Drag artist Stefan Grygelko, aka Heklina, dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Monday April 3, 2023
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Heklina, aka Stefan Grygelko (photo: Jpse A. Guzman Colon)
Heklina, aka Stefan Grygelko (photo: Jpse A. Guzman Colon)

Stefan Grygelko, better known as her drag persona Heklina, has died, her longtime friend Joshua Grannell (Peaches Christ) wrote on Facebook April 3.

The two were in London where they were appearing in the "Mommie Queerest" show there, Grannell wrote, adding that she had gone to pick up Heklina that day.

"I do not know the cause of death yet," Grannell wrote. "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."

The news shocked and saddened her friends back in San Francisco, with fellow drag queen Sister Roma writing on their Twitter account that she was "absolutely devastated" to learn of the passing of her friend and collaborator for two-plus decades.

"She is one of the funniest people I've ever known. This is a nightmare," wrote Roma, a member of the drag philanthropy group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, in a tweet.

On Tuesday, Roma posted on Facebook that she'd spoken to Peaches and that an autopsy on Heklina is scheduled for Thursday. Heklina was found dead on the living room floor of the flat she and Peaches shared, Roma wrote.

"Peaches immediately called for emergency assistance and is pleased to report that everyone who responded and everyone she has been working with in London has been completely professional and supportive," Roma added.

Oasis, the LGBTQ nightclub in which Heklina was once a part-owner, expressed its sadness and said it would open at 4 p.m. Monday.

"We are shocked and devastated to learn of the passing of Heklina today," the club wrote. "Oasis will be open at 4 p.m. for drinks, stories, and community, if you'd like to come by. Sending love to all."

Gay former state assemblymember Tom Ammiano told the B.A.R. he will miss the drag artist.

"A true professional [and] with drag under attack her passing is especially wounding," wrote Ammiano, who also served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and school board. "As an aside, she bartended at events for folks with special needs at the Oasis [and] as a former special education teacher, I loved her for that."

State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) stated that Heklina "was an icon in the truest sense — funny, caring, outrageous, and brave."

"I first saw Heklina perform when I was a young gay man in the 1990s, new to San Francisco," Wiener wrote. "Over the years, I got to know her and helped her find a space for Oasis. I've rarely worked with someone as fierce, creative, and dedicated.

"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," Wiener added. "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."

As Heklina, Grygelko was known for founding the old Trannyshack drag show in 1996 at the old Stud bar. (The name of the show was later changed to "Mother.")

At the start of each Trannyshack, San Francisco's outlandish, no-holds-barred Tuesday night drag show, a snippet of the old "Muppet Show" theme music warned "it's a kind of torture, to have to watch the show," as the Bay Area Reporter reported in 2008.

The joke belied the fact that the performances were more than just boys in dresses lip-synching to pop ballads or camp classics. The weekly shenanigans often masked what in reality was a uniquely queer riff on the political, social, racial, and gender controversies of the day.

Heklina invited not just drag queens — many of whom went on to become stars in their own right — but also female performers, known as faux queens, and drag kings to share her stage. By doing so, Heklina threw out the rulebook on what it meant to be a drag performer.

Adriana Roberts, a trans woman and an early Trannyshack performer, penned a tribute on Facebook.

"She was a Master Class in successful Nightlife Production: wrangling order from chaos, managing a stage, managing a crowd, putting down hecklers, assembling trusted crews, booking budding queens, promoting events, following one's heart — but also always being aware of what actually sells," Roberts wrote. "And she did it all with snark, wit, and balance for over 25 years."

Roberts, a former production designer at the B.A.R., wrote, "Coming from a punk rock ethos, she created a space that welcomed performers from across the gender spectrum, at a time when drag was VERY codified into TIRED (her words) tropes of men in sequined gowns doing diva lip-syncs. None of us realized it at the time, but she helped revolutionize the concept of what drag could be, breaking its mold years before the rest of the world caught on."

As the B.A.R. noted in a March 2022 article, since the early 1990s, Heklina had been a mainstay in Bay Area queer nightlife. From the first irreverent drag nights at The Stud, to Trannyshack's expansion at DNA Lounge that included annual contests, Heklina has often hosted the most prominent drag and nightlife events which included her own numbers.

In 2015, along with D'Arcy Drollinger and other investors, Heklina opened Oasis in South of Market; the same building that once housed the original Oasis. The new nightclub has become popular for not only drag shows and DJed dance nights, but comic plays and musicals, cabaret concerts and community fundraisers. Heklina later sold her share of Oasis ownership and moved to Palm Springs, while still keeping a foothold in the Bay Area's nightlife scene.

And, of course, Heklina was known for her deadpan line delivery as Dorothy (Bea Arthur's character) in stage productions of episodes of the classic sitcom "The Golden Girls." The long-running show became an annual holiday tradition in San Francisco.

Updated, 4/3/23: This article has been updated with additional comments.

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