In this interview, Icon Egypt Labeija recalls her introduction to the ballroom scene and negotiating her survival. She also discusses care from other femme queens and how that impacted her role in activism at the Audre Lorde Project.
Victor UltraOmni: So please say your name and spell it please.
EL: Egyptt Labeija. E-G-Y-P-T-T Capital L-a-b-e-i-j-a
EL: Can you give us your name and any other identities you want to claim on camera. And when you arrived in New York City after that.
EL: I was born in New York. um In a place called Long island which is another country. um and then I moved to New York City at the age of 19.
VUO: Please explain your a first memory of a ball.
EL: My first movie ever ball was in the early 90s. A good friend of mine said let’s go to a ball which I had no clue what it was. So we went to this place it was in Harlem. And This experience when you walk in the door. It’s amazing. You see. all the LGBT community people in one room participating for a trophy. But it’s so much love. The costumes, the performances, it was just absolutely amazing. To the point where was like I like this and I want to do this. So it takes me way back
VUO: When did you first get involved with the house of Labeija? .
EL: I’ve been with the house of Labeija for five years now. They had a meeting and had wanted me to come to join. Which is actually an honor to me to be asked to join, the royal iconic House that started all the ballroom.
VUO: What are some of the dyanmics that you have heard about from the house scene in the 1980s?
EL: The dynamics basically is when you come into a house you come into the house for a purpose. um it’s not just only to be in balls to participate. It’s a family. um Because back in those days a lot of families did not accept if you were gay, if you were to be trans. It just was unheard of. So a lot of kids were thrown out of their homes so a house was like your Home. That why they call it a house. And the dynamics were basically mothers took care of the kids. Because originally there were no Fathers it was just Mothers.
VUO: How do you feel like history has circulated about the pioneers of ballroom to you?
EL: How does… Say that again?
VUO: How do you feel like ballroom history has gotten passed down to you?
EL: It’s gotten passed down to me because like I said, I’ve been to a lot of balls. And you just listen. And when you surround yourself with ballroom people. They talk about it because it is a part of history that needs to be talked about. um Because I know a lot of the original pioneers. That I’ve talked to them about it. They’ve schooled me. They told me the do’s and don’ts when it comes to ballroom.
VUO: What did that schooling look like?
EL: The schooling means. When it’s time to walk a ball. If you don’t know what you’re doing you have to ask. Mothers back then were very strict. Because you are representing a house. And you cannot go out there looking wrong. Because it get back to them. It’s a battle. It’s what you call the survival of the fittest. So you have to just listen because if you don’t listen they scold you just like a real mother would,=.
VUO: What did they tell you about the early days of ballroom?
EL: The early days of ballroom was basically about the feminine perspective. um it was about the glamour the feathers the beads. Who was realer than this one. Who’s body was better.
EL: Who could walk more like a model. um So it taught you basically how to live your life as a woman every day but just with a little extra.
VUO: What role did you think the balls played in the 1980s?
EL: The balls basically taught you how to be yourself. Don’t be afraid of who you are.um It shows you how community can come together in the worst times. Because. it wasn’t easy for people of color to do anything. Doors were shut. So when ballroom came out it was for us too. It was a night for us to be who we wanted to be and how we wanted to be and there was nobody to judge us but ourselves.
VUO: Do you have any other memories with the four pioneering Mothers?
EL: Dorian, Avis, Andy I mean Angie and Pepper. Were all very strict mothers and they were the ones who put ballroom where where it is because without them there would be no houses. um I actually met all of them. Dorian used to make my clothes. She made clothes for me back then. And she’s very funny, she’s a very funny woman. Avis also made clothes for me we worked together we’ve done lots of shows together at a place called Blues in New York City. And it was just the way they treat you, the way they talk to you. As a person, they always want to make you feel like you were someone you are somebody no matter what no one else says. I believe in you. And so go for it if there’s a problem you always came to them, one of them would help you. And even if you weren’t in one of their houses if you knew them you could always talk to them.
VUO: Do you have any memories in particular you want to share?
EL: I remember the first time I ever met Dorian
Was at a place called the Anville. I got booked there to do a show. And I’m supposed to Diana Ross. And I came in I did my makeup what I thought was made up. And I’ve already heard about her but you know you hear things but you have to once you meet a person its completely different. So I’m sitting in the dressing room and she looks at me and says uh sweetie you have to get yourself ready for the show. And I said I am ready. And she she said “No you’re not.” And she looked at the rest of the girls and this is “Oh we have one.” And I was petrified. What are they going to throw me out because I’m done the way they’re done? But what they did was there was six girls in the dressing room and each one took a different part of me and got me together. The hair, the makeup, the lashes, the dresses they all put me together to make me look like I was supposed to. And that was one of the best memories I have, especially with the iconic people That we talk about today.
