God save the Queen 

If Diamond Lil is the grand dame of Atlanta drag, why can't she get a steady gig?

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Diamond Lil was a constant presence on the city's quickly growing gay scene of the '70s and early '80s, and soon her popularity extended beyond the bar scene. She began writing a human interest column for the gay newspaper Sunset People, which eventually led to a popular advice column in the nightlife magazine Cruise. No self-respecting homo in town didn't know the name Diamond Lil.

But in the mid-'80s, Diamond Lil's luster began to fade. She cut back on performing to focus on a new antiques business she'd opened in Buckhead. Meanwhile, the landscape of gay life began to change. When asked about the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Diamond visibly freezes up.

"It just got hold of a lot of people all of a sudden," she says. "It happened in just two or three years."

The bathhouses, gay bars and adult bookstores that had opened along the Strip began to shut down. Suddenly the promise of the Sexual Revolution seemed like a cruel joke as the circus-like atmosphere of the '70s gave way to an era of loss and insecurity.

For Diamond, the impact was twofold. Not only did she see her fanbase decrease, most notably the guys who'd followed her rise to local stardom, she also found herself in a social vacuum. When asked how many friends she lost, she tersely replies, "All of them."

Diamond's writing continued with a bittersweet assignment -- penning obituaries for the bar magazine Etcetera. She recalls the mixed emotions she felt when friends asked her to write their obit -- she was both flattered and distraught.

By then, Diamond had semi-retired from performing, only doing occasional gigs around town. Cabaret had fallen out of fashion and there weren't any marquees left in Midtown -- no place for a true diva to see her name in lights. In 1995 she had a good run as the opening act for a local theater troupe's Torch Song Trilogy, followed by the short-lived "Diamond Lil Show" at the Metro. But securing good gigs became increasingly harder -- especially ones that paid. Bar owners would pay for drag shows that lured in a steady audience, but Lil's act required a band, which cost more to hire.

In addition, Diamond lost her support system. "I used to have two or three queens who'd help me with everything: wigs, makeup, gowns. Well, they're dead," she says matter of factly.

She acknowledges that her audience changed. The guys who used to turn out to see her every week were by then most likely dead or partnered. She considered updating the act, she says, but still preferred the old-fashioned stuff.

"You know what ruined my career?" she asks without a trace of irony. "They took my records out of all the jukeboxes."

Last summer Diamond's friend Al Brock convinced her to re-release her LP on disc. The newly digital Queen of Diamonds showcases her live act at its best. Though several of the songs don't rise much above novelty tracks ("Jailhouse Jezebel," "Queen of the Dunk N' Dine"), they do give glimpse of her appeal. Her opening monologue for "Silver Grill," recorded live at The Bistro, is a rare gem of forgotten Atlanta folklore, a tale of cruising through Piedmont Park in the early '70s "when it used to be so nice to pick up something strange by the lake."

In the past year, Diamond's played venues as varied as Fuzzy's, the Star Bar and Eddie's Attic, as well as gigs at a fundraiser for the Atlanta Church of Religious Science and the Cabbagetown Festival, where she handed out wedges of cabbage. But Diamond's biggest challenge is finding good gigs, venues that'll give her a chance to do more than just a walk-on during someone else's show. She's able to secure guest appearances because her name still carries some weight in town, but she can't figure out what exactly caused her star to fall.

"You can't be a prophet in your own hometown," she says. "The town won't let you."

Perhaps it's because her act doesn't fit neatly in either the straight or gay worlds. DJs, not live bands, rule the gay bars, and drag shows in general are less common now than 20 years ago. Diamond calls straight music venues a better fit for her, even though the clubs don't always see it that way. She thinks they're afraid hosting a singing drag queen will turn the place gay.

"Maybe that's why I can't get a job," she says. "I'm too far out, which I figured a long time ago. I should have left this one-horse town."

Diamond would like to eventually write her memoirs, and she's joined a writing group at her church to that end. But her main focus is finding the next good gig, ideally playing a large venue like Variety Playhouse.


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