Crystal LaBeija, the first ballroom mother, walked offstage at a 1967 pageant competition after falling third runner-up to white contestants, yet again. In a backstage video, LaBeija was captured delivering incisive remarks on the racism and misogynoir of the pageant industry. "That’s why all the true beauties stayed home," she said, in reference to the white pageant contestant, who had taken the crown.
Bringing the true beauties to center stage where they belong, photographer Myles Loftin’s True Beauties is a living legacy. Many cite LaBeija’s pageant walk-out as the birth of ballroom, with Crystal going on to found the seminal House of LaBeija alongside Lottie LaBeija in 1972. From there, their legacy was established as a safe haven and celebration for queer people of color.
To Loftin, ballroom has been "a beautiful space for queer people of color to find themselves and find community," throughout history. In recent years, it has transformed into "a stepping stone for people to pivot into doing bigger things," he says. "There’s opportunity for people to turn this into something legendary."
Loftin’s exploration of ballroom began during his senior thesis, where, in photographing queer people in Miami, he met a friend of a friend whose father happened to be the house father for the House of LaBeija. As often goes in the ballroom community, Loftin found his way in through a network of people 'in the know' and was embraced upon arrival. After attending a meeting for the Miami chapter of the House of LaBeija, Loftin was asked to join and has been a member ever since.
Loftin was inspired to dedicate an entire project to the history of the House of LaBeija. Ballroom structures are built around family, with house mothers and fathers; and as the mother of ballroom itself, Crystal LaBeija's legacy extends beyond her own life, through the work of her children and the lineage of the greater LaBeija family tree.
True Beauties brings the modern LaBeija's to life. "One thing that I was really trying to drive with this project is that ballroom isn’t something that died out in the ‘90s," Loftin says. "People are still going to balls. It’s still happening, and that’s something that a lot of people aren’t necessarily aware of despite the mainstream attention to it, and they may not understand the whole culture."
In a series of shoots soundtracked by the likes of Azealia Banks and Cakes Da Killa, Loftin invited members of LaBeija’s New York Chapter to pose and perform for portraits to connect the house of today to its past, using a red backdrop and medium format film to evoke the strength and power of the history wrapped up in the House, alongside black-and-white portraits to refocus on the individuals that make it up.
“The energy on set was just amazing,” Loftin says. “It felt like family... everyone styled themselves, which was really cool because, initially, I was thinking of having a stylist bring some clothes, but having them decide what they wanted to wear and make their own looks was a testament to ballroom culture, because a lot of people don’t have a lot of money, but they're showing up to these balls with these looks they’ve put together and that DIY style and still look incredible.”
Among the incredible looks turned in True Beauties is Junior LaBeija, a pioneer of the house in the '80s and '90s who features in Paris is Burning, and a portrait of today’s Crystal LaBeija in a tiara, referencing her namesake forebearer.
"It’s really an honor to be able to photograph and show the legacy of the house of LaBeija, and the legacy of ballroom,” Loftin says. “One of the photos that is probably my favorite is a photo of Krystal LaBeija. I think it’s a beautiful portrait of her and tells a story to me. It shows her strength and confidence, and is a really powerful shot of her. Obviously, her name is Krystal LaBeija, and Crystal was the person who founded the house, so there’s a connection there.”
Loftin’s own relationship to ballroom has been built over time; since his introduction in 2019, he’s attended countless balls and is gearing up to walk for “Schoolboy Realness” in the upcoming Latex Ball, having come too late for the category in February of this year. Though, we can assure you, his LaBeija, “L” varsity jacket, Noah hoodie and black skinny jeans would’ve done 10's across the board.
“The energy is always amazing,” Loftin says, recounting his first ball experiences. “I don’t know if I remember the exact first one. I think I went to The Coldest Winter Ever in 2020 at Knockdown Center in Queens. Just the energy of everyone getting dressed, you really get to see how much preparation and involvement there is. There’s so much talent and, not just artistic talent, but athletic ability that’s involved.”
Now, in preparation for the opening of True Beauties at NYC's Galerie Kitsuné from June 9 through July 3, Loftin hopes to take the project further in the future. “I want to expand to shooting other chapters. There’s a chapter in Paris, LA and Colorado, so there’s a lot of opportunities to document other people who are part of the international House of LaBeija.”
Photography: Myles Loftin