VUO: um. Are there any stories that they made sure you knew going forward in the ballroom?
EL: Basically that any stories that they’ve told me was about it’s hard and it is a competition. So when you go out there you have to do your best. Do research. Study videos. It. They had camcorders back then and you could always go find a video somewhere and they always see the practice. Practice makes perfect.
What is your opinion on Paris is Burning?
Paris is burning. It’s a good documentary. um. There are a lot of parts that are left out, that are not put in there. There are a lot of people that were not in it because they didn’t want to sign the contract. Jennie Livingston did what she did with a low budget but made millions on it. I don’t think it was fair to some of the people. Because once the money came to her she should of gave it out to the people who made the movie. You know, you made something underground that we were so proud of and you put it on a platform. That you didn’t give us recognition for
VUO: What do you feel like was left out?
EL: About the heartache that came along with the ballroom. Ballroom it’s a beautiful thing. But it hurts sometimes when you go out there an you do what you and you don’t feel like it was enough. Or the judges chop you. No I don’t see it. It hurts. The don’t show those parts. um. They don’t show the parts where people who cannot make clothes. What they had to do to get all the stuff they needed for the balls they left all that out. um They left a lot of parts about how judges, judge each contestant. So there’s a lot they left out. That’s been put put in other documentaries but that one they just left they left you wanting more. Cause you have to ask a lot ask still about the movie.
VUO: How did the HIV/AIDS epidemic impact the ballroom in the 80s? What did you hear?
EL: So in the 80s when the AIDS epidemic hit um there were a lot of ballroom kids that were sick. They still walked balls they were sick and then a lot of them had passed away. In impacted because a lot of the Pioneers the people who worked hard to get what we call their status they were dying. And back then they didn’t have the medications they have now. So it really hurt. Because all of these people that are now gone I’m going because in Paris is Burning, you might have 5 to 10 people that’s still alive. Maybe. So it hurts because none of these people are hear to actually talk about what actually happened how they got through the balls. How they dealt with their friends their sisters and brothers passing away.
VUO: Can you tell me any of the stories that you’ve heard?
EL: Well. I have a friend. Well actually have a friend who was in those balls she wasn’t in the movie the Paris is burning. But she got sick during the um ballroom scene in the 80s. And she used talked to me about “I can’t do it. I can’t do it because I’m in pain. But I have to do it because this is all I have left.” And to hear her say that it hurts, I don’t want to bring her name up. But she used to cry to me about how ballroom was the only thing that she had to keep her going because she knew she was not going to live long. So she pushed hard to make a name for herself in ballroom.
VUO: Did you hear the House of Latex? How do you feel that it impacted the ballroom?
EL: The House of Latex when they decided to get involved in ballroom it was basically for protection because they wanted people to use condoms. So they got involved for good reason. um. Which today is one of New York’s biggest balls. Um. It helps ballroom because at that particular ball the Latex Ball, what they do is they promote safe sex in order for people to live longer. Which is what we all want.
VUO: Do you feel houses as if the houses um responded to the epidemic in the 80s?
EL: Actually not really, because we didn’t know too much about it. It just happened. um Try to make people comfortable but that’s all you can do is just talk to them and try to make them comfortable. It impacted the ballroom scene because there were so many people getting sick. And every time you turned around somebody else was passing away. So it did it did a lot of damage. So you had to just regroup.
VUO: What role do you feel like femmequeens played in the establishment of the ballroom scene?
EL: They played the biggest role because in the beginning of ballroom it was all feminine. There was no masculine in it all because it was for the female figure to do what she had to do. um And that why it became. That’s why each House it was a Mother. um. Because you have to have a structure and. The female figure was the best way to show.The next generation on how to become your best potential.
VUO: Mhm. What do you think about voguing as?
EL: Voguing is… a part of art because they took, they look in vogue magazine and they saw poses. And that’s how it originally started because you just stuck a pose while you were doing whatever you’re doing on the runway. Then it became a dance. um. It has evolved from slow movements to dramatic. um And there’s so many different types of voguing you have, you have old way, you have new way, you have butch queen vogue femme. You have dramatic. So it take. Each generation brings the own new thing into it. That’s what makes it so great.
VUO: Can you talk to me more about Old Way?
EL: Old way is the the original. Where it was slow and graceful. Where when it was time for you to do a spin, you spin like a ballerina and you went into graceful dip on the floor. um It was more points to it where your arms, your legs, your poses was more like a magazine pose.
