Atlanta drag icon Diamond Lil dies at 80

Atlanta drag legend Diamond Lil has passed away at age 80. The announcement was made on the entertainer’s official Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.

Dear Friends,Our Diamond Lil passed away this morning. May God bless her beautiful soul.

Posted by Diamond Lil on Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lil had been battling cancer and was put in hospice care in June. While she lived a public life onstage, friends say she wanted to keep her health issues private.

Lil was born in Savannah, Georgia on December 28, 1935. As a young child, she sang on Savannah radio, and she dressed in drag for the first time when she was five years old. She performed publicly for the first time in drag at age 18, doing the song “Three Letters” by Ruth Brown.

“I tore up three letters in front of the audience,” Lil told Georgia Voice in an interview from last August.

Lil gained fame early for regaling the sailors docked at the Savannah port by singing and dancing on the ships in the harbor, where the sailors would pick her up and throw her in the air, according to Atlanta LGBT historian Dave Hayward. However, she experienced a great deal of harassment as well for being gender nonconforming in the 1950s South. Not only was she discharged from the National Guard, she was also arrested on numerous occasions for what she wore.

From the Savannah port into Atlanta’s heart

Lil came into Atlanta’s life after a move in the early 1960s and proceeded to perform in the gay bars of the time, including Mrs. P’s on Ponce de Leon Avenue and Chuck’s Rathskellar and Rose Room on Monroe Drive. She was called the “Queen of the Jukeboxes” as she was featured on jukeboxes around the Southeast—unique among female impersonators as she often performed in her own voice and composed her own songs. She was a major influence on the performers that rose up in her wake, including Jayne County (who attributed her performing career to Diamond), and was also a clear influence on drag stars like RuPaul and Lady Bunny, who both started in Atlanta.

While not a political activist, she generously performed benefits for the Georgia Gay Liberation Front. The entertainer also performed at other benefits over the years, including for the Committee on Gay Education at the University of Georgia in 1972, when she sang “Stand By Your Man.” Hayward tells Georgia Voice that UGA officials did all they could to throw the COGE off campus, but that Lil’s notoriety and the standing-room only crowd helped ensure that the group had the financial backing and the high public profile necessary to keep it going.

Lil continued to perform throughout Atlanta in the decades that followed, including at Manuel’s Tavern and Mixx. In recent years, Lil scooped up several notable awards. Georgia Voice readers voted Lil as Best Icon in the 2014 Georgia Voice Best of Atlanta awards. And in 2015, Atlanta Pride and Touching Up Our Roots honored her in the first ever Our Founding Valentines event celebrating LGBT pioneers, trailblazers, and community builders.

Till nearly the very end, Lil could be seen at various events around town, always with one of her CDs at hand ready to sell. And just this April, she gave wedding advice for couples for Georgia Voice’s Wedding Issue. Lil had said that her all-time favorite song to perform was her original song “Cabbagetown Katie.”

Rather poignantly, when asked by Georgia Voice last year what she had learned about herself as a performer over the years, she replied, “There comes a time when it’s time to hang up your skirts.” There are no confirmed details on a memorial as of yet.

Here’s a clip of Diamond Lil singing “Queen of the Dunk ‘n Dine Grill.”