Lily White has lived a life and then some. The Atlanta drag legend started performing over 40 years ago and criss-crossed the country as part of a trio called the Grease Sisters, featuring Kitty Litter and Alvina Laverne, then gained fame working with Charlie Brown throughout the 1980s and 1990s at Backstreet.
But a series of personal tragedies struck in 2012, leading her to lose her mother, her house, her good health and a career’s worth of costumes and accessories, and ultimately leading to her retirement. And earlier this month, Litter, whom White considered a sister, was shot and killed in her Cobb County home.
White, 66, spoke with the GA Voice from her Sandy Springs home about the early days of Atlanta’s drag scene, how she inspired Elvira’s look, sleeping in coffins, persevering through tragedy, and what she wants her legacy to be.
What made you want to get into doing drag in the first place?
From doing it at parties in Tennessee before I moved to Atlanta, where I palled around with some early drag queens like Diamond Lil and Billy Jones, so I got into drag through them. It was expressive, I liked that. I liked the attention. And I got together with two friends from North Georgia [the late Kitty Litter and Alvina LaVerne] and we formed the Grease Sisters.
Where and when was your first show?
It was in the early ’70s at a little club called Peaches Back Door. It was a small little club and almost everybody was high, there were a lot of hallucinogens in that era. We did a lot of trio performances like the McGuire Sisters, the Andrews Sisters. We did mostly comedy, it was fun.
In the middle ’70s we moved to Florida and then we moved to Texas, then I came back to Atlanta to work at the Locker Room. It was the first 24-hour club in Atlanta. We had a predominantly straight clientele, a lot of rock ‘n rollers, a lot of musical groups that came through Atlanta. After they performed they would ask their manager what was fun to do around here and all the managers sent them to the Locker Room.
I met quite a few musical groups in that time period. Tina Turner, Liberace, any groups that came to town that were famous, they all came out the Locker Room. We did shows at 10, 12, 2, and 4. so you can imagine with our last show starting at four in the morning what kind of act we did. It was quite raunchy and definitely x-rated—my material especially.
Then in the late ’70s we moved to North Carolina for awhile and worked for awhile in Boston then back to Georgia. Kitty Litter and I were a duo act for awhile and then we all went solo. I traveled all over the country in the ’80s and ’90s. Alabama, Florida, all over the south, I worked some in California and Texas.
You must have experienced harassment, especially back in those days.
Oh, of course. I’m surprised that any of us lived through it. I was stabbed in the chest twice in Texas. Punctured my lung. In 2000, I was performing in Huntsville and I was attacked in my motel room by a couple of guys who were following hookers home and robbing them. The way I was dressed they thought I was a hooker.
They banged on the door and hit me in the head with a ball-peen hammer and I almost died, I almost bled out. I lost the ability to speak for awhile. I couldn’t get my mind and my mouth coordinated, which is a bad thing as an emcee. I lost a lot of years where I don’t remember what happened. I’ve lost a lot of my history.
Did it get bad enough that you ever thought about quitting?
It wasn’t a choice of “I don’t need to do this,” it was “that’s what I do.” Performing, emceeing, making people laugh was my job. There wasn’t a time where I thought I shouldn’t be doing this unless I was lying in a hospital. But even then I couldn’t wait to get out and do it again.
You had a long run at Backstreet in the ’80s and ’90s. What were those days like?
It’s what I’ve been doing most of my life, working all night long. The clientele differed. There were a lot of straight couples but they were crazier and more fucked up than they were at the Locker Room, although the ones at the Locker Room were on more drugs—go figure.
But Charlie Brown and I co-emceed at Backstreet so it was good to have another emcee to work with so I wasn’t stressed so much. She was the main emcee, I was the co-emcee. We always had a good rapport because our acts were not similar at all. I more or less told jokes and she read people. I was the one that was turned on by everybody, I was the whore.
You’ve picked up a lot of interesting nicknames over the years.
I think one of the first billings I used was The Queen of Rhinestones, Rags and Rock N Roll. I worked with a male entertainer named R.C. Cola for a few years and we were The Master and Mistress of Punk. I’ve been called Trash of the South. But most people just know my by LW. Or Aunt Lil because I was older than most everybody and I tried to help all the younger entertainers growing up as much as I could. A lot of people always told me they liked the way I treated people, so it was good to have an Aunt Lil in your corner.
So Halloween is coming up. I hear you have a good Elvira story.
When I worked at the Locker Room, I was always kind of the evil one, I had the evil whore attitude. I wore a lot of black hair at that time. I met Elvira when she came to the club. Her name was Cassandra Peterson and she worked with a show called Mama and Her Boys and they were touring the country. She was a redhead then. We became friends.
Then years later this woman came out on TV named Elvira and everyone kept saying “Damn, Lily she looks just like you!” A few years later I was performing in Orlando at the Parliament House and one of the dancers in a review there used to be in Mama and Her Boys. I said, “I’ve got to ask you something” and he said “I bet you’re going to ask me about Elvira’s makeup, aren’t you?”
