‘Paris Is Burning’ Film Emcee on ‘Pose’, ‘Legendary’ and RuPaul
If you’ve ever seen the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning or even encountered the phrase “The category is …” or “Tens, tens, tens across the board!” — you’re familiar with the artistry of Junior LaBeija. And that’s just the beginning. “Shake the dice and steal the rice!” “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! Opulence. You own everything!” “It do take nerve.”
All sprung from the oratorically gifted LaBeija. Had circumstances been different, he might have ended up an influential rapper or stand-up comic. As luck would have it, he grew up Black, gay and living in Harlem. And so he wound up a legendary ballroom emcee. “All the quotes from Paris Is Burning, they’re all over Europe, on T-shirts, hats,” he says.
Today he sits on a bench on the Christopher Street Pier in Greenwich Village, looking regal in a tunic covered in African tribal patterns. A tangle of jewelry shimmers around his neck.
The pier is grassy and manicured and draws young urban professionals out for their morning jog. But when LaBeija first encountered the spot back in the early 1970s, the jagged docks off the West Side Highway were another universe entirely: a place both alluring and dangerous, where gay men and trans women gathered to socialize and get off — sometimes for kicks, other times survival.
“The warehouse was over there,” LaBeija says, gesturing to what is now a luxury condominium. “You had to scale the wall to go inside. Sometimes someone would fall through a hole in the floor. You’d hear them go, ‘Ahhh!’ ” He gazes out at the sun-dappled Hudson River. “Jimmy Ebony, a young beautiful child, was in a car fooling around and put it in reverse. The car backed right into the motherfucking water, darling. He drowned right here.”
In 1986, an NYU film student named Jennie Livingston stumbled upon young voguers who gathered nightly at this spot. They’d gossip and practice their poses, then hop on a graffiti-covered subway to compete for trophies at competitions up in Harlem. “It was the space to be who you need to be,” LaBeija says. “That’s what ballroom is. You come to get your shit off, get undressed and go back to normal.”
Four years later, Livingston premiered her landmark documentary Paris Is Burning at Sundance. The film that inspired Madonna’s “Vogue” has only grown in relevance in recent years, fueling a string of zeitgeist-shaping TV smashes like FX’s Pose, which recently aired its series finale, and VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, with its universe of spinoffs. One need look no further than American Idol-style vogueing competition Legendary, currently in its second season on HBO Max, to see just how mainstream — and lucrative — this subculture has become.
Now 63, LaBeija is one of just three surviving subjects of Paris Is Burning. (The other two are Freddie Pendavis, then a beaming young teen; and Sol Williams Pendavis, a former soldier who dons military dress at a ball in the film.) Tragically, most of the rest have succumbed to AIDS, violence or drug addiction. LaBeija appears as a young man in the film, but over the years has dabbled in drag; he says his preferred pronouns are “he, she and me.”
LaBeija’s feelings about fame — or the kind of fame he’s achieved, which never seems to come with a paycheck — are complicated. He has always had a contentious relationship with Livingston, believing she should have paid him for Paris.
His participation in the film began as one of a series of audio interviews. Later, he was filmed at the “Paris Is Burning” ball from which the film got its title. “I am the only character in that entire film in the same outfit,” he says with disdain. Disappointed at how little coverage he was getting, in the summer of 1987 he walked out on a planned interview in front of Livingston’s cameras in Central Park. “I let them set up,” he says. “And then I did a Joan Crawford Strait-Jacket walk right out the park.”
Even without the interview, LaBeija casts a long shadow over the film. An extended monologue taken from the audio interview — a fiery and prescient speech about race and consumption in which he declares, “This is white America” — is used in its entirety in voiceover.
“His ‘This is white America’ riff is one of the most important political anchors for the film,” Livingston, 59, writes in an email. “And for what it meant to walk balls in the mid-’80s, some time before our country could envision and elect a Black president. (As well as some time before representation for queer, trans, and BIPOC characters in film and television would be as ubiquitous as it is now.)”
