Atlanta legend Lily White made drag performance into ferocious fun

Drag performer Lily White brought shock and humor to the art form. Photo by R. Travis Beck
Caption
Drag performer Lily White brought shock and humor to the art form. Photo by R. Travis Beck

Credit: R. Travis Beck

Credit: R. Travis Beck

In a career that spanned almost five decades, White saw drag go from outré to mainstream.

One of Atlanta’s most storied performers has made her final curtain call.

Drag artist Lily White, who delivered dirty jokes and over-the-top performances in gay clubs for more than 40 years, died Wednesday, her sister confirmed on White’s Facebook page. She was 73.

White added a punk attitude and a little gothic horror to the drag scene.

“I think everyone always thinks of her as the original,” said Marc Jones, who produced shows at the clubs Sweet Gum Head and Illusions. “There’s never been another act like her.”

Born Kyle Dennis Souder, the future performer went to high school in Rome, Georgia, and later studied architecture at Georgia Tech, according to her Facebook page.

In one of her early appearances she teamed up with drag performers Kitty Litter and Alvina LaVerne to ride in Atlanta’s second Pride Parade in 1972. They wore torn dresses and stained white gloves and performed as the Grease Sisters.

The trio lampooned girl-harmony groups such as the Andrews Sisters. “They were trying to dress down and dirty up drag,” said Martin Padgett, whose new history “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” offers a compelling account of the flowering of Atlanta’s drag scene during the 1970s. “It was not received very well at the time.”

White’s performances unsettled some audiences because she rocked the boat, playing for shock and laughs, rather than for glamour.

Lily White (left) and fellow drag performer Charlie Brown appeared dressed to the nines for the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade in 1986. Photo: Neil McGahee
Caption
Lily White (left) and fellow drag performer Charlie Brown appeared dressed to the nines for the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade in 1986. Photo: Neil McGahee

Credit: Neil McGahee

Credit: Neil McGahee

While the other drag stars were lip-syncing to Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand, Lily was channeling Joan Jett, Nina Hagen, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Cyndi Lauper. “She was rock and roll when everyone else was disco,” said Jones.

In a way, White was taking a subversive art form and subverting it further. “Drag was this performance in honor of this feminine image,” said Padgett, “and she wanted to dirty that up. A lot of performers were doing this pure imitation of women, reconstituting their image and trying to pass as women. Lily was wearing a bloodstained wedding dress, performing songs like ‘Drop Dead’.”

At Atlanta’s famed dance club, the Limelight, White won a “most outrageous” contest with an act that brought the house down, according to drag artist and emcee Charlie Brown.

She had cut up a wig and glued pieces of it to her shaved head. Then, while lip-syncing to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” she tore hanks of her hair out, dropping them to the stage.

“During the course of that song she pulled every single hair out of her head,” said Brown. “The place just came apart.”

In an interview with the Georgia Voice in 2014, White suggested that an early meeting with Cassandra Peterson had an impact on Peterson’s choice of costume.

At that point White was wearing a black wig, before she switched to red curls. She used the same wild, bat-wing eye makeup. Peterson would later use a similar look for her Elvira character.

“So whatever Elvira looks like is what I used to look like in the ’70s,” White told the Voice. “I wore two black wigs piled up, almost the same eyes. Everything but the (cleavage).”

White was famous for her unprintable toasts, often delivered with a glass of peppermint schnapps in hand. (One toast begins “Here’s to the men I’ve loved the best/I’ve [expletive] them naked and I’ve [expletive] them dressed.”)

Lily White in a Polaroid taken by Atlanta artist Jon Arge circa 1993. Arge's photos were often signed by their subjects and are now part of the LGBT collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.
Caption
Lily White in a Polaroid taken by Atlanta artist Jon Arge circa 1993. Arge's photos were often signed by their subjects and are now part of the LGBT collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.

