By: DeoVonte “Deo” Means
When word first spread of the 50th anniversary of the House of La ’Beija, I was immediately taken back 15 years ago to my earliest days as a young college freshman entering the underground world known as “ballroom.” The name La ‘Beija signified New York! It was the finest level of “shade”, excellence and the highest level of ballroom competition. When Pepper died, even the New York Times paid homage! The accolades accumulated by this trailblazing house is no easy feat. They accomplished respect and worldwide visibility before the LGBT culture became mainstream acceptable, exploited and glamorized. Even more awe-inspiring, is that this group of individuals solidified their status within the community before social media allowed participants to gain microwave status by merely posting sexually explicit pictures. The La’ Beijas are vested stakeholders that gained worldwide recognition during a time when status was only given to those who walked, worked hard and consistently left their audience with a provocative and enchanting experience. The decision to use this platform to pay homage to their 50 years of excellence was not a hard choice. They were the first, founders and supreme architects of everything that is modern day ballroom! Almost immediately following my initial conversation with founding member, Tommy La’ Beija, I knew the historical value of this interview would leave a lasting impression on the community at large. As one who not only served as the ballroom husband of Icon Pepper La’ Beija, Tommy also LIVED through ballroom’s “golden-era” and gave a historical perspective of the house and times as never before. Hopefully you’ll enjoy this insightful piece as much as I did putting it together. Here is what he had to say:
FL– To set the tone of this interview, can you give a quick rundown of a few of the icons and legends that are of the La’ Beija linage?
TL– First, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to highlight the House of La’ Beija. It is my understanding that we are the first house to be featured in The Flyy-Life, so what an honor! There are many icons that come from this house; however, I would have to say, and in no particular order, Derrick “pop dip” La’ Beija, Tiny “diva boy” La’ Beija (RIP), Anthony “La’ Beija-boy,” Andre “La’ Beija boy” Mizrahi, Aura/Alexx St. Clair La” Beija Blahnik, Tony La’ Beija Revlon, Steward La’ Beija Ebony, Tony La’ Beija Milan, (RIP) The person formally known as Mo’dayvia La’ Beija, Freddie La’ Beija, Charles La’ Beija, Peter La’ Beija, Crissy La’ Beija Montana (RIP), Portia La’ Beija (RIP), Junior La’ Beija, Candy La’ Beija, Kima Milan La’ Beija and Selvin La’ Beija Kahn and of course, Crystal, Lottie and Pepper go without saying! This list is endless and can go on for miles but these are the names that will continue to resonate and be urban myths to the ballroom community for eternity.
FL– How did the house of La’ Beija come into existence and what is the definition and inspiration behind the name?
TL-Well at a ball, and after the constant shade at the pageants, a gentleman seen Crystal and said “La Beija!” She thought he was being shady and asked as only Crystal could,“La Beija?… What the hell is that?” He replied “Beauty!”. I am not sure of the origin or the linguistics; but from many accounts it seems to come from the Spanish dialect. It means beautiful! Crystal attached herself and her girls to the name. If she thought you were beautiful, truly beautiful, she shouted while waving her finger, “La’ Beija!” Sometimes that meant as I stated just beauty. Other and many times, it meant you were inducted into the house of La’ Beija. At least this is how it was told to me by Pepper La’ Beija.
FL– Describe Pepper! And what was her eternal legacy/gift to you personally, and to ballroom?
TL- Pepper was a wonderful individual. She loved her house, her children and loved ballroom! She loved her biological son and daughter and would do anything for them. She was a show stopper and the ballroom loved her! Those who had an opportunity to be in her presence, knew they were in the presence of royalty and absorbed as much history they could from her. Her legacy may vary depending on who you speak to because she meant different things to different people. The general consensus was that she was loving. I was her husband for five years. On a personal level, she wanted her name, and the house name, La’ Beija, to be known around the world. That has been accomplished. Her eternal gift to me, hummm I would have to say loyalty. She taught me what it meant to be TRULY loyal.
FL-Describe golden era ballroom from the 90’s- till 2007.
