The Extravagant Life of Hector Xtravaganza

Famous New Yorkers often fall into one of two classes. The largest group is individuals recognized primarily for what they do: titans of trade, artists, athletes.

A smaller group is made up of individuals who merely are, like heiresses (usually the progeny of doers) or scenesters. That’s what Hector Xtravaganza was.

Despite being ubiquitous on the ball circuit for practically 40 years, Hector didn’t have the Gumby-like popping and locking talents possessed by his pal Willi Ninja, who danced for Queen Latifah and helped encourage Malcolm McClaren’s 1989 track “Deep in Vogue.”

Sparkling robes and saucer-shaped headdresses — the type that earned Pepper LaBeija 10s throughout the board from the judges — had been by no means his factor.

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 mostlyin 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.

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,” she said.

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.”

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