Famous New Yorkers usually fall into one of two categories. The largest group is people known primarily for what they do: titans of industry, artists, athletes.
A smaller group is made up of people who simply are, like heiresses (often the progeny of doers) or scenesters. That’s what Hector Xtravaganza was.
Despite being ubiquitous on the ball circuit for nearly 40 years, Hector did not have the Gumby-like popping and locking abilities possessed by his friend Willi Ninja, who danced for Queen Latifah and helped inspire Malcolm McClaren’s 1989 song “Deep in Vogue.”
Sparkling gowns and saucer-shaped headdresses — the sort that earned Pepper LaBeija 10s across the board from the judges — were never his thing.
But like many local characters, Hector lived a life substantially bigger than the sum of its parts.
Over the years, Hector appeared in advertisements for AIDS awareness. He hosted drag balls around New York and served as a consultant on Ryan Murphy’s “Pose,” a TV series about the 1980s ball scene that has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards this year.
In an Instagram post, Mr. Murphy called Hector Xtravaganza an invaluable contributor to the show, especially the pilot script. “So many scenes,” he said, “were actually inspired from stories he told me.”
Hector’s good looks certainly helped unhook velvet ropes as a young man. So did his association with the House of Xtravaganza, the ragtag collective of night life creatures who battled the Pendavises, Ebonys and Duprees in Harlem for runway supremacy but ruled the roost basically uncontested at downtown clubs.
He was their house father from 1993 to 2003, after which he moved into an emeritus position as grandfather — a fitting role for a guy whose stature always derived principally from kindness and generosity.
He had first sashayed onto the Christopher Street piers in search of approval, community and transcendence sometime in the late ’70s.
That he found and held onto it for roughly 40 years, triumphing over racism, homophobia and H.I.V., without having a high school diploma, speaks to both the magic that exists beside the universe’s injustices and the restorative abilities of cameras, spotlights and microphones on underprivileged pier queens with a penchant for the dramatic.
He believed that his life was an opera and that it would have a happy ending. His favorite phrase was “still moist,” which, translated from the queen’s English, means essentially: “It’s all good.”
He said this even when it flew in the face of facts. One thing Hector wasn’t always was a reliable narrator.
As it happened, Hector Xtravaganza didn’t found the house for which he served as father and grandfather. (That honor belongs to Hector Valle, who conceived it on a PATH train platform in 1982 and who died of AIDS in 1985.)
Most of the early established houses — among them the House of Pendavis, the House of Ebony and the House of LaBeija — were run by black queens. The Xtravas, as they came to be known, were the first predominantly Hispanic house.
Hector Crespo was a founding member, whose back story typified the experience of other kids that joined, at least the gay and cisgender ones.
He was born on July 26, 1965, in Puerto Rico but grew up mostly in Jersey City, near Journal Square.
His mother, who is Puerto Rican, was a hairstylist. He never really knew his father, who was black.
As a child, Hector pretty much went from crawling to “running on his toes,” his sister Eliza Crespo said.
At 10, he started ballet classes at a local dance studio. By 14, he was skipping school and riding the PATH train to Manhattan to hang out on the Christopher Street piers in Greenwich Village, then a mecca for black and Latino L.G.B.T. youth.
“He used to take a string and a piece of tape and put it on a quarter and click it up and down in the turnstile so we could get in for free,” Eliza said. “We would have all these kids going through the turnstile. It was so much fun.”
Until Hector told his mother he was gay and got thrown out of the house.
After that, he dropped out of high school. According to Ms. Crespo, he hadn’t even finished ninth grade.
“We met in the Village,” Tito Villa-Chauvin said. “Down on the pier.”
This was back in 1980, around two years before the birth of the House of Xtravaganza.
Mr. Crespo was 14 and had his hair styled in a pompadour (with lots of gel). He wore a tight Le Tigre polo, canvas skippies and turquoise and white dolphin shorts — and “it was early April,” Mr. Villa-Chauvin said.
“Relight My Fire” was probably blaring from a nearby boombox when Mr. Crespo approached to chat up the guy Mr. Villa-Chauvin was dating. (Unless it was “The Glow of Love.” Those were the two songs then.)
“Hector was pretty flamboyant,” Mr. Villa-Chauvin said. “He had that dancer’s walk. It was unique, to say the least. He was very flirtatious, very bold.”
