Pepper's gone

And the paper of record remembers her.

Pepper [LaBeija] was the last of the four great queens of the modern Harlem balls; Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey and Avis Pendavis all died in recent years. These four exuded a sort of wild expressionism that might make Las Vegas showgirls seem tame.
LaBeija was the last name used by all members of the House of LaBeija, the group of performers Pepper led.
When Pepper LaBeija was not onstage, she was William Jackson of the Bronx, who sometimes dressed as a man.
But to the younger members of the house, for whom there was no other family, she was "mother;" the others were the "children."
Miss LaBeija had diabetes, which had led to the amputation of both feet, and had been bedridden for most of the last decade. She last performed at a ball in 2001, when 30 attendants delivered her on a litter to the crowd's jubilation.

"Her specialty was the Egyptian effect," Marcel LaBeija said.

Pepper LaBeija was a legend to the members and patrons of the Harlem ball scene, a world of extravagant make-believe that crosses sexual boundaries and that was chronicled in "Paris Is Burning," directed by Jennie Livingston. In an interview, Ms. Livingston spoke of Pepper's "glamorous bravado" that stood out in a flock of Marilyn Monroes.

The public also glimpsed the ball scene in a Madonna video that featured voguing, a highly stylized and posed dance form used in the balls. Voguing was also featured at the Love Balls, which were held at Roseland in 1989 and 1990 and drew top fashion industry figures.

Though men have long dressed as women for many reasons, the modern institution of the Harlem ball began around 1960, said Marcel LaBeija, who is writing a book on the subject. The idea was to give gay blacks and Hispanics a place to dress up and perform. An earlier circuit for drag performers had been geared to white people, and black performers had sometimes whitened their faces to fit in.

The Times does it very right sometimes.
For most of her life, Miss LaBeija's world was the balls. Marcel said that Pepper supported herself by producing them and by teaching modeling.

In an interview with The Village Voice in 2000, Miss LaBeija said her life had grown more ordinary, and called herself an "old-way legend in recovery." Without mentioning her disabled status, she volunteered that she had even given up shoplifting designer clothes, called "mopping" by performers who rely on the practice.

"You mop, you get locked," she explained.

Pepper is survived by her mother, a son and a daughter.

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Published on May 26, 2003 11:20 PM.

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