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How Heklina Changed My Life…That B*tch

Updated: May 25, 2023 10:53
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The author and Heklina at Oasis in San Francisco

by Noemi Zeigler

Bejeweled in rhinestones, pearls and poofy-shouldered silver minidress, Heklina lays belly down on a chair in front of a green screen, arms and legs extended, making believe she’s flying. A fan blows through her silver wig while her hot pink painted lips are mouthing along to my song lyrics for “Sushi Pushy Blow”. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be directing my hero for an upcoming music video but now Heckles (as some of us affectionately knew her) is hilariously hamming it up for the camera.

Heklina was and is larger than life for me. I was just another artist circling her orbit but, true to form, she was a mother to an entire community. She extended her wings and brought us all up — she left no one behind. And while Heklina could be cranky, intimidating, and stingy about doling out praise, she carved out a whole underground world for us to inhabit.

Heklina, known as Stefan Grygelko by day, passed away suddenly on April 3 in London where he was performing with best friend and longtime collaborator Peaches Christ — an icon in her own right who generously describes herself as both a  filmmaker and cult leader. Heklina left behind a staggering legacy of staged TV parodies, countless cabaret shows, her ‘Drag Time with Heklina’ podcast, and a city grieving the loss of a giant. So far reaching is Heklina’s influence that her memorial at the Castro Theater planned for May 23 apparently sold out within minutes. Peaches, D’Arcy Drollinger and friends have arranged to close down Castro Street so an overflow crowd will be able to watch the memorial on outdoor screens.

I recently premiered my music video at Heklina’s one woman show ‘But I Don’t Judge’ just over a month before her passing. Since then I’ve been reflecting on what it means to collaborate with her on a project that maybe comes closest to expressing who I am. Here’s the music video below:

I spent over twenty years playing iterations of a comic character named Madeline Minx, an alter ego who tries to express herself through music, videos, multimedia performances and films. I created Madeline after I first saw Madonna’s legendary self-reflexive concert doc ‘Truth or Dare’ and my life changed. I had a deep yearning to express a voice inside me that was able to dance, sing and dish out wit and innuendo though I lacked the self-awareness about exactly what I needed to express. 

My day job identity was Noemi Zeigler — an overthinking, under-confident Jewish girl from the Midwest who rushed to San Francisco after earning a masters degree in directing from the American Film Institute. More than anything, I dreamed of becoming the Jewish Madonna. Instead, I got a temp job as a legal secretary, worked at a juice store, was a substitute teacher, caterer, and Census taker.

I started a band called Pushy with my best friend, a Los Angeles conceptual artist Kelly White, who anointed herself Olivia Heard. Olivia declared that we were more than a band: “Pushy is a state of mind, a political party and a movement.”  We staged a motorcade down Market Street with the banner “Pushy for President and First Lady” while passing out Get Pushy bumper stickers. We even pushed our way onto Howard Stern, but Robin Quivers dismissed us as “the Spice Girls who can’t sing” and Howard told us we’re the kind of girls who want to spread our legs for the world before hanging up on us.  A Warner Records label executive came to a show and told me I didn’t know who I was, therefore I was leaving the audience out of the joke.

Enter Heklina. I had no idea I was about to meet someone pushier then me. And this bitch knew exactly who she was.

That bitch Heklina

On a fateful Tuesday night circa 2002, I stumbled into a small unpretentious SF gay bar called The Stud. But when the clock struck midnight it turned into a magical queer cabaret. This was Trannyshack (which later became Mother).

The Muppets theme music played as you elbowed your way to the front so your vision wasn’t blocked by the tall hunky Adonis-like guys in the surging crowd. The spotlight came up and Heklina poked her huge blonde wig out of the wings, followed by her characteristic wide grin. She strutted less than daintily onto the stage, plowing directly into her act (like the Icelandic volcano that inspired her drag name) — a mix of spontaneous observational commentary and barbed sarcasm often directed at a heckler in the crowd. Heklina’s warm-toned gravelly laugh, sparkly eyes and kindergarten teacher vibes made her a cross between Bea Arthur and Big Bird. 