The misstep could have earned him an enemy. Instead, he got a great friend.
For a time, Mr. Crespo even moved in with Mr. Villa-Chauvin, living with him and his parents at their home on Neptune Avenue in Jersey City.
During the week, Mr. Villa-Chauvin attended high school and Mr. Crespo worked as a sales associate at a store called NuLook Fashions.
On weekends, they attended balls at the Elks Lodge in Harlem, where Mr. Crespo and Mr. Villa-Chauvin walked runway and collected trophies for “Butch queen runway,” “Butch queen face” and “labels, labels, and more labels.” Those were the categories available to beautiful boys who wore men’s clothes and paraded like peacocks.
How did they get their duds? “From mopping” Mr. Villa-Chauvin said. “That’s what it was called.”
First, Hector and Mr. Villa-Chauvin would go to a store like Gimbels and boost shopping bags filled with tissue paper. Then, they would head to Saks, Bergdorfs or Macy’s and drop in clothes by Norma Kamali, Claude Montana and Calvin Klein.
Presto: Dance floor champions were born.
“Paris Is Burning,” released in 1991, was largely responsible for bringing the patois of the ball scene to the culture at large.
That documentary is where Dorian Corey explained what it means to “throw shade,” and “read” another person.
Venus was the princess of the Xtravaganzas. She was an “impossible beauty,” ball-speak for trans girls who pass as women so thoroughly that no one can “spook” that they were born with boy parts.
Michael Cunningham once described her as having a “fashion sense that could cut glass.”
Another thing about Angie was that she was religious about truth and hostile toward facts. For her, honesty was expressly about the choice to manifest desire, to live one’s dreams.
Although she spent her nights performing sex work with men whose sexualities remain difficult to classify, by morning she took her chosen kids to breakfast at the Silver Dollar, a diner in the West Village.
It didn’t even matter that Angie was only nine months older than Hector. “She had a maternal way about her that made you feel important, praised,” Mr. Villa-Chauvin said. “Anybody who asked, Hector was her son.”
This included the trucker type who one night got rough with Hector and called him a faggot.
He got a beat down from Ma X in the middle of the street, while Hector stood watching on the side.
Then she told her progeny what to do next: “Run!”
Most Ebonys, Xtravas and Ninjas gain admittance to their clan by “snatching a trophy.”
Official admissions processes seldom exist, and there is certainly no paperwork to confirm how many members each clan has (the estimates for the House of X range from 85 to 200). “It’s a world of braggadocio,” said Karl Taps, who serves as archivist for the Xtravas despite the fact that there is really no archive.
From 1982 to 1987, the best place to catch the Xtravas was at their clubhouse, the Paradise Garage, an after-hours spot on King Street in SoHo.
Larry Levan’s D.J. booth was where Hector and Tito watched as Grace Jones got it on with one of the bouncers. The roof was where Angie held court, whistling over house children like Venus, Carmen and Danni whose job at the function was to come gossip with mother.
When it shut down in 1987, the cabal moved over to Tracks, in West Chelsea, where the door-person was Coko Xtravaganza and the resident D.J. was David DePino, also an Xtravaganza.
By then, the family had something new to celebrate. A baby named Jose.
Jose Gutierez was a freshman or sophomore in high school when he joined the Xtravaganzas, but was already out-voguing every queen on the circuit, with the possible exception of Willi Ninja. Angie made him a member when she judged a D.C. ball where he won a trophy.
Keeping the baby around was important to everyone. That’s why Coko sneaked him into Tracks so many times, despite that he was underage.
When management clamped down, he would simply head up to the roof of the neighboring building and jump over. Hector was his house brother who stood in wait, operating as his lookout.
Hector gave Jose money to buy drinks and told him he was special. Then, others did too.
Details magazine featured Jose and Angie in a package about ball children. Madonna hired Jose (and another Xtrava, Luis Camacho) to choreograph the video for “Vogue.” After this they served as backup dancers on her Blond Ambition Tour.
Jose had to get a waiver from his mother — the biological one — to go. “I was still underage,” he said.
Like many families, the Xtravas have endured tragedy.
Venus died in 1988, strangled to death in a motel bedroom by a john, most believe. After that, Coko from Tracks descended into the drug trade and spent a decade in prison. (“Attempted murder,” she said.)
