album cover - Diamond Lil
Photo: Picasa
Photo: Picasa

Pioneering Atlanta drag performer Diamond Lil has died

Atlanta drag legend Diamond Lil, born Phillip Forrester in Savannah on Dec. 28, 1935, has died at age 80.

The performer had been ill with cancer for more than a year and was moved into a hospice care facility in recent months.

Her influence on Atlanta’s drag scene is profound.

“Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I saw her perform,” said fellow performer, friend and fan Lily White in a Facebook post. “Little did I know that her talent and influence would change my life. Her love for her fans never wavered, and her crazy outlook on loving each other and having fun is still what I judge myself [by] to this day.”

Lil moved to Atlanta in 1965, beginning her local performing career at Mrs. P’s, a restaurant and lounge in the basement of the Ponce Hotel, just up the street from the Sears Building (now Ponce City Market).

Unlike many of her fellow drag performers, and those she inspired, Diamond Lil sang in her own voice rather than lip syncing. She composed some of her own music, too. So it’s no surprise she released several albums, including “The Queen of Diamonds,” and recorded popular song “Silver Grill Blues,” named after a defunct Atlanta diner.

“Whenever I sing [Silver Grill Blues], you can hear a pin drop,” said Lil in a 2006 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Everyone just stops talking. People just have a place in their heart for the Silver Grill.”

Diamond Lil would later take her act to Sweet Gum Head on Cheshire Bridge Road and other venues. In more recent times, she performed at Manuel’s Tavern and Mixx.

In later years, she wrote advice columns in free gay-centric Atlanta publications, including Georgia Voice. And earlier this year, she offered advice to marriage-planning couples in the publication’s wedding issue. “Do you want to put a blemish on your wedding by inviting negative relatives,” she asked. “Remember these famous words: ‘Convince a fool against his will. He’s of the same opinion still.’”.

In 2014, Diamond Lil was voted best icon in Georgia Voice’s Best of Atlanta Awards.

Lady Bunny, a Chattanooga native who began her career on Atlanta’s drag scene in the ’80s and later founded New York’s festival Wigstock, remembered Diamond Lil's influence in a call from New York Wednesday afternoon.

"She was singing with a live band and I had never heard of a drag queen doing that," Bunny said, recalling seeing Diamond Lil perform at the Atlanta club TV Dinner in the early-'80s.  "That really helped shaped my experience because it was not disco music, it was rock 'n' roll and it was original. What always interested me about Diamond Lil, she broke the boundaries of what most drag queens thought they could do. Most though they could either lip sync or do a celebrity impersonation and she said no, I’m going to front a rock band and do original music...I did love the mock grandeur of her. I totally bought it, when you were in the same room with her, she was regal. She really was magic. She really was unique."

Melissa Ruggieri contributed to this report

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