LaBeija had already signed a documentary appearance release, as had the rest of the cast, “that made it clear they would not be paid,” Livingston writes. Still, because he walked out on his interview, “when we were in postproduction in 1989 or 1990, I got in touch with him to make sure he was OK with us using the ball footage of him and the sound from the audio interviews we did at his apartment,” she continues. “He said, ‘Yes. Go ahead.’
“I’m glad, for the history of the ball world (and of New York in the ’80s) that he said yes!” Livingston says. “Because obviously he’s a brilliant, funny, wise and witty presence throughout the film.”
After the film won a Jury Prize at Sundance and was bought by Miramax, Livingston “made the decision to share a portion of that sale with the main speakers in the film, not because we’d said we would, but because it felt right to do,” she continues. And so she offered to divide $55,000 from the movie’s $250,000 sale among the 13 main participants; several accepted, but LaBeija declined — he felt he deserved more.
The documentary, which was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2016, went on to gross $4 million.
Livingston did reach out with a potential windfall in 2017, however, after FX had greenlit the Pose pilot with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk attached as executive producers. “Jennie sent a long text,” LaBeija says. “She stated, ‘Ryan Murphy is coming to New York for the weekend. He’ll be staying at such-and-such hotel. And we get the opportunity to discuss with him the pilot for Pose. You may be used as a consultant, but that would be a decision that he would have to make.’ “
Recalls Livingston: “I emailed Junior, Sol, Hector [Xtravaganza, a gifted voguer in the film who died in 2018] and Freddie. At that time, the show was not yet called Pose. Ryan Murphy had communicated that he wanted to base a series on Paris Is Burning. I invited Junior, Sol, Hector and Freddie to meet with Ryan. (Ryan had asked to talk to one person, but I thought it was important he consult a multiplicity of voices from the community, and from that time period, as part of his development process.)” LaBeija opted not to show up. But Freddie, Sol and Hector did, and they were each paid a fee to board the project as creative consultants. The trio also appeared in season one of the series, playing ball judges.
“This was the dilemma I was having,” LaBeija explains. “Pose is a Black experience conducted by white leadership.” (That’s only partly true: Murphy and Falchuk are white; Steven Canals, who wrote the pilot and also serves as executive producer, grew up in the Bronx and is Black and Puerto Rican.) Continues LaBeija, “It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with Pose — because it was an opportunity for the trans and ballroom community to come up front and center. But for me, I cannot accept someone else telling my story that I lived.” Nevertheless, he sees his influence all over the show. “That is the essence of me,” he says of Billy Porter’s emcee character, Pray Tell. “Openly gay, Black, male, dark, flamboyant, articulate, witty, shady, all that. ‘The category is …’ Everybody knew right there that’s mine.”
He says he wasn’t surprised when he’d read that Janet Mock, who served as executive producer and director on Pose, blasted producers at the season three premiere at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, saying, “Fuck Hollywood. … It means so much to everyone to ‘ensure that we enable Black and brown trans women to make it’ because that sounds good. … You all have stomped on us.”
Says LaBeija: “She knew she was a god damn token n—a. But when you want to get your foot wet and in the door, you have to tolerate bullshit. … Now, for Janet Mock to wait in a public forum to do what she did, she did what is known as ‘checkmate.’ Now you can’t fuck her — because it’s going to be known as retaliation if you do.” (Mock declined to comment.)
LaBeija has long had a reputation for speaking his mind — it’s what made him such a great ballroom emcee, after all — which has not always served his best interests. After failing to show up to that meeting with Murphy, he never again heard from any of the Pose people — including Porter, whose only interaction with LaBeija was a brief air kiss at a charity event. (“The photo went viral,” LaBeija notes.)
