5 Things to Know About Ballroom Icon Crystal LaBeija

Crystal Labeija Drage Race
Courtesy of VH1

Aja as Crystal Labeija on RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3

For Snatch Game on season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Brooklyn queen Aja chose an icon in ballroom and drag, connecting quite a few dots: Crystal LaBeija.

The choice was apt. Though there is little information available about Crystal's death, her legacy lives on, evident in Aja’s various performances this season. Take what she did at the Variety Show; the voguing moves that were incorporated were created and fostered in the ballroom scene that LaBeija was a major force in starting.

Many know the name LaBeija from Paris Is Burning. In one of the opening scenes, Pepper LaBeija says: "I am Pepper LaBeija, legendary mother of the House of LaBeija. Not the founder! That was Crystal, I just rule it now." Pepper was the second mother of the house, but Crystal preceded her.

Here we dig into five things you need to know.

Crystal Labeija was a Manhattan queen

Crystal made her name competing and working on the drag circuit in Manhattan. She had worked her way up to becoming Miss Manhattan. It was in fact this title that landed her in 1968 documentary The Queen, which saw her compete against contestants like Miss Boston, Miss Chicago, Miss Brooklyn, Miss Fire Island and the eventual winner, Rachel Harlow from Philadelphia.

She was always quick with the comebacks

While her legendary drag from The Queen continually goes viral with its cutting remarks, it wasn’t the only time she had a witty comeback. When she was competing in pageants in the 1960s and 1970s, it was an overwhelmingly racist environment. Queens of color were expected to whiten their appearance in order to have a chance at winning competitions. And even when they did so they were routinely under-rewarded. According to lore, when judges would tell her she had “negroid features,” she would respond, “That’s all right, I have white eyes.” It was this sort of determination that caused her to persevere.

The Queen was the start of something new

Directed by Frank Simon, the Cannes-debuted documentary was a big moment in drag history. The pageant it chronicled was the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, put on by the legendary Miss Flawless Sabrina. It hosted judges like Edie Sedgwick, Mario Montez, Mary Ellen Mark and Andy Warhol. When Crystal was eventually awarded third runner-up (fourth place), she storms offstage and lets loose her blistering read, effectively accusing Sabrina of rigging the process for her white protégé, Rachel Harlow.

That overall feeling about drag pageants set the groundwork for what we now know as the ballroom scene. Not long after, Lottie, a friend of Crystal’s, had the idea that the pair should co-promote their own ball. Crystal was well-respected in the drag scene, having won a Queen of the Ball prize at a white-organized ball (one of the few queens of color to do so), and Lottie convinced her to host a ball for black queens. While it wasn’t the first balls of this sort, it was the first to be hosted by a “House.” And within the 10 years following that founding in 1972, the ballroom scene was flourishing.

Crystal appears on the opening credits of Transparent

The opening title credits for Amazon’s Transparent were created by associate producers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. After learning about The Queen from a queer underground zine in 2003, Drucker decided to cut footage of Crystal into the opening credits. The action was to draw a line between this new film and its historical context. “When I first saw The Queen, it was in pursuit of a history I felt a part of,” Drucker told Slate. “I was at such an early stage in my understanding of my own gender. I was always interested in cult films, foreign films, independent films -- the more obscure the better. And I think anything I could find connected to trans people or drags queens was a validation of my own difference -- just knowing the path was paved a long time ago, it wasn’t going to start with me.” The inclusion draws a line between changing notions of gender.

Frank Ocean invokes Crystal on both Endless and “RAF"

In his conceptual, 2016-released project Endless, Frank Ocean also turns to The Queen. On the 12-second track “Ambience 001,” he inserts Crystal LaBeija’s voice. “Because you’re beautiful and you’re young,” her voice says above a sample of Wee’s “I Think I Am in Love With You.” “You deserve to have the best in life. He cuts it short before she finishes her sentiment, saying, “But you didn’t deserve this.”

And for those who thought of the inclusion as a fluke, Ocean has returned to the icon. On A$AP Mob’s Cozy Tapes Vol. 2, the singer is brought in for an extended version on “RAF.” Rocky told i-D of the release: “Frank Ocean is a singer but he bodied everybody on this track." But there, embedded in the rhymes is Crystal again.

“I’mma read his ass like LaBeija,” he says cooly. And so it makes sense, following the release, that at his ballroom-themed 30th birthday party, hosted by the House of Labeija, the group made him an honorary member. Crystal lives on.