Legendary San Francisco drag artist Heklina (aka Stefan Grygelko) has reportedly died while in London on tour for the musical theatre parody Mommie Queerest, making her the third famous drag performer to pass away in recent weeks. She was 54.
Heklina’s longtime friend, Mommie Queerest co-star, and drag performer Peaches Christ (aka Joshua Grannell) announced Heklina’s death in an April 3 social media post.
“I am shocked and horrified to bring this news to you,” Christ wrote. “This morning… I went to collect my dear friend Heklina… and found her dead. I do not know the cause of death yet. I am living in a real-life nightmare so forgive me if I don’t have the answers just now. Heklina is not just my best friend, but a beloved icon of our community. I am a mess… I am utterly heartbroken, stunned, and focusing on what needs to get done next.”
Heklina became well known in the 1990s, partly by founding the long-running drag show Tra**yshack, which showcased punk, experimental, and artistic drag performances from people spanning the gender spectrum. The Tuesday night show (which was later renamed Mother) demonstrated “a uniquely queer riff on the political, social, racial, and gender controversies of the day,” The Bay Area Reporter wrote. She also co-opened the San Francisco drag venue Oasis, The San Francisco Standard reported.
Oasis owner D’Arcy Drollinger told The SF Chronicle, “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. But it is confirmed, it is real.”
Fans gathered at the Oasis Monday night to mourn her passing.
Meanwhile, the Castro Theatre, where she often performed, honored Heklina on its marquee that read, “Rest in Power, Heklina.” An official memorial is reportedly being planned.
Longtime drag performer Lady Bunny wrote of Heklina’s passing, “Beloved SF drag legend Heklina is gone. Knowing Peaches, I assumed this was an April Fool’s thing. I’ll miss that funny b*tch!” adding, “[She was] wacky, dirty, and hysterical…. Heklina’s shindigs employed a generation of SF queens. And what a slut! She played Dorothy in a Golden Girls revue, and actually went out to a sex club in Dorothy’s short gray wig her show. And probably got some, too!
Former Drag Race winner Raja wrote on Facebook, “Goodbye and highest respect to @heklina. You taught me so much. San Francisco icon, legend, pioneer, leader, irreverent deity. I want to say a joke or two that would seem inappropriate and too soon, as you taught me to… Thank you for being gracious and a mentor. Thank you for seeing me. Rest in peace and power.”
Former Drag Race competitor BenDeLaCreme wrote on Facebook, “Her influence on the world of drag was… huge. And it lived up to everything. Absolute madness. Gay bacchanalia. Even with all that, she wasn’t grand in any way. Everything she did was about community and the most fucking wild unapologetic queer joy you can imagine. She welcomed everyone in. She was oddly down to earth and matter of fact no matter how dressed she was.”
Longtime drag performer Varla Jean Merman wrote, “Her laugh. Her laugh. Her laugh. I just can’t believe that laugh is gone. She loved being a punch line for a joke. She would howl louder than anyone. And she was gloriously filthy. Please send good energy, and thoughts of love to @thepeacheschrist who is going through the unimaginable.”
RuPaul Drag Race All Stars winner Trixie Mattel wrote, “Icon! Heklina was punk rock and made drag what it is today. Legend.”
Former RuPaul’s Drag Race competitor Pandora Boxx wrote, “I’m absolutely gutted right now. Heklina was a drag legend and I adored her. She was a blast to work with. I will cherish the memories I have of her. Sending love out to all of her family and friends in this tragic time. You will be missed by many.”
Drag performer Miss Coco Peru wrote, “I’m heartbroken. She was a wonderful friend and I told her often that I wish I had met her earlier in my life. We communicated nearly everyday and nothing made me happier than making her cackle. We visited recently and I’m so grateful we spent some time together. Heklina, I loved and adored you and my only comfort right now is in knowing that I told you that often.”
The Boulet Brothers, hosts of the horror drag competition Dragula, wrote, “It is sad and surreal to hear about the unexpected passing of Heklina. She has always been a true & good friend to us who we will miss immensely. She was consistently humble, wise, generous, forgiving, hysterical, & filthy, and will always be an inspiration to us.”
Drag activist Lil Miss Hot Mess wrote, “So many of us owe our ‘careers’ to this legend, who invited us onto that beloved stage that was the size of a postage stamp and created a home for the freaks.”
Gay California state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) wrote Monday afternoon, “I am absolutely devastated. Heklina was an icon in the truest sense — funny, caring, outrageous, and brave… Heklina created events and community spaces that spun glitter and giant wigs and raucous jokes into a feeling of home. She was fiercely outspoken and always stood up for her friends and community. She was the soul of San Francisco, and it’s hard to imagine the city without her…. I’ve rarely worked with someone as fierce, creative, and dedicated.”
Wiener added, “Heklina was also a staunch defender of drag — which is under extreme attack right now — and created opportunities for young drag queens to find their space. While we grieve, we must honor her memory by remembering the joy she brought us and the importance of the art form to which she dedicated her life.”
Heklina is the third longtime drag performer to die recently. Darcelle XV, the world’s oldest working drag queen, passed away just last week. Lily Savage (aka British comedian Paul O’Grady) also passed away last week. Savage was a drag performer who championed queer rights in London during the start of the AIDS epidemic.