VUO: Um What else do you want people to remember about the 1980s ballroom scene?
EL: What I want people to remember is that it is a way of life. The way we get together in a ballroom is our day to shine. There are a lot of people that live their life through ballroom. And the history that comes with it.um. How it started. The reason why it started so that we as a community can have a place for us that nobody can take from us. Um People need to understand that this is history ballroom is history. That one day especially with this interview people will understand exactly what ballroom represents. Again, it was an underground thing. Where we just…it was required.
EL: Because society wasn’t ready for it and it was something that we could do on our own. You know because to get a ball together is a lot of work. You have to get the venue you have to come up with categories. You have to come up with tropies. You have to come up with cash. And to do for one person to get all that together it’s a lot. And I take my hat off to all the pioneers that started it. Because back in those days I don’t think I could have done it. A lot of people couldn’t have do it. That’s why it started off small. and then people started getting sponsors and.. It got popular and now everybody wanted to do it. It started in New York in Harlem. And today ballroom is throughout this world. They have it in China, Mexico, Italy. I mean it’s everywhere.
VUO: Did you hear um stories about the first Mother’s were able to do it in the 80s?
EL: First Mothers?
VUO: How the Pioneers managed the 80s?
EL: [00:00:20] How the Pioneers managed was through prayer and just on a whim. Because you had to… the Mothers back then it was rivalry but not hateful rivalry. It was my girls are better than yours. And in order to make my girls better than yours I have to groom them. To listen to a lot them, cause like I said knew a lot of them. I knew Angie, I knew Dorian, I knew Avis, I knew all of them. And the way that they used to manage was just take it one day at a time. It was a vision that they saw and that they wanted. To make not just something of ballroom but of the kids that’s in ballroom. Because a lot of them they had a rule, if you’re going to be in this house you have to go to school, you have to go to work. You have to do something with yourself.
VUO: What are somethings you remember about Pepper Labeija?
EL: Pepper was shady as hell. But her shade wasn’t a nasty shade her was only because she wanted the best the best for her kids. And she wanted the best for ballroom. The first time I ever met her, she just looked at me and says “You’re cute, now move away. Because she didn’t know me at that point. When she she said it she did it with a laugh, so it wasn’t like she was being um disrespectful. um And I think she did just to see how much I could take, or if I was one of those poor people that just crawls up in a cornerand disappears. Because Pepper made you strong. Because ballroom you have to be strong. So if you could deal with her little subtle stuff then you’re not ready. And if she likes you she is still come at you to make you ready.
VUO: How did femmequeens make it to the balls in the 90s?
EL: What do you mean how did they make it? like get to it?
VUO: Like avoid harassment?
EL: How did they get to the balls?
EL: To get to a ball most of the time you caught a cab or depending on if you had money you would catch a cab… or if you didn’t have money you just get on the train. A lot of times there was a lot of ridicule on the trains because you’re coming your face is made up. You have on these outfits. Cause a lot of back then you came to the ball in your outfit you didn’t change. Unless it was a category that you needed to change for. But most of the time already came to balls all glammed up. And in New York City riding on a subway or a bus to go to a ball. It was easier to go to a ball than to go home. Because going… it was late. So you can sneak out of the house because there’s a lot of kids that still live with parents. So you had to sneak out and look one way and then change on the train or around the corner from the house.
VUO: What are some of the most iconic moments that you’ve heard about from the ball scene in the 1980s?
EL: How dramatic the categories were. um The categories back then everything had to be creative, it wasn’t something that you just went to the store and bought. You had.. they would come up with categories with say the Little Mermaid. We’ll use that. That means you have to look like a mermaid. They would come in fish tanks. There were people they used to walk inside big balloons. There were people that used to jump off the balconies. During the performance they were start on the balcony and jump off. I remember one person I knew he jumped off the balcony and broke his leg, but he kept going until he got his trophy. um It was just how people come in… with like Pepper used to come in she was on… she was Egyptian… and she had a complete entourage come in with her. So those were the best days because it was more creativity in it than it is today.
VUO: We’re a lot more categories establish in the 80s?
EL: No. It wasn’t a lot more. There’s more categories, now in the 80s you might have had maybe 12 categories. So today you’ll have 22 categories or 42 categories. And the reason they didn’t have as many is because each category took a while, and there was a lot of contestants for those categories. So they had maybe 12 to 15 categories at the most at those balls.
VUO: What are anything else that you’ve heard about ballroom in the 1980s?
