Legends of the Ball

Paris Is Still Burning

** "People don't understand" the continuing importance of the houses, said Andre Collins, DJ at the Bronx's Warehouse and something of a legend himself in the club music underground. "They think it all ended with Paris Is Burning. Those legends—Paris and Pepper and Dorian—are important, but what nobody realizes is that the concept has transferred from one generation to another. Hip hop and r&b has taken a large portion of the ball scene.

"You have to realize," Collins went on, "that, from the onset, there has been a need for gay people to have a unity. Being a homosexual, a lot of these kids have been ostracized, beat up by their families, thrown out of their homes. It's no different now than when I was a kid. Some of these kids are homeless and struggling. They don't know how much talent and ability they have going on. So, if they join a house, they can belong somewhere. They can be part of a team."

Of course, in the old days, those teams were often little more than minisyndicates, each house specializing in a particular crime. There was a time when the children from one well-known house were all expert shoplifters, while those from another ran a credit-card-theft and check-kiting scam. It's a measure of how much things have changed that one of the evening's best-dressed people, Gerald Dupree LaBeija, could point to his costly clothing (Fendi hat and gloves, Vivienne Westwood shirt, suede Helmut Lang trousers) and say, "I bought all of it!"

A self-proclaimed "former professional klepto," LaBeija now considers himself a role model for the next generation of children, hundreds of whom crammed the club on a frigid winter night. "I'm an old-way legend in recovery," said LaBeija. "Four years clean and serene. I don't mop," or shoplift, "anymore because, for one thing, you mop you get locked." Another reason is this: "When Avis Pendavis was dying four years ago, I held her in my hands and that was a wake-up call. Now I get out there and teach these children to practice safe sex and not to do drugs. But I don't just tell them how to live! I show them!" At this, LaBeija sucked in his cheeks, flung his hands in the air, and struck a timeless pose.

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