Credit: Jon Arge, courtesy of the artist

Credit: Jon Arge, courtesy of the artist

Actor and writer Leslie Jordan, best known as the character Beverly Leslie in the television series “Will & Grace,” was friends with White when he lived in Atlanta, and a few years ago he posted a reminiscence online about White and schnapps.

White recommended peppermint schnapps to Jordan as a breath freshener, adding “Girl, sometimes my breath was so sweet I couldn’t hardly walk.”

In the 1990s Charlie Brown became the master of ceremonies at an ongoing drag show upstairs at the dance club Backstreet. Charlie Brown’s Cabaret went on until 6 a.m., and Brown recruited White as a co-emcee.

She enjoyed engaging the audience, bringing people on stage and answering comments with her own retorts. “Lily was a natural at it,” said Jones. “Nobody could throw anything at her from the audience that she didn’t have some witty comeback.”

Vicki Vara, co-owner of Backstreet, said owners and bartenders would sometimes stage “turnabout” shows at the club, in which the performers would man the bar while the servers went on stage.

“I was doing a turnabout show as Dolly Parton, and I asked (Lily White): would you do my makeup? Mistake. Dolly Parton never had on so much black makeup. I looked like a miniature Lily White in a Dolly Parton dress,” she said.

“Her clothing, her makeup, her attitude, her selection of songs, she was like an old punk rocker trying to outdo the other punk rockers,” said Vara. “She was real good at it. She loved entertaining, she loved getting a rise out of everybody.”

Despite being from an earlier era, White had much in common with the punk-rock generation, said Clare Butler, a member of the 1980s new wave band the Now Explosion that performed for some of the same audiences. “I think she was able to say I’m a little older than these people but I get what these young kids want to hear and like.”

Lily White with fellow Atlanta drag mainstay Peg (aka the late Hal Gresham) circa 1999. This Polaroid by Jon Arge, like most of the Atlanta artist's Polaroids, was signed by the subjects and is now part of the LGBT collection at Emory University.
Caption
Lily White with fellow Atlanta drag mainstay Peg (aka the late Hal Gresham) circa 1999. This Polaroid by Jon Arge, like most of the Atlanta artist's Polaroids, was signed by the subjects and is now part of the LGBT collection at Emory University.

Credit: Jon Arge, Courtesy of the artist

Credit: Jon Arge, Courtesy of the artist

White brought her scary-goth attitude into her home life as well, decorating her apartment with gauze, tiny lights, candles and a coffin that she slept in sometimes. Said friend and sound man Fred Wise, “it was like stepping out of the Munsters.”

That sex-and-horror vibe has become a familiar template now, and is used by at least one contemporary drag artist. Said Padgett, “everything Sharon Needles is doing on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ was what Lil was doing for $25 a night at clubs in Atlanta.”

White was rarely seen out of costume, said Brown. When he was, with his bald head and rimless glasses, he bore a faint resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi.

After quitting drag and moving back to Rome to help take care of her mother, who was dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, White experienced a series of misfortunes.

Their house burned down in February 2012, destroying all White’s costumes, then two weeks later White suffered a heart attack. A month after that her mother died.

She tried to make a comeback in drag, but felt that she was out of step. Diagnosed with cancer, she went into hospice.

Her death brought tears and remembrances from performers up and down the East Coast.

Lady Bunny, who was a go-go dancer with Now Explosion and moved to New York with RuPaul to perform drag, left a touching message on White’s Facebook page.

“Nasty, freaky and unapologetically sick, I adored Lily, and she and Mr. Charlie Brown really set the bar high for drag emcees,” she wrote. “Both were a huge deal in the South for half a century or more.”

Marc Jones said he will host a remembrance of Lily White at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 31, at the Cheshire Bridge club The Heretic (2069 Cheshire Bridge Road; 404-325-3061; www.hereticatlanta.com). “Join me and an array of entertainers as we bring you a show of shows to honor this legend of legends,” said Jones;