Dedicated drag fans will know Heklina, the American-Icelandic drag queen who’s been making waves with her daring and entertaining performances for decades. GayIceland caught up with her in August, when she was supposed to perform at Reykjavik Pride.
Heklina is a mainstay of San Francisco’s drag community, but she also has strong ties to Iceland. Her mother is Icelandic, and she spent part of her youth living in Reykjavík. In fact, Heklina’s first time in drag was in Iceland in 1991.
“The gay scene was a lot smaller then, and I had some friends who were opening this club called Moulin Rouge. I was not a performer then, I didn’t know that I had that in me, so I was doing things like coat check and working the door.”
“He took me back to where we lived and we just had sex immediately.”
While today Iceland may be a popular gay destination, it was much different thirty years ago. “Of course there was no Grindr, and there were no tourists because it was still not on the map. So it really felt like a sleepy town,” she says. “We all went to one bar, and it was very insular. Whenever a gay tourist would show up, everybody would be fighting for them.”
Heklina ended up spending a number of years in Iceland throughout the 80s and 90s. She originally came to Iceland to escape life in the States. “To be honest, I was coming to dry out. I was in the States and I was kind of getting strung out on drugs. It was the eighties after all,” she says. “My mother came to the States and she took me back with her. First I went and dried out in the countryside in Denmark, and then I came to Iceland and I went through a drug and alcohol rehab. I think it saved my life at that time.”
At 24, Heklina moved with a friend from sleepy Reykjavík to bustling San Francisco. “It was a shock for sure, but I fell in love with San Francisco as soon as I arrived. Something just clicked for me,” she says. “I also immediately fell into the queer performance community.”
It wasn’t long before Heklina started Mother (originally named Trannyshack but later renamed Mother to avoid using the term “tranny,” which is considered to be a slur by trans people and members of the LGBTplus society), the influential drag club that she would become known for. “I was working at this bar called The Stud and they asked me to try and start a club. And I did, and it became really successful. All of a sudden I became a ‘famous,’ at least as famous as a drag queen could be before RuPaul’s drag race.”
Heklina’s drag club opened in 1996, right as new drug therapies meant that HIV was no longer a death sentence but rather a manageable illness. “It was right when people stopped dying of AIDS,” Heklina says. “It felt like a time to celebrate.”
Before then, she says everything felt abstract and surreal. “You’re watching television and you see a bubblegum commercial, and at the same time, your friend next door is dying of AIDS. There was no talking about it in popular culture, it was kind of ignored. I don’t know how to convey that surreal feeling of walking around and there’s constant death everywhere, but there’s also people who are going around like in everyday life,” she says.
She remembers a time when she was working at a video store and selling concert tickets. “This really healthy friend of mine came in, and he wanted two tickets for Erasure. I pulled out two tickets for him but he said he wanted better seats. I told him ‘well, they’ll be back next year.’ And he said, ‘well, I’ll be dead by then.’ And then he was actually dead before they came back,” she says. “I also had to delete the video store memberships for the people who died. Every week I had to go through and delete the dead people out of. It was just really surreal.”
“I see very little originality happening in drag right now.”
In a way, Heklina thinks those experiences ended up influencing her approach to drag. She’s known for her “edgy” and punk rock style, which were informed by living through the AIDS crisis. “This is so fucked up, all these people are dying and the government doesn’t give a fuck,” she remembers thinking at the time.
When she started her club, Heklina came to it with all these feelings and experiences. “I had no drag background and so I didn’t come into it with a set of rules,” she says. “Right away it was a really punk rock venue. It was non-traditional, and anybody could perform there. I didn’t think I was being revolutionary by letting women perform. All that mattered was how good you were on stage. It was perceived as this kind of revolutionary thing, but it didn’t seem that to me. And people say that as a drag hostess I was a little bit more edgy or raunchy. I would drag boys up on stage and eat their asses. I became famous for that and I haven’t lived it down! People still think I do that, but I do not.”
Like her relationship with drag, Heklina’s relationship with punk goes back to her time in Iceland.
“There was a punk scene here and I fell into that scene. All of my influences when I was a teenager were things like David Bowie and punk rock and cult films, horror movies. So it became that my club celebrated all that stuff.”
With the mainstreaming of drag because of shows like RuPaul’s drag race, Heklina says she thinks drag has become less punk. “I think even when people are trying to be transgressive today, they’re copying somebody else. So I see very little originality happening in drag right now,” she says. “It was a statement before, there were people who came around and they influenced everybody. Like Leigh Bowery, Divine, a lot of the New York drag queens. They were definitely punk rock.”
For people getting into drag today, Heklina says the most punk thing is to be themselves. “This sounds so corny, but the real punk rock thing is not to look at Aquaria or Alaska and try and copy their makeup,” she explains. “The most punk rock thing you could do is form your own identity. That’s how things were before, people were their own identity, and their makeup may have been busted but once they were up on stage they’d have the most transcendent performances.”
Just as drag is changing, so are things changing for Heklina. She just bought a house in Palm Springs and is moving out of San Francisco. Because of COVID-19, she hasn’t been able to perform in bars and clubs, but just before the pandemic began she started her own podcast. Guests so far have ranged from drag queens such as Bianca del Rio and Lady Bunny, to director John Cameron Mitchell, to musician Ana Matronic.
In May, she interviewed Icelandic superstar Páll Óskar on the podcast. She began the interview by recalling the first time the two met at the Reykjavík swimming pool Vesturbæjarlaug. “He took me back to where we lived and we just had sex immediately,” she says. “And then we bonded over horror movies and cult movies and stuff. We really should be married, but we’re just good friends instead.”
The podcast episodes feel like conversations between friends. Yes, they discuss their sexual escapades, but they also reflect on other issues, especially as most of the interviews have taken place during the pandemic. “Everybody is dealing with this collective trauma in their own way. The pause button has been pushed on the whole world, and so everybody’s kind of going through this period of discovering something else. That’s what’s been interesting,” she says.
Although she’s back in the States now, Heklina isn’t done with Iceland yet. In the coming years she hopes to spend her winters in Palm Springs and return to Iceland in the summers. As soon as it’s safe to begin performing again, you’ll be sure to find Heklina on a stage near you.