TL- The history of ballroom is as follows as best as I can recall and based on information I gathered. First there was Crystal La’ Beija/Pepper La’ Beija’s era when it was about feathers, beads, Las Vegas show girls and undeniable beauty. Because the white pageant system was unfair and even unkind to the women of color, and unaccepting of the ladies of color, Crystal along with Lottie started their own system which was all inclusive. These then evolved into balls. They had their time and moved on with grace and said it’s time to let the new girls have it. Hence Pepper becoming mother. Then you had the era where realness was key so you had an infusion of the girls that wanted to showcase their beauty, realness, face, performance, and fashion. This era lasted for a few generations, then the BQ’s pushed them completely out. Now more than ever, categories are all about the BQ’s with a sprinkle of categories that cater to the girls. I feel that BQ’s from an era should step to the side gracefully like other eras and let the young children have their time. But back to your question, just had to vent! Ballroom was a place of acceptance. Even if you did not win your category, you were embraced by the community. Ballroom was very competitive, unique, fantasy, reality, art, beauty, talent, amazing, and mystical just to use a few adjectives. Competition was key back then. Because there were not as many balls as we have today, the trophy, bragging rights and a small financial compensation was enough. We were families and although some categories got heated, it was because of passion not because the contestant lost.
FL– How has The House of La’ Beija help stamp a footprint of excellence in the plight of the urban LGBT community?
TL- My new members, the 4G’s, are very active in community service and outreach. This seems to be a trend. This work is very much needed in our community and best from those who are from a particular demographic which can be the most effective! They can speak the language of the youth. Most often, elders perspectives are viewed as to “preachy,” whereas those from the young peer group can speak from a place of experience that the youth can relate to with recognizable references. I like to think of myself as the education father. I have an Associates in Computer Science, Bachelors in Human Service Management, Master’s in Psychology and will be working on my Ph.D. in Law. Criminal and Civil. I want to be an example to the community that education is the gateway to their future. My children know that education is important to me. It is my passion. Many in the community who reach out to me, seek my assistance on how to find a balance between ballroom and real life.
FL-What has been the most “difficult” house scandal to embrace and how have you tackled it?
TL- We had a few. No, we had many! Unfortunately, secrets are protected in this house so I can only speak on the so-called scandal that I caused or have been accused of. When Pepper was presented with the ultimatum to get rid of me, she chose me over the person and those who wanted to follow him. It completely wiped out the house because key members all left. Once those members got into new houses, there were other power struggles or others whom thought they could open and run their own houses and from there, two other houses were formed. Those who know REAL ballroom history, and La’ Beija history, will know the houses in question that branched off who are all heavy hitters and rock socking today in the scene and have gone on to be iconic houses with over 10 years or more in the game. They are Revlon, Mizrahi, and St Clair. I would say I am the grandfather of those houses… but I am sure they would disagree and that is ok. But St. Clair and all their members call me grandpa because Alexx La’ Beija boy along with Francisco La’ Beija St Clair were the founders of that house and introduced me as such to their members.
FL-Name 5 modern day legends, statements or stars you would induct in the house and why?
TL-I am all about the new generation and what they have to bring to the table. I think the new generation has so much to offer and I champion the day when they can have their day, their time, and their moments! Let the kids evolve! If you are only going to hold me to just 5; I say this not just as a leader of a house, but because I am a fan of their work. DeDe Chanel because she reminds me of the days of Mo’dayvia La’ Beija. Julius Moody Revlon because he reminds me of the days when the House of La’ Beija was popping for BQ face! Leiomy Maldonado Amazon because she has a passion that was present back in the day. Dashaun Wesley’s Lanvin is just such a great representation of ballroom for his era and all era’s. Brian Aga because he is in school working on his degree while maintaining and balancing his ballroom career. His old way is spectacular, and in addition, he is humble and has not allowed the ballroom to affect him or ruin him.
FL– In hitting 50 years, what has been the most difficult object to overcome for survival?
TL- Wow! We have gone through so much in the Royal House of La’ Beija! I think that one of the most difficult objects that I personally had to overcome for the house to survive was the struggle for power. I am sure this can be said by many leaders. When it comes to the house of La’ Beija, I feel with 50 years in the game, we have to pass the torch to the younger generation for it is their time and they deserve it. Everyone from our house from an era long ago has made names for themselves and are icons. We have nothing else to prove. We are individually and collectively cemented in the ballroom story.
FL-You have a linage of multi-generational legends and leaders of ballroom. What would be the one statement you would send to the icons, legends and leaders of today?
TL- This is simple. Groom new leadership, and get out the way! You had your time so what are you holding on to? I never understood why in all the years of the existence of particular houses that they have not developed a lane for others to take over. Every era has moved on gracefully but a few eras or individuals just won’t let it go.