Heklina introduced a dazzling range of acts. Evan Bee and Suppositori, reenacted the banned Popsicle Act from the Gong Show in which two girls perform oral felatio on a popsicle. Only they turned it into a raunchy drag/lesbian sex scene involving scissoring and rubbing the popsicles all over their bodies. Another queen lip synced to Bjork’s stark track “Hunter,” while a strobe light accentuated her exaggeratedly slow but precise Kabuki-like movements as a flurry of snowflakes fell on stage. I was moved and realized what was missing for me all these years. Something had been trapped inside me and it was a drag queen! 

When the show was over, I made my way through the crowd to Heklina who held court in front of a tattered curtain under a glittering disco ball with fanboys and friends. I was oddly overconfident or just too young and dumb to be scared, and inserted myself into her world with: “Hi, I’m Pushy!” Heklina turned to me with a “did she just interrupt me?” glance. I handed her a CD labeled “Poptronica” with a black Sharpie and gushed about how great her show was and how I’d love some day to perform at Trannyshack. Even though Heklina had only about 15 seconds to give, she took my CD, smiled and said “Hi Pushy,” like a big-hearted camp counselor. Then she turned back to her entourage, picking up where she left off.

After a few Pushy encounters, Heklina booked me to perform! I sang “Sushi, pushy, blow… my dick is twenty-four hour power!” while doing Kung Fu kicks and tossing jello shots into the crowd. From that show, I ended up landing gigs at large queer events including Folsom Street Fair, the Exotic Erotic Ball, and the main stage at the Castro Halloween party. 

In 2019, I co-directed a music video for a new version of my song “Sushi” with local music producer Sergey Karpuhin (aka SRGK). I contacted Heklina because she was the only person who could play the video’s embittered Human Resources secretary turned fairy dragmother.

Heklina said yes!

Heklina killing it in the music video

Heckles played the role exactly like I had envisioned – an inverted take on Lily Tomlin’s character from 9 to 5. On the set, Heklina was impatient yet somehow injected humor into every scene we shot. She’d raise an eyebrow, tolerating our limp vegan craft services. Sometimes it was awkward to have her circling my orbit instead of me circling hers. There were flashes of her volcanic temperament but she was mostly graceful. 

Screening the “Sushi” video at Oasis was a dream come true. Heklina delivered a stripped down performance to a sold out crowd where she talked vulnerably about her evolution as an artist. After she screened “Sushi”, Heklina found me in the back of the room and told the audience “That’s my friend Pushy. We’ve known each other for how long?” I nervously mumbled something vague since I couldn’t think on the spot. Heklina squinted in the blinding light: “I can’t hear anything that bitch is saying!” and without skipping a beat, moved on: “I’ve talked about death, bachelorette parties, relationships so what else…?” I smiled, feeling acknowledged by someone who probably always regarded me as a friend. It just took me a while to realize it.

It’s hard to believe Heklina went from underground to multi-platform, with a posthumous appearance scheduled for May 31st with Peaches Christ on Hulu, no less. As San Francisco and her adopted home Palms Springs adjust to losing Heckles, the rest of the world may be just getting to know her.  

Heklina created a space where somewhere a dirty yet golden curtain opens and you just don’t know what wacky adventure will take over. Evan Bee, the Popsicle act performer from Trannyshack who makes an appearance in “Sushi, Pushy, Blow”, accurately summed up the essence of Heckles: “One of the greatest things about Heklina was that she was a pretty kind drag queen. She could throw shade but in the utmost playful way that made the person who was the butt of the joke feel comfortable enough to laugh along with everyone else. Never mean. Despite my not being an A-list performer, she always made room for people to come out and stretch their wings even if it was their first time.”

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