Tomorrow, HBO debuts a new ballroom competition show called Legendary, which looks something like POSE meets Great British Bakeoff. Drag houses walk a runway, get judged, and vogue week by week towards a fabulous grand prize—but of course, HBO did not invent ballroom, houses, or voguing.
As we wait for the debut episode to drop, now’s a perfect time to dive into some ballroom history. You’ve probably already seen Paris Is Burning, the vital 1990 documentary. But let’s jump back a little further to its predecessor, 1968’s The Queen. Or, if you’re feeling particularly historical, let’s trace the roots of drag balls even further back … to the 1860s.
I’ve been simmering in ballroom history for the last month or two as part of my research for Culture Cruise, a YouTube series where I do a deep dive on LGBTQ milestones in TV and film. This month, I covered The Queen, an absolutely FASCINATING depiction of a 1967 drag pageant that was supposedly going to be sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson and judged by Judy Garland until they found out there were going to be cameras there.
The Queen (available to watch now on Netflix in a gorgeous restoration) captures a pageant in the midst of America’s sexual revolution, but that pageant certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. Going all the way back to the 1860s, New York saw galas like the Odd Fellows Ball in Harlem where people gathered by the hundreds and eventually thousands to dance, compete, and gawk.
Those balls grew in size, as all the best balls do, through the 1920s and ‘30s during a period known as “the pansy craze.” For a few years, queer culture was popular and trendy—see the remarkable gay bar scene in 1932’s Call Her Savage—before a moral panic pushed queer culture into the closet for decades. (Anyone who says that the work of queer liberation is done because gay characters appear in movies now and there’s no going back should remember how easily similar freedoms were undone a century ago.)
The Queen provides a glimpse into the world that preceded shows like POSE and Legendary, and although nobody talks about it in the documentary it’s hard not to notice the racism of the time. The bulk of the film is focused on white performers, but the true story comes at the very end when Crystal LaBeija, one of the few people of color in the pageant, lets loose on the organizers.
“I’m beautiful and I know I’m beautiful,” she hollers, arguing that the crown went to a sub-par performer who just happened to be friends with the pageant organizer. What’s not mentioned in the documentary is the difficulty that people of color had faced in these balls since their earliest days, with contestants expected to lighten their skin and first prize almost always going to white performers.
The cameras stay with Crystal for a few minutes, but then it’s back to Harlow, the fair young performer who won. But Crystal’s journey was only beginning—a few years later, she’d found the House of LaBeija and started organizing events that were inclusive of communities of color rather than being begrudgingly integrated. That led to the explosion of culture captured in Paris Is Burning (and a rebuttal documentary, How Do I Look), as well as POSE and Legendary and whatever comes next.
Legendary looks like it’ll be great fun to watch. But for a full appreciation of how we got here, The Queen is required viewing.