He said a few years after they came through Atlanta, they were in Los Angeles and there was a call out for someone to be the hostess for a horror show. Cassandra asked this guy if he had any of those gay magazines from when they were in Atlanta. He told her he did and she said, “Do you have any with pictures of that drag queen Lily White?” He did, so they took an old gay magazine with my picture and duplicated my look on Cassandra’s face and she got the job as Elvira using a version of my makeup.
So whatever Elvira looks like is what I used to look like in the ’70s. I wore two black wigs piled up, almost the same eyes. Everything but the tits. I’ve spoken to Cassandra in the years since then and she acknowledges that my look was what she adapted Elvira to.
Is it true you used to sleep in a coffin?
Yes. So, one Halloween there was this shop in a flea market here in Atlanta and one of their display cases was an old copper coffin. I was like, “God I love this coffin.” And a few weeks later I was back and the owner asked if I wanted it, I said yeah so she sold it to me. I slept in it for about a year.
It was very comfortable. Coffins have like four inches of padding. It was good to freak out tricks when I brought tricks home. I did lot of fucking in that coffin. It’s quite handy when you leave the bottom half down and the top half up. You can crawl around in quite a few positions, but that’s neither here nor there. There’s quite a few people that have seen my coffin, let’s put it that way [laughs].
Switching gears here, you’ve had a horrible run of personal tragedies in the past few years. Can you talk about that?
I went home [to Rome] in 2000 to take care of my father, he had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I took care of him until he passed in ’03. His death was tragic and I thought I would move back to Atlanta when he passed by then my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so I stayed and took care of her.
In February of 2012, our house burned down. Then two weeks later I had a heart attack and almost died. Then the next month my mother passed. The fire devastated her. She had to sit in her driveway on her walker and watch everything she owned burn up. Her having Alzheimer’s destroyed what mind she had left. Everything was gone after that. She had no reason to live, she didn’t understand why she didn’t have her clothes, she didn’t understand where she was. Then she just went deeper into a depression and died.
How did you get through all that?
I still haven’t gotten through it. When I got home the day of the fire, I got home just in time to get my mother and her dog out. The fire department said if it had been five minutes later, they wouldn’t have made it.
That put an end to my career—not having wigs, costumes, shoes. Then having the heart attack slowed my life down tremendously. Then with my mother’s passing I had nowhere to live so I moved back to Atlanta two or three years ago.
I performed back here at the Jungle for three months. I had my own show, it was called Foreplay with Lily White. The audiences just were not the way I left them 13 years ago. It was hard to get up the momentum in my act to start over again. After you lose everything you own and haven’t performed regularly for awhile and start from scratch with costuming and makeup…I just never recuperated, I never got my career back. It killed my career. I was history by then, I wasn’t current. I didn’t enjoy performing current music, I liked comedy acts, but a comedy act is not what really goes over here now. So I was Aunt Lil, but Aunt Lil doesn’t keep up.
There were a lot of new queens coming around and they all perform for damn near nothing and wear these titty tops and g-strings and those titty top and g-string days were over for me. So I retired.
And how has that transition been?
In a way it’s sad because I liked to perform. Going from working six or seven nights a week to not working at all…it’s not really a transition, it’s like going cold turkey.
Last month I had a stroke also. I have trouble walking now. I used to be known for my stiletto heels and my spiked boots and now I couldn’t walk in them if I had to. My thought processes are a little stilted. I have trouble saying some words.
Are you getting proper care?
Of course, I have a good doctor. And my sister’s a healthcare worker. So that’s not a problem for me. I still design and make costumes for entertainers here in Atlanta and all over. It’s probably left over from my days of being an architectural designer. I was able to take raw materials and make something out of them and that’s the way my costumes are.
For years I made painted fringe outfits and ribbon dresses, and lately I’ve been making stoles. I make them out of ribbons and fringe and fabric and things like that. So my time is still productive. Since my mother’s passing I now have her dog, so I like spending time with my dog.
Do you get a chance to see any drag shows?
I don’t go out to clubs now because it’s too difficult for me to get around. Since I’ve retired from performing I don’t get in drag anymore. I never went to the clubs out of drag, never ever. Very few people ever knew what I looked like out of drag. That was by choice and it was a good thing because people knew when they saw Lily White, they saw Lily White.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Oh wow. You can’t choose your legacy, it just happens. I always entertained people, made people laugh. I was kind to everyone, I never lied or cheated anyone, I never stole anything in my life. I think I was a pretty good example for a drag queen.
I hope I left the kind of reputation that the younger queens that came up knew me and respected me—that’s why they called me Aunt Lil. I was always an aunt they could count on. I performed at every benefit for every charity I was ever asked.
I just want people to look at my pictures and remember the early years. I think word of mouth is a pretty good way to leave a legacy because a lot of the things that I’ve done that aren’t on film just have to be told by word of mouth from one fag to another fag, baby doll.