The Slap of Love (Part 2)



138th Street & Convent Avenue New York, NY 10031.

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

The House of Xtravaganza, like the House of Corey and the other houses, consists of a mother and a father and a big raucous band of “children”: drag queens, butch queens (gay men who dress like men), transsexuals, a few real girls and one or two straight guys. The smattering of girls and straight guys notwithstanding, the houses are, essentially, cabals of young gay black and Hispanic men obsessed with being fashionable and fabulous.

The houses started in the late sixties. They grew out of the underground drag balls that had been going on in and around New York City since the thirties. Those balls were merely drag fashion shows staged by white men two or three times a year in gay bars, with prizes given for the most outrageous costumes. Black queens sometimes showed up but they were expected to whiten their faces and they rarely won a prize.

Says Pepper LaBeija, 45, another enduring star of the drag ball circuit, “It was our goal then to look like white women. They used to tell me, ‘You have negroid features,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s all right, I have white eyes.’ That’s how it was back then.”

In the sixties a handful of black queens finally got fed up and started holding balls of their own in Harlem, where they quickly pushed the institution to heights undreamed of by the little gangs of white men parading around in frocks in basement taverns. In a burst of liberated zeal they rented big places like the Elks Lodge on 139th Street, and they turned up in dresses Madame Pompadour herself might have thought twice about.

Word spread around Harlem that a retinue of drag queens was putting together outfits bigger and grander than Rose Parade ßoats, and the balls began to attract spectators, first by the dozens and then by the hundreds, gay and straight alike. People brought liquor with them, sandwiches, buckets of chicken. As the audiences grew, the queens gave them more and more for their money. Cleopatra on her barge, all in gold lamé, with a half dozen attendants waving white, glittering palm fronds. Faux fashion models in feathered coats lined with mylar, so that when the coat was thrown open and a two-thousand-watt incandescent lamp suddenly lit, the people in the first few rows were blinded for minutes afterward.

It was Vegas comes to Harlem. It was the queens’ most baroque fantasies of glamour and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments.

Gradually, as the Harlem balls became an underground sensation, the drag queens started splitting into factions.

In 1977 an imperious, elegant queen named Crystal LaBeija announced that a ball she’d helped put together was being given by the House of LaBeija, as in House of Chanel or House of Dior. It was a p.r. gimmick, something to add a little more panache and, not incidentally, to increase the luster of Crystal LaBeija.

The concept caught on, and suddenly every ball was being given by a house. Some queens named their house after themselves, like Avis Pendavis’ House of Pendavis or Dorian Corey’s House of Corey. Others took the names of established designers like Chanel or St. Laurent.

And once those queens had declared themselves the official royalty of drag society, it was only a matter of time before they began to attract followers. By the early eighties younger, less experienced drag queens were declaring themselves members of this house or that house, and competing in balls under the house name. Some went to court and had their last names legally changed, to Pendavis or Corey or Chanel or St. Laurent.

The ball circuit turned, by slow degrees, into a team effort, as much like organized sports as it was like show business. Houses came to be ruled by their biggest stars, who were known as mothers and who exhorted their members–their children–to accumulate as many prizes as possible for the greater glory of the house.

It was three weeks before Dorian Corey was feeling well enough to see me. She lived on the top floor of a snug, four-story, red-brick row house across the street from the City College of New York campus. It was a nice block, well maintained, not at all the residential equivalent of Sally’s II. I was relieved, for Dorian’s sake.

I rang the bell, and Dorian’s voice, which registered somewhere between the sound of an oboe and a pair of pinking shears, wafted down from the top floor.

“Stand out in the street, honey, and I’ll throw you the keys.”

I stepped out into the street, and a plastic change purse landed at my feet. I took the keys from the purse, let myself in to a clean, crumbling lobby that had been elegant eighty or ninety years earlier. A matronly brown _replace and mocha-colored wainscoting gave way, at shoulder level, to yellow-green paint and sputtering fluorescent light. I walked up the four flights. I’d brought a dozen pale pink roses.

Dorian met me at the door. If you’d have had to be legally blind to consider her beautiful in full makeup, you’d have had to be legally dead to consider her so without it, in a knee length T-shirt, with her hair wrapped up in an old nylon scarf.

But her dowager manner held. She formally invited me in, accepted the roses without comment, as if my bringing them had been assumed. Grocery boys brought groceries; reporters brought roses. She led me into the living room, introduced me to her lover Leo, and disappeared, saying she’d be back soon.

