Heklina, a Pillar of Queer Nightlife in San Francisco, Has Died on Tour

The venerable drag performer was reportedly found dead by her touring mate, Peaches Christ, on April 3rd in London, England; they were 54 years old.

Hekilina’s name is like no other drag performer. It’s almost laughable how unmoving it is to find yourself standing in a bar, the bar tab two drinks deep, and hear some iteration of “cock” or “pussy” cheekily worked into a stage name.

Hekla is the name of a stratovolcano in Iceland that has erupted some twenty times; “Heklina” is a drag personification of the Icelandic geological figure; for a queen known for her irreverence and animated behavior, it’s a name that’s fittingness has become iconoclastic since debuting over 20 years ago.

Born Stefan Grygelko, Heklina has helped define San Francisco as a bastion of queer excellence. “SF” and “drag” simply cannot exist in the same thought without mentioning her.

Trannyshack, the San Francisco drag club started by Heklina in 1996, remained a fixture in San Francisco for over a decade, ending in August of 2008 at the now-closed The Stud before briefing being reimagined at DNA Lounge. 

The subsequent years saw Heklina rise to a zenith of queer cultural relevance reserved for few people. S

he played the role of Dorothy Zbornak in annual drag incarnations of The Golden Girls at Oasis — a nightclub she once co-owned with D’Arcy Drollinger before removing herself from the business — to wild fanfare. Though Heklina planted firm roots in Palm Springs after moving there in 2019,  Heklina continued to pop up throughout the SF Bay Area drag scene with a variety of stings and regular monthly pirates; Daytime Realness at El Rio quickly grew to attract a loyal fanbase of party goers keen on vibing while the sun is still out.

On April 3rd, fellow tourmate and frequent collaborate Peaches Criss took to Facebook and shared a truly “real-life nightmare” situation: Heklina, her best friend and muse of all things counter-culture, was found dead by her while on tour in London, England for the pairs Mommie Queerest show.

“I am shocked and horrified to bring this news to you,” reads a lengthy post on Facebook from the venerable drag performer. “I am living in a real-life nightmare so forgive me if I don’t have all the answers just now. 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, but I wanted to let folks know what has happened.  Heklina is not just my best friend, but a beloved icon of our community.  I am a mess. Given this crisis, please do not try to contact me as I am utterly heartbroken, stunned, and focusing on what needs to get done next.  I shall be in touch.”

Like many, myself included, the news took some time to sink in and be absorbed by our collective consciousness. It seemed too unreal, too inconceivable; Heklina was just at El Rio, not a week prior when I saw her blonde wig bounce in a sea of queerdos.

But, alas, it was true — a guttural experience that’s left a void in San Francisco no one could ever fully occupy. 

“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.”

Juanita MORE! also wrote to the news outlet to share her thoughts and chaptered recollections of Heklina: “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. She 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.”

It’s that chorus of chuckling that will continue playing in the corners of our minds, rent-free and generously tipped.

*We’ll continue to update this story as more information becomes known about the details of Heklina’s sudden passing.

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