brooklyn to a sold-out crowd alongside Billy Porter. 
  • To be mentioned on American Idol when Steve Tylor impersonated Pepper LaBeija. 
  • To be shouted out on the nationally syndicated television show —The New Normal featuring Nene Leaks. 
  • To have a television character modeled after a member. Billy Porter won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Pray Tell on Pose. Pray Tell is modeled after Junior LaBeija. 
  • To have an online feature campaign for the brand Taco Bell.
  • To be featured in New York magazine.
  •  Modavia LaBeija is one of the first ballroom authors with a series of novels. 

Tribeca is one of many first for the House of LaBeija but is the most significant first thus far. 

PI: What else would you like to share about yourself?

TL: It has been a blessing and a curse to be the father of the House of LaBeija. I was the father from 1986-to 2013, and I have passed the crown. I have seen many challenges, but for the most part, it has been great being a part of this legacy and having my name associated with it. When Pepper’s health was declining, she asked me if I lived long enough to make sure to make the house international, which I did, and get the house to 50 years, so mission accomplished. I feel that I kept my commitment to Pepper, and it did not come without many struggles, but like a Phoenix, we rise and are in a more incredible place than ever before with a great leadership team and members.  

PI: What’s next for you?

TL: What is next for me? Retirement! I look forward to not getting up for work and being able to travel. I want to spend the rest of my days traveling the world, but with COVID and the state of the world today, not sure if that will be a possibility, but I am hopeful. 

PI: What does the future hold for the house of LaBeija?

TL: What’s next for the House of LaBeija? An Oscar!!! If all goes well, starting with the Tribeca Film Fest. That red carpet is going to be nasty. I have not had the privilege to a pre-screening, but I am sure the film will be amazing because the ladies of my house are gems. I am so proud of the state of the house today. I have made it possible for us to revert to Crystal’s vision of having more femme queens in leadership roles. For years, butch queens have run the house, which sometimes did not work out well. Now, with the ladies are in charge, they run the place with a soft glove but with a strong fist. They and all the members are on a serious mission to preserve the legacy. This new generation of LaBeija’s is something. I would like to see my name being synonymous with the likes of Crystal and Pepper. 

When you say their names, mine should also be included because I am cemented in the LaBeija legacy and history. I have been one of the most loyal members in my role as a father and now grandpa, just as Pepper was loyal to me. I have held this house and legacy together through many trials and tribulations, and when you count us out, a newer and better crop of LaBeija’s emerges. My standing, loyalty, and commitment should not go without recognition because I am LaBeija! And my novel is coming soon.