+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Willie Lee Productions
Actor Willie Baker, a.k.a. “Lablacq Pearl,” has a passion for the performing arts that began around age eight. Perhaps it was inevitable; he comes from a family impassioned by the arts, including uncles, cousins, siblings, and a mom who is a writer.
Baker recalls his first performance from around that age, at the Baltimore event venue Martin’s West, alongside his brothers and sisters, where they recited a rap about education written by their mother. Another major performance that stands out in his memory was for Baltimore City’s mayor—Baker recited another rap that his mother wrote. Momentum kept building from there, as Baker accepted any performance opportunities he could get his hands on . . . or put his feet to.
While a lot of his early performances involved raps his mother wrote, his heart has been in dance—something he’s always done well. As a teen, he joined a church and its band, moving from behind the piano to center stage and traveling to perform, first for small groups, then hundreds. “So many things have happened—wonderful things—just from moving forward and not letting my circumstances dictate to me my outcome.”
He showed his moves in last year’s production of The Full Monty at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. Maybe you’ve already seen Baker: headphones on, a rhythmic fusion of fitness and performance, grooving along for five miles around Annapolis. Dancing is both his entertainment and workout. “The passion for dancing helped me lose 120 pounds,” he says. “I threw down. I’m an entertainer, I take it very seriously.”
He has auditioned several times for American Idol—including the first one, which Kelly Clarkson won. That first experience was challenging but good, his deep, operatic voice standing out among pop-song-perfect vocals and earning him a ticket to the second round. He fondly remembers having to get creative to make it out to the auditions in Seattle. For that, Baker went bold: a decorated box in hand, he door-knocked for donations in exchange for a song and earned some money before a couple at the last house he stopped at bought him a plane ticket for Seattle—they didn’t even have him sing for it.
“I tell you, it never stops,” Baker says, sharing a string of examples of hands reaching to help along his path. He stayed a week in the Northwest and having little money, spent some nights sleeping in the airport. It was there someone stopped him and said, “God told me to give you this,” and handed over close to 50 dollars. Every time Baker was down to his last dollar, someone would step in and give enough for the next leg of his journey. One man followed him out of a store, asking if he was hungry, pulling snacks from a bag. Noting he wasn’t dressed like someone needing help, Baker says, “I’m blown away—I can’t believe this. I was almost in tears.”
Baker, fixated on living his dream, decided to take a chance on something different. Rather than return to Maryland, he continued on to California, where he’d previously gone to college.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Baker got off the bus, let out his hair and changed his clothes to transform his look to what he refers to as “L.A. ready,” meaning looking like a star and ready for any opportunity. He caught a ride out of the bus terminal to seek lodging. Baker wanted to give the driver what little he had. He found money in a different wallet compartment and gave it to the driver, feeling it was meant for him.
“Pushing forward is one of the hardest things to be done, but I’m glad I kept doing it,” Baker says, describing his sometimes unsettled life in pursuit of his dreams.
Baker wasn’t always “Lablacq Pearl.” He went through different incarnations before finding his true expression. His alter ego was born 12 years ago, stemming from rebellion. He felt the church cared more about his sexuality than he did, and he wanted to separate himself from judgment and judging others, a box he couldn’t live in. Baker doesn’t care for titles because he says they divide people, and he supports everyone. Being Lablacq Pearl is freeing, from everything society and its systems said he was supposed to do. The character came, dark and androgynous, a representation of how he felt and wanted to express himself. He got the opportunity to introduce Lablacq Pearl, stepping onstage in costume, wearing a cloak and spooky-finger gloves, during an open mic night at the now-defunct The Whiskey. “It was like being alive in a different kind of way when I went out on that stage and revealed who I really was. Sexuality is not personality,” he says.
As Lablacq Pearl, he’s putting out his essence and soul and wants people to really feel it. People have responded, and it brings something out in others that Baker finds particularly gratifying. People started expressing who they really were around him, confiding those hidden soul pieces. “I really love people and desire to change the world, have people accept themselves how they are—fetishes, wear bright colors, what you like to do, just do it,” he says.
Baker loves community and uplifting people and believes that is what defines entertainment. “I’m about progression and moving forward.” His mission is to foster change by uniting communities. “Hopefully, I can help people identify with who they are instead of the external and leaning on someone else. Whatever hurdle you need to jump over, do it. Break it. Break the wall—break it down.” █