Leo was a sparse, wiry man in his thirties who bore more than a passing resemblance to Charles Manson. He wore jeans and a baggy shirt. He was watching a Knicks game on television. Dorian’s and Leo’s living room was a grotto dedicated to the goddess of junk. In the spaces between the television, the sofa, several chairs, and a double bed, only a narrow footpath remained negotiable among displays of old crockery, embroidered pillows, assorted lamps, artificial flowers, and gilded trophies won by Dorian at various balls. It was a yard-sale version of Aladdin’s cave.

Leo watched the game with an acolyte’s rapture. When a commercial for Kool-Aid came on, he told me brightly that he’d bought some just the other day. He jumped up, trotted out of the room, and came back with a large can of something called Pink Swimmingo. It depicted a ßamingo in sunglasses, snorkel, and jams.

“See?” he said. “Pink Swimmingo. Not flmingo. Swimmingo.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Well.”

Soon after, Dorian returned and said to me, “Are you ready to be rescued?” I told her I was, and she beckoned me into her sewing room.

Dorian’s sewing room was a treasure cave of a different order, more like the real thing. Or, rather, it was a more faithful fake version of the real thing. Strands of faux pearls and rhinestones looped out of shoe boxes. Leopard prints and gold-threaded gauzes and sequined chiffons were piled everywhere, and in the middle rose a dressmaker’s dummy wearing a half-finished contraption of rhinestones and flesh-colored ultra suede, a hybrid of early Bob Mackie and late Road Warrior.

We spent slightly more than three minutes on the subject of Angie. Dorian said Angie had been fabulous, a great mother and a promising star. Dorian, unlike some other drag legends, was generous toward her sisters. But still, it quickly became apparent that you didn’t go to one major star for detailed information about another. So we talked about Dorian.

She was one of the “terrible five,” the five reigning house mothers of the ball world. Angie had been another, along with Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, and Paris Dupree, whose annual ball “Paris is Burning” gave Livingston the title for her film.

“I used to have a lot of children, but time passes on. Those children who used to come by and talk, they’re now the mothers of their own houses. I’m an over-the-hill legend, you know? Leo in there is really the only child I’ve got left. He was my lover for the first four or five years, then he was my friend the next twenty minutes, and now he’s my son.”

From the other room, I could hear Leo happily cheering on the Knicks.

A house can be composed of a hundred or more children, or as few as one. There are now at least thirty official houses in New York City, and their membership requirements vary. In some houses, you have to win a prize at a ball to be considered for membership. In others, all you have to do is ask the house mother, who will probably say yes.

Members of the House of Xtravaganza are a little vague about their own prerequisites. “We know right away if you’re an Xtravaganza or not,” says Danny Xtravaganza, thirty-four, who replaced Angie as house mother after she died. Adds Mina Xtravaganza, eighteen, a straight female member and aspiring model, “The only real requirement is that you be fab.”

About being fab: You should dress wonderfully, in a style that’s both unique to you and right on the razor’s edge of fashion. You should have a mystique, a snap, a sparkle. You should click, immediately, with the other members of the house.

And you must–you absolutely must–look like you can put out some serious competition at the balls. The Xtravaganzas carry on Angie’s two overriding fixations: fashion and perfect performance. The balls are the family business, and the Xtravaganzas are as serious about apparel and presentation as the De Beers family is about diamonds.

Over the past decade, the balls have moved steadily downtown from Harlem. Today most of them are held in Village clubs or in midtown community centers. They’ve evolved from costume parties into enormous multi-categoried competitions that can go on as long as twelve hours. Contestants compete in a numbing array of categories, from best body (with butch and femme subcategories) to realness (most convincingly female, most convincingly butch, etcetera), military (most convincingly lethal), high fashion foot and eye wear, and etcetera.

There can be dozens of categories in a single evening: best wig, best butch queen walking in drag for the first time, best dressed for a night at the Clinton White House. There are even special categories for very short drag queens (midget model’s effect), and those who weigh over 180 pounds.

The balls have become intricate, searingly competitive affairs, though they no longer attract the body of spectators who used to show up in Harlem. Now almost everyone who comes is there to compete, and has paid 20 bucks at the door. Some of the trophies are 12 feet tall. The grand-prize winner can take home a thousand dollars or more.

Dorian had amassed over 50 grand prizes. I asked her whether she had a favorite outfit and she paused with a look of mingled pride and regret, like a mother being asked if she doesn’t really have a favorite among her children.

“Well, this was quite a while ago,” she said. “I made a rhinestone gown, then I had a headpiece with rhinestones all over it. I had a backpiece maybe about nine feet, covered with white feathers. Then I made two smaller ones about 7 feet high, diamonds, and covered them with feathers and had little hand grips. So now I’m getting to be about 20 feet wide and 15 feet high.

