This coming Father’s Day, give a thought to Pepper. The last remaining queen of the Harlem drag balls, Pepper LaBeija (pronounced la- BAY -zha) went to the great runway in the sky on May 14, between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day-which is entirely appropriate, since she/he was both a mother and a father. Her New York Times obit revealed the startling fact that 53-year-old Pepper, who dressed en femme and enthusiastically preferred the female pronoun, had left behind two children, a son and a daughter.
It was, however, her “motherhood” rather than her improbable fatherhood which had brought her fame and notoriety. Pepper’s official title was “Mother of the House of LaBeija.” Founded in 1970, LaBeija was one of many such gangs that received mainstream exposure in Jennie Livingston’s life-changing 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning . Those of you who haven’t seen it are to be despised, ridiculed and politely encouraged to rent a copy ASAP. Pepper’s haughty Egyptoid performances and, most importantly, her waspish musings about life as an oppressed underclass tranny make her the heart and soul of this movie. “I never wanted to have a sex-change,” intones the overly moisturized Pepper as she drags on a ciggie in her flatteringly lit apartment. “Women get treated bad. They get beat. They get robbed. They get dogged. Having a vagina doesn’t mean you’re gonna have the fabulous life.”
I first saw Pepper giving her signature runway “Egyptian effect” in 1989 at Swiss nightclub-queen Susanne Bartsch’s legendary Love Ball: This was the uber -trendy Design Industry Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA) Roseland fund-raiser modeled on a Harlem drag ball, at which Madonna was first exposed to the vogueing phenomenon.
Honesty compels me to admit that, at the time, I was more Xtravaganza than LaBeija. To compete in the Love Ball, Barneys, my employer, had joined forces with the drag outfit House of Xtravaganza to create the House of Barneys. Four “legendary children” from the House of Xtravaganza-Danny, Hector, David and one other whose name escapes me-and I devised a vogueing exhibition which would showcase Lauren Hutton, the Barneys model at that time. During the course of rehearsals, there was a kittenish flirtation between myself and Danny Xtravaganza, giving rise to rumors that I was about to join the house and become Simon Xtravaganza. Coulda, woulda, shoulda!
The Xtravaganza boys were all hugely talented, whip-smart and shockingly professional. They even managed to resist the temptation to “mop” from Barneys (“mopping” is voguer lingo for stealing; the wearing of mopped clothes is a prerequisite to “walking a ball”). Ms. Hutton, on the other hand, was less than enthused about this project: The alligator-wranglin’, motorcycle-ridin’ beauty was actually rather kvetchy . She complained about everything, especially the music: She wanted to use strange recordings she had made herself while living with the Pygmies, despite the difficulties that this presented to the Xtravaganzas. (Have you ever tried vogueing to Pygmy music?)
The day before the big event, Lauren suddenly withdrew from the entire endeavor, citing a family illness in Florida. A model called Mona leapt into the breach. When Ms. Hutton brazenly showed up on the big night, on the arm of impresario Malcolm McLaren, and plonked herself in a front-row seat, I was stunned, and the Xtravaganzas were irate. They went from worshipping their gap-toothed cover-girl idol to “reading” her (ball-speak for delivering lacerating criticism), and brilliantly morphed her name from Miss Lauren Hutton to Miss Borin’ Nuttin’.
A little harsh, perhaps, but Miss Lauren should consider herself lucky that it wasn’t Pepper that she dissed.
Beware the black drag queen! Give her respect! Not only does she have a wicked tongue, but she is also, most importantly, the author of 99 percent of pop culture. “Vogueing,” “talking to the hand,” “genius!”, “overness!”, “realness!”, “working it!”-the finger-wagging, high-snapping, opulence-lovin’ sassy-girlfriend shtick of the black drag queen is the guiding force behind everything . She has been appropriated by everyone from Madonna to Missy E. to 11-year-old schoolgirls. Moreover: If black drag queens inform our cultural landscape, and Pepper was the most legendary reigning black drag queen of all time, then Pepper is/was the world’s most potent pop-cultural icon. Double snap!
The black drag queen is a mirror. She offers the searing insights into American culture which can only come from the outside, forcing whitey to see himself in a way he otherwise could not-even gap-toothed fashion models and dopey white guys like your dad. Log onto eBay and snag him a copy of Paris Is Burning . At the time of writing, there is only one copy ($6.38) available, so move it . Sashay ! Shante ! And Happy Father’s Day.
P.S. A rollicking yet respectful memorial service for Pepper will be held on Thursday, June 12, at the Lesbian and Gay Center, 208 West 13th Street, starting at 7 p.m. (but call ahead to confirm the time: 212-620-7310).