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Drag Legend Heklina On Glamour, Realness, and the Work That Goes Unseen

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Heklina. (Jose Guzman-Colon)

‘Backstage Heroes’ is a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly — where her ‘Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts — giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.

“Everything, if you look at it in an abstract way, is drag,” said San Francisco drag legend Heklina in an interview last year. “Every time I go downtown during the day and see all the people in business attire, I think of it as drag.”

When I first read that interview, I thought of the flip side of Heklina’s statement: In an abstract way, what isn’t drag? I was reminded of the phrase “residual self-image,” a term taken from The Matrix’s eerie digital ’90s otherworld, in which everyone appears exactly as they wish to appear. The characters in it dress way better than their real-world counterparts.

In a sense, I think Heklina has just applied a duality to us all. Your false, fun, ephemeral sense of self, or the mundane one in a baggy sweater — which is the real one? Is Mark Zuckerberg in drag? What is “real” anyway? Drag queens think about these questions all the time: the definition of “realness,” and whether it’s even desirable.

For our interview, I’ve come to a nightclub during the day, entering a cold hotspot to talk to the offstage and “out-of-face” version of an enterprising queen. My first question is who it is I’m interviewing, exactly, at first guessing the male-sounding Icelandic birth name that’s easy to find online.

Heklina in "boy drag
Heklina in “boy drag.” Photo by John Whelan.

I’m wrong. I’m interviewing Heklina, who has a complicated (or would that be a simple?) relationship between the person onstage and the person who’s bartending tonight, wigless. I press the division further with a question about what “you” do to support “her.” I’m wrong again.

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“She’s not a her — it’s just me,” says Heklina. “Everyone calls me Heklina, whether I’m in boy drag or not.” I begin to understand: Although different in presentation, today’s male-bodied person in gym shoes and the glittering persona out on the boards are one and the same.

Aside from these complexities, the person I’m interviewing is in some ways a bar owner first, and a busy one. Heklina-in-boy-drag co-owns Oasis, a 6,000 square-foot theater, cabaret, and club on 11th and Folsom in San Francisco. She does booking, she manages, she produces, and she’s a performer, of course. She no longer staples posters onto telephone poles or shops for outfits, as she did for a dozen-plus years at her long-running punk-at-heart drag night Trannyshack.

“These are all the things that people don’t see,” she tells me, “all the things that have to get done.” Today, she employs a team of the unseen: dressmaker Tria Connell, social media person Daniel Adams, stage manager Bobby Barber, poster-poster Gareth Gooch, and wig designer Robert Fernandez. If it’s true, as she says, that “I’m in it for the money! I’m one of the few people who’s able to make a living entirely off doing drag and performing,” then she’s also made sure that Oasis functions as the rare rising tide that actually lifts other boats.

The first time I visited the newly opened Oasis last year, a friend grabbed me by the elbow and guided me through the wing curtains at the side of the stage. I resisted, slightly, not sure I was allowed back there. But of course I wanted to see what the dressing room looked like, and I was amazed at what I saw.

“Somebody can literally come in through the back entrance, go backstage, get ready, and come onstage, never having been seen,” Heklina tells me. “It’s totally self-contained. We have a sink back there, we have a bathroom … We just got brand-new mirrors put in there, because the other ones were kind of too high, you couldn’t really get a full-body look.” It’s a magnificent palace of a backstage, its mirrors surrounded by large, soft, kind incandescent bulbs, its doorways wide enough for wheeled racks. It’s beloved from here to New York City, in fact.

Heklina in not-boy-drag.
Heklina in not-boy-drag. Photo by Jose Guzman-Colon.

“It is very clear that Oasis’s dressing room was designed by performers,” says Lady Bunny, New York’s star of stage and screen, who performed her cabaret show “Pig in a Wig” at Oasis this past November. “So often, that is not the case and we find ourselves several floors away from the stage. Which doesn’t make a quick change very easy! Oasis’s backstage is spacious, clean and has plenty of well-lit mirrors to accommodate either a large cast or a solo performer like myself who’s fond of massive coiffures.” (It couldn’t fix everything, sadly: “I didn’t see a steamer back there, though. So I was forced to go onstage with my face covered in wrinkles. Humiliating!”)

“Backstage” continues to fascinate me, as a physical space as well as an abstract idea. We all need private space in which to compose our exact selves, don’t we? Whether those selves are the real ones or the fancy ones, whether we are drag queens, mere life-sized women, or software developers. But how does Heklina, and how should we, negotiate between onstage and off? After all, as Lady Bunny pointed out, sometimes we don’t get enough time outside the public eye, or maybe there’s something about ourselves that doesn’t, and never will, square with our residual self-image.

In the eyes of a queen named after an active stratovolcano once known as the “Gateway to Hell,” it’s actually fairly simple. “When I put on a wig and all that stuff,” Heklina says, “it’s just an extension of me. My personality gets amplified a little bit.”

This is complicated somewhat as we walk outside, and she casts a business-owner’s eye, a practiced eye, over the sidewalk, slightly annoyed in advance by whatever fresh hell this afternoon may bring. As if on cue, a giant piece of cardboard appears, blocking the sidewalk. Heklina in boy drag is on that sh*t, hauling the big awkward piece of garbage into the alleyway with her bare hands.

I laugh and wave goodbye, and she yells over her shoulder the name of the magic spell that makes people see you the way you wish to be seen: “The glamour!”

Heklina will host a New Year’s Eve show (which doubles as the club’s first anniversary party) at Oasis this Dec. 31 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $30 and up; visit sfoasis.com for details.  

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