He thinks Legendary is “horrible” and questions what Megan Thee Stallion is doing on the judging panel: “You have this cisgendered superstar sitting there telling you how to do it, when everybody knows you cisgendered superstars copied us. You didn’t invent nothing, sweetie.” On the other hand, he loves Madonna (“an artist”) and is similarly fond of RuPaul (“because he stayed true to his authentic self”). Just don’t expect him as a guest judge on Drag Race: “If you bring me there, there’s no need for them.”
LaBeija was born James Goode Jr. in Harlem in 1957. James Sr. worked in Manhattan as a porter and was a “very strict disciplinarian.” His mother, Darling Goode, believed in “elegance, style, presentation, even down to food and hygiene. That was her way of empowering her family.” There were four children (two others died young), of whom LaBeija was the eldest. He was barely a teen when he came out as gay to his parents. “It threw them a loop,” he says. “They didn’t see the uplift of who I am.” A few years later, his father deserted the family and his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness. It was through knocking on doors and spreading the gospel that the young LaBeija says he found his gift of gab.
At 15, he decided to take a cooking class on a Navy ship, thinking it was a good career path. The ship was docked by the Christopher Street Pier. “I get off at the subway station. I’m baffled because I don’t know which way to go. I’m green as ripe, green tomatoes. I turned around to ask for directions: ‘Excuse me, do you know where the pier is?’ ‘Sure baby. It’s right down this way. I’ll walk with you, darling.’ ” The friendly stranger in a crown of fresh flowers was Marsha P. Johnson, the pioneering trans Black activist who helped ignite the Stonewall riots. Instantly, LaBeija had found home. “I had on a wifebeater and Daisy Duke shorts. I’m bowlegged, built like a Coca-Cola bottle. I’m young and I’m walking down Christopher Street and what clicked in my mind is: ‘Oh — you mean I can sell it?’ “
At just 15, LaBeija — who was enduring beatings at home from his siblings — was declared an emancipated minor by a psychologist at Harlem Hospital and granted a single-room-occupancy apartment by the Human Resources Administration. Around then he was taken under the wing of early ballroom queen Gigi LaBeija, of the House of LaBeija. (That house — and really all of ballroom culture — descends from its founder, Crystal LaBeija. Crystal appears in another seminal drag documentary, 1968’s The Queen, decrying the racism of white-run pageants. She founded the House of LaBeija in 1977 as a means of giving minority drag queens a safe space to compete.)
“I was given the acronym F.I.T.,” LaBeija recalls. “That means ‘f-g in training.’ So that was me. A f-g in training in a house of transgender women.” It didn’t take long before Junior was getting noticed for his one-liners. “They were like, ‘Oh honey, why don’t you try [emceeing]?’ And so I tried it. The only thing I did was describe what I saw in front of me. What you had on, I described it. And I vouched for who looked better. If y’all looked equal, y’all had to battle like they do on Legendary.” LaBeija quickly earned a reputation as the best emcee in the scene. “People came to ball to walk the categories and win their prizes,” he says with a smile. “But they also came to find out, ‘What is Ms. Junior going to say?’ ”
Though he has not touched alcohol or drugs in 25 years, back in the Paris Is Burning days, he was addicted to PCP. “I used to stand in Harlem under the influence of angel dust, and I would chant. Like, people have mantras. And I would chant, ‘I’m going to be the most famous f—t in Harlem.’ And that’s what developed.”
In his late 30s, LaBeija went back to school to earn a social worker’s degree, specializing in working with the severely disabled. He describes one case, a boy with “gorgeous, Lucille Ball red hair” named Adam. “I took him all the way down to the end of the pier and locked his wheelchair and sat there with him.” They stayed there several hours, watching the young dancers pop, dip, spin and vogue against the skyline. “Adam laughed and clapped so long. And I’m feeling the sun on my face. And from that day forward, whenever I would visit him, he would take his hand and put it on my arm and would let me know: ‘I know you’re here. I know who you are.’ “
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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June 11, 2021 at 02:39PM