Words by Michael Phillis.
My friend Heklina was a tough nut to crack.
The first time we talked I was dressed as a bunch of grapes on Halloween and she was hosting with Peaches, running the costume contest. She came up behind me, slid two fingers into my leotard, and said on the mic, “I like the grapes.” I did not win the contest but I felt like we really connected.
Years (and many backup performances) later, Rory Davis and I pitched her an idea for a show and said, “We think we’ll call it something dumb like Baloney.” She threw her head back and let out one of her trademark cackles. In that moment the show was born– because if you could make Heklina laugh, you knew it was actually funny.
There are a thousand little moments like that. And for every harsh word, every inappropriate joke, every time she chastised her own audience for being too loud or too drunk or too bachelorette, there was an equal and secret moment of tenderness. Heklina did not wear her heart on her sleeve. She wore it deep, deep down under layers of armor, buried like the molten core of the Icelandic volcano she named herself after. But if you ever got into her heart, you would find it just as warm. She didn’t dole out hugs and compliments. I never heard her say “I love you,” casually or otherwise. She didn’t talk about it, she just did it. Heklina was show-don’t-tell. She proved her love in a million simple gestures. When I lost my housing, she offered to do a fundraiser at the club. She helped me get an apartment in her building. She promised to hold it over me for the rest of our lives. She loved taking credit for the nice things she did. But that was all just part of the sardonic humor she was known for. The truth, the real truth, was that she was just kind. She was a kind person masquerading as a bitter old drag queen. And if you were lucky enough to get to know her beneath the wig, after the makeup came off, and if you weren’t a total idiot, there was a chance that you could become one of her rare but closely-held friends. I consider myself so lucky that I got to know her that way. But even out of drag she was always Heklina. Through & through.
If you want to be like Heklina, you need to do weird shit. You need to keep a half dozen whole chickens in your freezer and NOTHING else. Why did she love whole roast chicken so much?! You need to hang posters for your show yourself. You need to devote your life to rimming, let it become your trademark, talk about at literally every public performance for years, and then lament later in life that rimming is what you’re known for. You need to throw on a shake & go wig and some lipstick and invite a str8 guy over. You need to handle every tragedy with a joke, and make it the most ribald, fucked-up joke you can come up with. You need to face darkness with humor every time and somehow rise above it all. You need to become a pillar of your community without ever trying, just by doing the things that only you can do.
But if you really want to be like Heklina, don’t be like Heklina. Be yourself. That’s what she did. Heklina was unlike anyone else because she was just herself, through and through, unapologetic and unashamed all the way to the very end.
One thing I will cherish above all else is the opportunity to help write her last solo show. I encouraged her to open up, be real, and let people see who she was. I think it was some of her best work. It’s hard to share her words here, but I think she says it best:
“Death has informed my life. It’s made me look at everything cynically and in the abstract. Because everything was a cosmic joke for so long. But I hate the victimhood of it all. The people I admire most have tons of issues, we’re talking major MAJOR problems, usually mental. But they just get on with it. The easiest thing in the world is to just give up. I’ve watched people become victims in their minds and then the prophecy becomes fulfilled. I never felt that victimhood and I always knew that there was something more waiting for me. We all have our own approach to mortality. I just think some of them are wrong. But I don’t judge.”
Keep judging, my sweet friend. I’ll always love you.