"That's Diamond Lil," I answer.
"Is she famous?" my friend asks, and I have to chuckle. The answer is yes -- but the irony of his question sums up the conundrum that is Diamond Lil.
She's been doing drag in this town since before either my friend or I were born, and actually headlined Atlanta's first female impersonation show the cops didn't bust up, back in the pre-Stonewall era.
But these days, the celebrity of Diamond Lil has largely faded. Though she was introduced at Burkhart's as a "true Atlanta legend," the blank faces of the crowd show that she's performing for a room full of strangers. Thanks for the chicken, what was your name again?
But Diamond isn't about to slip into obscurity without a fight. Lately she's been booking her act in venues as varied as neighborhood festivals, church fundraisers and straight music clubs like the Star Bar and Eddie's Attic. She's reissued her 19-year-old LP, The Queen of Diamonds, on CD and added ample bonus material. After 35 years on stage, Diamond Lil is ready again for her close-up.
"I wouldn't call it a comeback," she quips. "Because the truth is I've never gone anywhere."The first thing you notice about Diamond Lil is the voice. She speaks with a harmonious Southern lilt equal parts Minnie Pearl and Dixie Carter, a rarity in our age of indistinguishable accents.
When she's not performing, you'll most likely find her in more androgynous everyday attire -- a pair of jeans, maybe, and a purple silk shirt -- along with a faded blue lunch cooler she carries her CDs in.
When she speaks, her large, cartoonish eyes roll romantically around the room. Her language mingles an old-fashioned Southern wit with an off-the-wall vernacular both grandiose and obscure. She calls her hometown of Savannah "the Land of Famine" and her house in Virginia-Highland "the Temple of the Lonesome Oaks."
When she speaks of the good old days -- which is often -- Diamond stares melodramatically upward, like some tragic heroine from the silent film era. She laughs when I ask her age.
"A woman who tells her age, honey, she'll tell anything," she says. "Next question."
She respectfully asks that her given name not be revealed either, and she's equally dodgy about her history before the persona of Diamond Lil was born. What she will say is this: The boy who would become the city's drag godmother was already doing dress-up at age 5, playing in the yard wearing his sister's clothes, a practice his mother quickly stopped.
At 17 he found a like-minded friend in Sophie, an overweight drag princess in training. One Halloween night, the two Savannah teenagers got dolled up in evening gowns and crashed an exclusive party at the American Legion on Tybee Island. They drank and flirted with a table of rowdy Air Force men who didn't immediately realize they were guys. But after several drinks, Sophie admitted to the facade, forcing the duo to exit the party early. Driving home from the party, they were followed by two of the soldiers, who shot out a tire on their car. At gunpoint, one of the men forced Diamond to perform oral sex on him.
"It was so scary," Diamond says, "there's no words for it. But I made a decision that night that I was out. A real weird way to come out, though."
Being out had its drawbacks. Because of her sexual orientation, Diamond was eventually discharged from the Air National Guard and fired from a secretarial job at Seaboard Railroad. After a run-in with the Savannah police -- she was arrested for a drummed-up loitering charge -- she decided it was time to take her talents elsewhere.
The obvious choice: Atlanta. She arrived in 1965. The city as she describes it was then a charming, small Southern town of big porches and wicker chairs. She settled down with a husband for a while and started a small antiques business near the intersection of Peachtree and 11th streets. She dabbled in drag, performing under the name Leslie Diamond at a friend's show in Columbus, Ohio, and at a short-lived gay bar in Buckhead, which was quickly shut down by the cops.
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