“I’d rented a fog machine. They turned it on and the whole stage filled with fog, and I folded those two sidepieces in front of me and I came out and as I got to center stage I opened them and it made the fog part. And everybody gasped. I wanted to run down and see me too. It was the only time I’d ever walked a ball that I had no doubt I’d won.”

The competition gets ferocious. As in organized sports, the tension that accumulates around all that desire, preparation, and rivalry sometimes explodes. People really want those trophies–accumulating trophies is the only way to become a star like Dorian. They really want the grand-prize money too. As Roger Milan, father of the House of Milan, puts it, “Some people have medical bills, some people have rent to pay, and they go to the balls telling themselves, ‘I must win.’”

Pepper LaBeija says of a 1991 ball held at the Marc Ballroom on Union Square West, “One of the children pulled out a knife and cut one of the judges because he didn’t give her a ten. Everybody went crazy, there was a stampede. I ran out in the street in my gown, with my hair in a bun, and it was pouring. The gown got heavy, it got waterlogged, but you had to run. If you didn’t, you’d get trampled.

“I’m in the street, one shoe on, one shoe off, and I ran into the subway station.”

Even if you don’t get hurt at one of these affairs, you can end up sitting in a subway train with your hair askew and your gown soaked, minus one of your pumps. It’s a hard world, like every other world.

Angie Xtravaganza was an upstart, the youngest of the legendary mothers; from the moment she started walking balls, though, at the age of sixteen, she was a star. She came up with a new angle. If luminaries like Dorian and Pepper LaBeija relied on flash and audacity, Angie pushed her fashion sense. She didn’t put together big outlandish costumes, as drag queens had been doing since the day the first man slipped into the first gown. She shocked the ball world by doing something no one had done before.

She won trophies by dressing in bold but impeccable taste.

Her favorite category was model’s effect, in which the prize goes to the contestant who most convincingly impersonates a fashion model. She was famous for her legs, and for her perfect imitation of a runway model’s walk. Danny Xtravaganza recalls one of her triumphs:

“She wore an eggshell-colored linen suit, a mini-skirt and a blazer, with brown trimming and brown buttons,” he says. “She had a brown organza blouse underneath the jacket, and a white duster and a brown shawl.”

The ensemble, like most of her outfits, had been made for her by one of her friends. When Angie walked for the judges–a panel composed of members of various other houses–she got ten points from each of them, the maximum score. As is often the case, several other contestants racked up perfect scores too.

Whenever that happens, the battle begins in earnest.

The game goes into overtime. Sudden death. All the finalists come out at once, and each of them does whatever she can to convince the judges that they have no reasonable choice but to give her the trophy because she is, simply, inarguably, the most potent vision of shimmering perfection.

Danny says, “Angie went to the middle of the runway and started spinning. And the shawl she was carrying got bigger and bigger and bigger. The first time she walked, it just looked like a regular little shawl, but it turned out to be, like, fifty feet long. She started swinging it, and all the other queens got tangled up in it.”

She lassoed those bitches like a cowgirl bringing down heifers. And she did it without tottering for a moment in her six-inch heels. Don’t bother to ask if she won that night.

The ball world is changing, as worlds inevitably do. For one thing, the drag queens are thinning out and the butch queens are multiplying. Dorian said, “When you have gay liberation, certain things get lost in the shuffle. It’s coming out of the closet, so there’s no mystique.”

It’s true that old-fashioned standards of feminine behavior seem to be disappearing, One example of the newer breed of drag queen is Consuela Cosmetics, a friendly, forthright _gure roughly the size of a Chevy Impala. She’s the mother of the new House of L’ Amour, and she resembles Dorian and Angie to roughly the same extent Fergie resembles Queen Elizabeth II. She likes leather and bondage. She’s six-foot-three, with silicone breasts the exact size and shape of honeydew melons. She wants to be the first transgender crossover artist. When asked about her duties as house mother, she says, “I’m the decision-maker. I’m the president of the house.”

None of that maternal business. Forget chicken soup.

“The House of L’Amour is an association,” she says, “and we all get together and compete in the balls against other associations, like the Xtravaganzas and the Milans.”

Years ago, Consuela ran a prostitution ring in Los Angeles until the heat got turned up so high she slipped out of town. “I was a supervisor,” she says. “Directing traffic.”

Were most of her stable transvestites?

“Uh-uh. Pussy makes money. I had real girls and I had a sex change. Pussy wins overall.”

She drifted around Europe for a few years, and has now landed in New York. She designs clothes. She sings.

“When somebody says, ‘Have you ever known one of the girls who really made it?’ I want my name to pop up. Because if you asked that question now, nobody could give you an answer. They can say a whole lot that were fabulous, but we’re talking about circulating in the right places.

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