It was surreal for Mr. Gutierez. One minute, he was with Madonna in the south of France, playing truth or dare. Seemingly the next he was home in New York, where many of the house mothers who’d appeared in “Paris is Burning” were sick with AIDS.
Beyond being heartbreaking, it was a cruel irony.
For 30 years, the ball scene had existed as an Alice-through-the-looking-glass emulation of privilege and prestige, a temporary escape hatch for kids who by virtue of being born poor, minority, and gay and/or transgender could not do anything more than masquerade at what they wished to become — rich, powerful, successful, accepted.
Now, the movie in everyone’s minds had actually been made but the epilogue was despair and destruction.
Pepper LaBeija hired legal representation and said she’d been “betrayed” by Jennie Livingston, the director of “Paris Is Burning.” She said that promises about money were not kept.
Ms. LaBeija’s rage at the situation was understandable, though there was little evidence to suggest her story was true. (Nor was it common practice to pay feature film documentary subjects for interviews.)
“It was almost like it was so painful to see that nothing comes of being in a documentary, there needed to be a myth that there was deception involved,” Ms. Livingston said this week.
Ultimately, Ms. LaBeija walked away with a few thousand dollars.
Angie didn’t put up a fight.
By 1992, she was covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and her lungs were regularly filling up with fluid. After that, her liver failed, which doctors attributed to, at least in part, her use of black market hormones.
She died the following April and Hector became the house father.
For much of the last two decades, Hector Xtravaganza’s physical home was in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, with a 20-foot-long runway, elevated two feet off the ground, running through the living room.
He seemed to view it as a business expense.
“We didn’t even have furniture,” said Anthony Lopez, his former roommate, who moved in during the mid-90s. “Just a runway and a chaise longue.”
At this point, Hector was H.I.V. positive himself. Sometime around 1996, he barely survived a bout of spinal meningitis. Then, protease inhibitors gave him a reprieve.
In 2003, Hector gave up his position as the house father and moved into his emeritus position as grandfather.
He was so singularly devoted to the role of paterfamilias that he aged himself up to house prospects and journalists who interviewed him. (His self-reported age can vary by nearly a decade.)
“He did not even want to be Hector anymore,” said Jose Disla, a close friend and fellow Xtrava who Hector eventually decided was his “biological cousin.” “He wanted to be grandfather.”
Also: He loved hearing regularly that he looked great for his age.
To earn money, he continued to work retail jobs, scraping together spare coins for balls and lending assistance to Xtravaganzas like Manuel Torres, whom he helped transition from pornography to nursing.
Even when money got tight and Hector moved to a smaller place in the Bronx, he exuded sunshine and optimism. A pier queen Dr. Seuss, his pearls of wisdom included “don’t treat a peep like a punk from the street” and “don’t read the child, teach the child.”
The man could barely contain his excitement when he was asked two years ago to consult on “Pose.”
His motto on set, said Jennie Livingston, who also worked as a consultant on “Pose,” was “‘let me help the kids,’ and ‘let me promote the scene,’ and ‘let me not get into a lot of gossip and drama that obviously attends the whole world but the ball world in some very particular ways.’”
It was hard to completely avoid it. His disinclination toward conflict could frustrate the Xtravaganza’s current father, Mr. Gutierez, especially when Hector sat on a judges’ panel at a ball and didn’t stand up forcefully for a house kid who got “chopped.”
In November 2018, shortly after Hector and the Xtravaganzas were profiled in New York, Hector was honored at an AIDS benefit and was incorrectly credited as the founder of the House of Xtravaganza.
Mr. Gutierez was enraged that he didn’t do more to correct the error and spent weeks letting Hector know it.
By then, Hector’s health was failing, though he told few friends about it. Having barely survived the worst of the AIDS years, he seemed to believe he had another shot of bouncing back, at least for a time. He also told people who saw him in the hospital: “If I get to stay, great. If I go, I get to see Angie.”
This last week, Mr. Gutierez felt guilty, wishing he’d known his friend was sick.
He also seemed to know that what he would miss most was having a foil, someone to play diplomat to his warrior. “I’m just sad that he won’t be here to have another fight with me,” Mr. Gutierez said. “Because I loved him so much.”
By JACOB BERNSTEIN