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Heklina, San Francisco Drag Legend, Has Died in London

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Heklina. (Jose Guzman-Colon)

Heklina, the San Francisco drag legend and longtime performer at clubs around the city, has died in London, according to multiple reports.

In a Facebook post on Monday, friend and colleague Peaches Christ wrote, “I am shocked and horrified to bring this news to you. … This morning, in London, England, I went to collect my dear friend Heklina, who is co-starring with me in a ‘Mommie Queerest’ show here, and found her dead. I do not know the cause of death yet. I know this is shocking news and I am beyond stunned.”

London’s Soho Theatre, where Peaches Christ and Heklina had been performing together in “Mommie Queerest,” also posted a message of being “in shock and incredibly saddened with news of Heklina’s passing. Our thoughts are with Peaches, Mommie Queerest company, Heklina’s family, friends + their wider community.”

Watch a short documentary on Heklina here:

Heklina co-founded popular drag club Oasis, regularly performed at El Rio and The Stud, and was the creator and hostess of the long-running show Trannyshack (later called Mother). Heklina appeared regularly in drag parodies of popular television shows like Sex in the City, Golden Girls and Roseanne, and produced and hosted a party called Daytime Realness — with the tagline “Dancing, Drag & Disorder” — most recently at El Rio just weeks ago, on March 19.

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“We at El Rio are absolutely devastated to hear of the passing of Heklina,” wrote El Rio co-owner Lynne Angel in an email to KQED. “She was a huge part of our extended family and we will miss her terribly. The mark she made on the San Francisco drag and performance scene is incomparable. We were blessed to work with her often and she was a joy to witness both on stage and off. May she be surrounded by cats, ’80s New Wave and football butts eternally. Rest in Power to one of the best.”

Heklina was born in Minneapolis, and was raised in New York, New England and Iceland. After a stint in the Navy, Heklina moved to San Francisco; in an interview segment from a KQED documentary in 2015, Heklina recalled that “immediately I fell in love with it, and I felt right at home.”

Heklina
Heklina, pictured here in a promotional photo for one of many events at Oasis. (Nick Ice)

“I met Heklina around 1995 — which now feels like many generations past, just a year before she started her weekly party T-Shack at The Stud,” veteran drag performer Juanita MORE! wrote in an email to KQED. “I performed on the second week of the club, not caring or taking any consideration about what the theme was — and that’s how our friendship rolled. … We respected and knew what each other was great at doing. We cracked each other up all the time. The sound of her laugh will be missed greatly by everyone.”

Artist and filmmaker Leo Herrera started working for Heklina as a photographer shortly after he first moved to San Francisco in 2003; Herrera was 21 at the time. By then, Trannyshack had become a San Francisco drag institution, and Heklina took Herrera under her wing. “Trannyshack brought drag back to its transgressive roots, and its roots of political resistance,” Herrera said. “There was a lot of healing that happened in the spaces that Heklina created, especially for folks that had come out of the AIDS crisis, and had moved from really homophobic places, like it was for me and my brother.”

Herrera says Heklina influenced a generation of artists — both drag performers and others like him who’ve gone on to make an impact in other fields. “I think a lot of us always strived to get her approval because it was really hard to. But once you got one of her deep cackles, you knew you had done something right.”

News of Heklina’s passing devastated the drag community in San Francisco and beyond. “I kept thinking it was an April Fool’s joke, it doesn’t make sense. I spoke to her the day before yesterday when she was heading to England from Iceland,” Oasis owner D’Arcy Drollinger told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But it is confirmed, it is real.”

By Monday afternoon, a tearful crowd gathered for an informal memorial at Oasis, which Heklina co-owned until 2019. “She was a powerhouse. And she also had a soft side, and a vulnerable side, that I was lucky enough to get to know,” booking manager Carissa Hatchel, who performs as Snaxx, told KQED. “She was a very complicated person, and was very, very important to so many people in the community for so many decades now.”

“I started drag about eight years ago, and Heklina was one of the first queens I ever saw,” said Oasis performer Nicki Jizz. “She was unfiltered, she was unapologetically Heklina. She said whatever came to her mind. She didn’t care what anyone thought — which is a great trait for a drag performer.”

In a statement, State Senator Scott Wiener said he first saw Heklina perform in the 1990s, and was “devastated” by the news.

“Heklina was an icon in the truest sense — funny, caring, outrageous, and brave,” Wiener wrote. “I’ve rarely worked with someone as fierce, creative, and dedicated. … She was the soul of San Francisco, and it’s hard to imagine the city without her.”

Herrera echoed the sentiments of many on Monday that Heklina was synonymous with the best of drag tradition.

“A successful artist embodies their medium, so when we think of a brush or an instrument, we think of their name,” he said. “And I think for many of us, when we hear drag, we’re going to think of Heklina. She embodied the oldest and most powerful kind of drag that was about survival and political freedom, and I think we’re all going to miss that very much.”

Scott Shafer contributed to this report. 

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