The Royal House of LaBeija

The First Family of Ballroom
By Karen Giberson and Sophia Strawser
Photographed by Andrew Egan

Crystal LaBeija was a force to be reckoned with. A transwoman, she was a regular on the 1960s drag circuit and was known for wearing glamorous outfits and furs. At the time, drag pageant contestants were judged by looks and overwhelmingly the contestants and judges were white. The blatant discrimination against Black and Hispanic entrants forced many to lighten their skin to have a chance at winning.

Things came to a head for Crystal in 1967 after a 4th place finish in the “Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest.” The pageant, hosted by a white queen, awarded the first place prize to her own protégé. Fed up, Crystal stormed off the stage, ranting, “She was terrible, she didn’t deserve it!”


The following year in 1968, Crystal partnered with Lottie LaBeija and founded The House of LaBeija. Convinced that women of color weren’t being given a chance, in 1972 they launched “The 1st Annual House of LaBeija Ball.” The event officially reshaped the history of drag pageantry in New York City. Held in Harlem, the ball brought together like-minded people for love, support, and ballroom.

That same year, Crystal also named Pepper LaBeija as the mother of The Royal House of LaBeija, which evolved into a de facto home for a marginalized community, offering mentorship and providing a stable alternative family structure. Crystal passed away in the mid-1990s, leaving behind a stable foundation for the House. 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.

Today, the 56-year-old House is just as proud, loud, and supportive as it was at its conception. This safe haven offers a space for queer people of color to be a part of an iconic community, delve in its history and carry on its rich legacy. It’s mainly a family for those who don’t have one. The House boasts over 180 members in cities across the United States and internationally in countries including India, Argentina, South Africa, Costa Rica, Switzerland, South Korea and Russia. Follow them at: @OfficialHouseOfLaBeija

The Business of Ballroom

What used to be an underground community, ballroom is now main-stream and an international multimillion-dollar business. Many first learned about ballroom by watching the acclaimed 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” which turned a spotlight on the scene in New York City. The film gave insight into the history and offered a peek into the thriving subculture of ballroom. Nearly 20 years later, a new generation discovered the award-winning RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” which borrowed heavily from the genre. More recently, the 2018 television series “Pose” further highlighted the ball culture in New York City by following the lives of fictional characters and their network of chosen families.

Beyond entertainment, ballroom is a celebration of the BIPOC LGBTQ+ communities. Balls are organized by a house, promoter, or non-profit organization. Some balls are free to attend while others charge admission fees starting at $40 per person. The multi-hour events are competitive and require months of planning and organization. One must rent a venue, get sponsorship, promote the event, sell tables, purchase trophies, have cash for grand prizes, hire a DJ and commentator, and organize the judging panel.

Most participants belong to a House (there are many iconic Houses) and walk in categories that
offer something for everyone: Drag Realness, Best Dressed, Bizarre, Executive Realness, Woman’s Face, Transman, and Hand Performance are just a few examples. Each contestant must put in preparation time, practice their walk or routine, meticulously plan costumes, and
present with pizzaz. Winners are bestowed with trophies and cash prizes.

The power of ballroom can be felt on Facebook, too, which is home to many House and ball
pages. Brands — from Nike to Got2B+ to LVMH — have embraced the art form by sponsoring
categories and featuring members in advertising campaigns. Perhaps the highest compliment,
however, was when Beyoncé called out the House of LaBeija in her hit song, “Break My Soul,”
and invited House members to the “Renaissance” album release party in August 2022. The album was a homage to Ballroom.

House of LaBeija

The Hottest Winter Ever
December 16, 2024
By Karen Giberson

The Ac Magazine team headed to Miami in December to attend and document our first ball, “The Hottest Winter Ever Birthday Ball,” which was hosted by Heidi Miyake-Mugler. Though we had been preparing with The Royal House of LaBeija team for months, none of us knew exactly what to expect — and we can assure you, the night did not disappoint.

We met the NYC LaBeija team at their AirBnB in Hollywood, FL, which was buzzing with activity as we readied for our photo shoot and the evening’s ball. Andrew Egan and his assistant Patrick McLain converted the living room into a photo studio and AC vice president Cindy Chen Derkacz sorted and organized jewelry, sunglasses, hats, bags, and shoes for the portraits.

Nicole Miller sent us with dazzling outfits, which were carefully matched to our models by Jeffrey LaBeija, the House’s overall overseer. The kitchen and dining room were converted to beauty counters and hair stations and one by one, the models primped and lined up for their pre-event portraits.

The preparation continued as the competition and evening outfits were steamed and organized. And then the dazzling LaBeija team headed to the Hollywood Jaycee Hall for the ball. From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, we knew we were in for a special night as we watched several hundred very colorfully dressed and beautifully accessorized people — in outfits that ranged from glamorous to outrageous — pour into the venue.

The venue was organized with tables down each side and a wide aisle/runway in the middle that led to a stage where the judging panel was seated. The House of LaBeija had two tables prominently placed in the front and dozens of LaBeija members and friends gathered to celebrate the night.

The program kicked off with an LSS by MC/commentators Legendary Snookie West and Florida mother Tabu Ninja who introduced the legends in the room while DJ Carey Smith continued a high energy atmosphere throughout the night. The various Houses cheered loudly as their members walked in 31 categories that presented during the first part of the night.

The categories offered something for everyone including a two-part presentation called Drags Realness, Labels, Hand Performace, Bizarre, BQ Vogue Fem, Sex Siren, Transman Realness, Sneaker vs. Sneaker, GNC Face, and All American Runway, to name only a few. The presentations were high energy, the room was electric and the judges either gave a “10” or a chop, eliminating the contestant. After a solo walk, anyone given a 10 stood to the side. Then the battle began as each walked against each other until there was only one winner left — Grand Prize!

We cheered loudly as more than 30 Royal House of LaBeija members, including NYC’s Marcus, Yasha, and Samil walked their categories. New York mother Samil won Grand Prize for FF Best Dressed. Over $7,000 in prizes were awarded along with a trophy for each category.

It was clear that we were invited to witness a very special and revered tradition. We feel most fortunate to have partnered with LaBeija Productions to make this happen and sincerely thank the entire team for their time and dedication to the project.