EL: So in the 1980s what I will say is that we stuck together, because if um some guys would try it. It could be one and he came at one person. He used to get beat up. Because we were family. um. We used to carry hammers, ice picks, and blades. You know we had used it because like I said we would come out in all of these costumes and you had to protect yourself. um that’s why it’s called a house because if you mess with one, you mess with them all. I was…in the 80s I wasn’t there but I heard stories and then it followed down by the time I came into the ballroom scene. I have gone to ball Before and they started fighting on the way to the ball because some guys came at them because of all the glitz and grammaer. things. The guys got beat up because… there’s a lot that go with it. And the police came because they got beat up. And you see back then they didn’t believe we have the rights that we have today. So sometime we got locked up. up for self defense. Which wasn’t… it wasn’t happy. But things happen then we learned how to get around there. You just do and you throw it away.
VUO: How do you feel like houses interacted with the police in the 1980s?
EL: Ok. So there’s things where the police were involved. I have to be honest. You know a lot of the outfits that people wore were stolen. And people would go to these big department stores, break windows, hide in the closet before it closes, and they would literally go and get these clothes. And when they’re missing the police figured it out. On where they’re going because balls became popular but they were still underground. And the police you know because you have a flyer and you put the flyer out all over the place police could see it. And they go to this ball. And they lock you up because it’s already been reported stolen. There were some police that were nice. They would just say you know we we’re just going to take it and you go. But that was so far in between. um. The police really didn’t bother you at a ball per se unless they were there looking for a stolen item. After a while they actually were helpful. Because they would come in to the balls, the detectives because they needed to see what was going on. They knew we had to be protected so to speak. Becaus there were guys that would to the balls that would try to rob.. and beat the girls up. Not that it was successful but they would try. um. And then after enough complaining to the police about this is what is going on. They started parking outside. And You know so it took time for it to get to where it is.
VUO: Where or what clubs were the balls held at in the 80s?
EL: In the 80s. Everything was happening here in Harlem. Theyhad it at. God I can’t remember the names of these places. I’m having a brain freeze right now.Um.
VUO: No worries we can move on.
EL: Yeah cause right now I have all the names in my head I just can’t remember them.
VUO: It’s alright
VUO: um. How do you feel you’re time in the ballroom has been shaped by the femme queens before you?
EL: My time in the ballroom was shaped by them because they showed me how to do it. Because ballroom was set up for a specific reason. And the feminine aspect of it is that they sit and they talk to you. And some time they would light you up because if you don’t listen it defeats the whole purpose to them talking to you. um. They show you how to reach your next potential. Because you could start out as nobody in ballroom but you keep going and you keep going. You ask questions you watch you learn and you build yourself up in the ballroom scene.
VUO: How did the balls end up in Harlem in the 1980s?
EL: Because that’s where Pepper gave it, which is in a bowling alley if I’m not mistaken. She just went to a bowling alley and she rented it. And after a while the bowling alley was too small. So they had to find other places to do balls in Harlem because that’s where the trans community was in Harlem. So that was easy for the trans women to get to, it was easier and safer.
VUO: Do you know anything about the trans community in Harlem at that time?
EL: No. I’ve heard stories but I couldn’t tell you precise how it was. You had Harlem girls and you had Brooklyn girls. Because that’s where it was Harlem in Brooklyn. And that’s how basically balls really started. My borough is against your borough. But because it started in Harlem um it just stayed there until years later and then started doing it in different borough.
VUO: Do you have any memories of Avis Pendavis?
EL: Yes. Me and Avis… I met Avis at a ball. And she said…I wasn’t walking I was just there with a friend of mine. And She said she’s so cute. She said “Are you walking?” I said “No.” And then I winded up seeing her at a place called Blues. We were both working there at the same time. That’s when I originally became a Pendavis. Back then.I walked a few balls. And then I get scared, and I left. The entire ballroom scene. I was there but just quiet. Because I didn’t feel that I could reach the potential that they were, that they wanted me to go to. So I just said “No I’ll stay back here. I’ll stay back with psychosis. It’s nice to be back here. And then I just got out. Until recently, then I got back out and I came in hard. So it’s a lot of work. And it’s only because… I’m able to do what I do now. Is because of all the memories and what I learned from Avis, Dorian, Pepper. All the things that they taught me today I’m ready to face everything.
VUO: How did they prepare you?
EL: Just by encouraging me. Pushing me for greatness. Always making me feel that I am somebody, I’m important. And if you want something in life. You have to go for it. You can’t let people tell you’re not worthy or you’re not good enough. If they do you work harder because in life, real life people are going to tell you you’re not good enough for something. So they make sure that’s in your head that you’re worthy, you’re wonderful. It doesn’t matter what someone else is wearing with they’re doing. You can do better if you don’t get it this time there is a next time. Just don’t give up.