FL– O.K so let’s cut the shit. Whom do you see as leading the cause “in La ‘Beija fashion” of today”
TL-I would have to say Harold Aga and Mann Prodigy. I am not sure the inner workings of these houses. What I do know is what I see and they, on the surface, are drama free and are true families under great leadership. I love how uniformed these houses are! They win great, and they lose with grace! The leadership will stand up for injustice if they feel their members have been shaded, and most importantly, Harold and Mann are in total control. They both have a great team behind them and it is just amazing to see! I judge solely on what leaders bring to ballroom. I see a lot of houses and their leadership as well as members. My selections in no way discounts all the great things other houses are doing; but I selected these two because they remind me of what the house of La’ Beija is and always was.
FL– What is one mistake that you as a young butch queen made in your ballroom plight?
TL- I did not really take the father position all that serious. I did not know much about ballroom and to me, and at the time, it was just a title. A prestigious title, but what did it really mean? Pepper ran the house, so she already had a bond with the younger and older generation and only a select few opened up and loved me. They saw me as not only a father, but a friend and a gay man in the struggle. It was not until later, when most of the members passed away, joined other houses or left, or started their own houses and families. Pepper was still alive and after she passed away members that still carried the name were not as visible on the scene but still carried the name and represented well when they did come out but most were living their lives.
FL-What is the new era of La’ Beija strategy? Where do the house want to go?
TL- The new era of the house is amazing! I can’t go too deep into it for we have some major plans for the coming year and our 50th anniversary which started with our commercial consistently running on the Viceland channel featuring Kia, Justin, and Leggoh. What I can say is that I love the 4G generation of La’ Beija’s! These young adults at an early age are doing amazing things! They are in the industry. They are movers, shakers, and gaining more and more respect, acceptance and even a fan base. Most importantly, they love the house of La’ Beija. For some, after seeing Paris is Burning, they knew they wanted to be in the house. They are here and it’s because they want to be, even with the shade they receive from ballroom on many occasions. The light is not as bright as it was in the early years, but that’s about to change. They are so amazingly great! They would be assets to any house but they are happy here. They are in the process of rebranding the name. We are royalty because we are La’ Beija!
FL– La’ Beija is eternal. How would you like to be eternally remembered?
TL- History will continue to write our story. There would not be a ballroom scene that so many love without the contribution from the royal and illustrious house of La’ Beija! I don’t think that the house or our new members receives the respect they deserve which is heartbreaking. It should be an honor that we are in the building and we should always receive a standing ovation if only because of what we represent. We represent hope if nothing else. We represent going against the grain. We are a ground breaking house. We are the first house to stand up for injustice. Our founders are single handedly responsible for fighting against a system that did not want us or our gay people of color to have a seat at the table! So, Crystal built her own table and it now feeds many!
FL-What final message would you like to leave with The Flyy-Life audience?
TL-First I would like to reach out to the younger generation of ballroom. I would like to say, take back your power! I often hear it said that my generation and the few that came after are just bitter old queens; or icons that are uneducated, unemployed, and have nothing! We labeled as being stuck in the past and don’t see it for the new generation. That box you built should not be inclusive of all because some of us are doing very well and are very educated and I for one champion the next generation’s movement.
Your generation now has enough legends and icons so you don’t really need us as judges so change the dynamics. If you strongly feel the way you feel, why read but then ask for validation by way of having them/us on the judge’s panel asking for that validation from an era you don’t see? You can’t have it both ways! Create categories for individuals to walk from your particular era. When you call for the icons to walk, they are not going to walk against those they feel are not in their ballroom class. And you may feel why is this old icon walking against me? Again I say, change the dynamics. And once you obtain that power, change the scoring system. Not everyone is a 10, and not everyone deserves to be chopped!
To the older generation. All I have to say is stop living in the past and let these kids live! Pass the torch and bow out gracefully. Let ballroom evolve. To The Flyy-Life audience. I hope that this interview was interesting and opened your eyes to not only the ballroom, but the LBGT community as a whole. If you peel back the layers and move past our sexuality and see us as just people, you would find that we are fighting the same fight you are; just in a different arena. Injustice, prejudice, violence, and inequality are somethings we are all fighting against. Our struggle and our rights are no less important than any other class of people.