VUO: How you stay in contact with all of them?
EL: The clubs and bars. You know, just you being out you see them. I’m going to Avis house to get some things made, I’m going to Dorian’s house to get somethings made. Pepper’s I used to just see her at the balls and the clubs.
EL: Did you know Angie Xtravaganza?
EL: I met her. I met her at a club called Escuelita. And I knew her from the Pier in the village.
VUO: Can you talk to me about the Pier?
EL: The Pier is… It brings back a lot of memories because when I first came to the pier… I came down there with a friend of mine.. Because From where I lived in Long Island we didn’t have all that. So when I came down there I was like wow this is wierd. um. There were cars parked and there was buildings . And people used to come down here to vogue and read. And I… it scared me. Because I don’t want. I can’t do this for these people. They don’t know me so I have to stay up the in a corner because somebody’s going to curse me out. So I didn’t say anything to anybody right away. And then the morning came and I met people. And in this life style that we live in. You have to learn to read in order to survive. If you can’t read. You just don’t get lit up. Because it you can’t read you’re not going to feel like anything. And it’s just a kiki for us.
VUO: What other experiences did you have at the Pier?
EL: I used to live on the pier years ago. I have to put that in there. Because when I left my parents house I had nowhere to go. So I lived on the Pier. I had to make money on the Pier. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. It’s just a part… it’s just a part… it’s the experience I had to go through. But going through all of the homelessness and the drugs and the prostitution. It made me a stronger person. So today I can…I’m still here because the Pier taught me how to live.
VUO: How many other people were living on the pier at that time?
EL: Oh my god. At the time I was there it was about 50. Stretched through out the whole Pier.
VUO: Do you know when people first began living there?
EL: Longbefore I did. I couldn’t really get time but they were there. A lot of times you didn’t see them because they’d hide. You didn’t want people to see that youhave no place to live. So the only time you actually know that they werehomeless if you were out there 24 hours a day. Because sometimes if you justhang out hanging out you might be just tired from the night before you mightlay down. And just rest on a bench or on the grass. But that was the onlyoption.
VUO: What do you think the Pier represents today?
EL: A new age. And there’s still homeless people that sleep on the Pier today. They have gentrified it too. Now it’s called a park not a Pier.
EL: But it’s not the same because the love that was down there is not there because they pushed everybody away.
VUO: Can you tell me more about that love?
EL: When you came down to the peer you felt love from one end to the other end you always knew somebody. And if you didn’t know somebody, somebody was always speaking to you. um It was like going to a family park. Like when you go to a picnic… that what it was like. But it was everyday. It’s like you’d go down there at any given time and there was somebody that was down there you can laugh. There was music. It was a party, an outside party every day.
VUO: Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
EL: That the Pieris a place where people practice to Vogue. The pier is Home. um it made Houses come together. It was a place where you can come and be yourself without anybody judging you on the outside.
VUO: Can you tell me more about that?
EL: When you camedown to the Pier. It was houses. It was the LGBT community area where you couldbe yourself. um the only people that would judge you is the people that you’re coming down to mess with. The outside world were outsiders down there. um.They were statistic in the village because we were ruled. It was our place. um.We didn’t have to worry about the police that much because that was our haven.It was a safe haven for the LGBT community.
VUO: What else would you want people to know about ballroom in the 1980s?
EL: Ballroom in the 1980s was an outlet for the the trans feminine women to be who they want to be. It was a place where you didn’t have to worry about not being who you wanted to be.Um.If you didn’t suceed the first time you always come back and try it again. And again. And again. Because It was there for you. It was there for us. It was made by us and there for us.
VUO: And then my last question is can you tell me a little more about the advocacy you’ve done in your life?
EL: Okay. Ihave, I went to a school called trans justice community to school that was given by the Audre Lorde Project. I didn’ tknow what I was getting myself into. Um. But this school taught me that I havea mouth. And I can speak for others that can’t speak. If I see something to say something. So going to school it opened my eyes to a lot of laws that we had a lot of possibilities that the community has itself. So going to the school I wound becoming the coordinator for trans justice at the Audre Lorde Project. I also became an advocate for Housing Works. Going to Albany to petition laws and policies. I have gone to Albany for homeless trans people of color to make a point that we are people too. And thatI do have a voice. I can speak. And. You’re going to listen. And all this I have to say is because ballroom made me not fear the unexpected.
VUO: Alright well thank you so much.
EL: Thank you!