Atlanta drag legend Lily White has toasted her adored adopted city for the final time. White, born Kyle Dennis Souder, died late Wednesday afternoon, from complications of cancer in hospice care in her hometown of Rome, Georgia. She was 73. The performer’s sister, Michelle Souder Tucker of Cedar Bluff, Alabama confirmed the passing on White’s Facebook page early Thursday morning.
In the fall of 2019, the pioneering Atlanta drag performer took her private cancer battle public, announcing her move to hospice care on her Facebook page. In her final years, slowed by multiple strokes and a fall, she occasionally interacted with fans on the social media platform. In response, friends and fans sent her well wishes and shared their memories of her 45-year drag career, most of which was spent in Atlanta.
On Thursday morning, as two generations of fans awakened to the news of her death, Lily White’s Facebook page filled with tributes. Columbus, Ga. fan Jayuar Allen posted: “Waking up to the news that a true legend and pioneer for my community and the drag world has passed away. Atlanta hasn’t been the same in a long time but when this bitch got with the others from Backstreet for their reunions, it felt like home again. You will be greatly missed, Lily.”
According to biographical information posted on her Facebook page, White graduated from Rome High School and went on to study architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology (She credited her pre-drag career work as an architectural designer for inspiring her subsequent stiletto heel-accented original drag costume designs).
After getting her feet wet doing drag in Tennessee with friends and fellow iconic Atlanta drag queens Diamond Lil and Billy Jones, White made her way back to Georgia in the early 1970s, where she performed at Peaches Back Door and The Locker Room, the city’s then-24 hour club. With friends and fellow drag performers Kitty Litter and Alvina LaVerne, the trio formed The Grease Sisters, a comic drag act that specialized in spotlighting — and spoofing — female singing trios, including the McGuire Sisters.
Among The Grease Sisters’ high-profile early gigs? The June 25, 1972 Atlanta Gay Pride celebration. Reported Atlanta alternative newspaper The Great Speckled Bird in its July 3, 1972 edition: “At the end of the parade came two trucks carrying the Grease Sisters, a new kind of drag group that seems to be mocking the old queenly preoccupation with elegance, fantasy and pretension. The members have names like Miss Kitty Litter and Miss Lily White and wear preposterous musty old frilled and flounced dresses that are coming apart at the hems. With great flutterings of ostrich plumes and waving of soiled white gloves, the Grease Sisters gave staid old Peachtree, as well as conservative homosexuals, a good lesson in the blurring of traditional sex roles.”
Later, after becoming a solo act, White’s jet black piled up wig, dark signature make-up and rock n roll-inspired, ribald comedic antics on stage made her act completely different from her more glamorous show tune and pop song lip-synching contemporaries.
“I made it cool to be crazy,” White explained in the 2015 documentary “Queer Moxie,” co-directed by Atlantans Heather Provoncha and Leo Hollen, Jr. “I hung out with all the Ramones-type rock n roll bands. I would go to all of their concerts in drag. They loved when Lily White was there.”
When he moved to Atlanta in the mid-1970s, Emmy-winning “Will & Grace” and “Sordid Lives” actor Leslie Jordan found himself living downstairs from White in a dilapidated building in the Pershing Point section of Midtown.
“Years and years ago, Lily was doing a kind of drag that is wildly popular now,” Jordan recalled in an email to Eldredge ATL. “Lily never wanted to be ‘the pretty girl.’ She did what we used to call ‘freak drag.’ When she barreled onstage, you never knew what you were going to get.” Jordan would later turn his transformative experiences in Midtown Atlanta gay’s underground into a screenplay for his 2000 film, “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel.”
Charlie Brown, White’s longtime friend and Charlie Brown’s Cabaret co-emcee at Atlanta’s iconic gay dance club Backstreet says the performer was like a sister to her. They first met in Jacksonville, Florida in 1977, where they were both working at the time. By the 1980s, White and Brown had each independently returned to Atlanta and were working on the same street — Cheshire Bridge Road. Brown was entertaining at Sweet Gum Head and White was at Hollywood Hots.
“Lily was a great friend and one of the pioneers in Atlanta for female impersonation,” said Brown. “She set a standard for everyone who followed her. Nobody did what she did on stage. It was completely original. It was the drag equivalent of shock rock. I learned a lot from her. She was an entertainer who kept her nose to the grindstone. She was always working to perfect what she was doing.”
“When I first moved here in ’77, she was with the Grease Sisters and I went to see her at Hollywood Hots,” remembers Lena Lust, who would go on to work beside White for years at Backstreet. “They were doing ‘Fairytale’ by the Pointer Sisters. They all came out with suitcases. It was funny as hell. We all ended living together at the Four Seasons Apartments on Woodland Avenue. She was my next door neighbor. I loved her. She was very smart. She had a degree in architecture and made gorgeous clothes. I still have some of the outfits she made for me.”
A mainstay of White’s act included a series of self-penned, witty and raunchy toasts to the crowd as she hoisted a shot of Peppermint Schnapps, her drink of choice, to the audience. “She had a little notebook of toasts that she kept,” recalls Brown. “She was always writing a new one or trying one out backstage between sets.”
Here’s to the men I’ve loved best. I’ve [expletive] ‘em naked and I’ve [expletive] ‘em dressed. I’ve [expletive] ‘em standing and [expletive] ‘em lying. If they’d a had wings, I’d have [expletive] ‘em flying. But when they’re dead and long forgotten, I’m gonna dig ‘em up and [expletive] ‘em rotten.”Lily White
“She was always kind, in or out of drag,” says Carla Conrad, who worked as a karaoke host at Burkhart’s Pub in the 1990s and would routinely pay tribute to White by reciting her infamous toasts while banging back a shot onstage. “I remember watching her one night in the dressing room at Backstreet as she drew pubic hair on her pantyhose with a magic marker just to give the crowd a thrill. She was bold and brave and super quick-witted onstage. You could not best her. I was a baby ally/karaoke host at the time and I thought she hung the moon.”
White was featured in the 1997 HBO documentary “Dragtime,” partially shot on location at Backstreet, upstairs in Charlie Brown’s Cabaret. Recalls Brown’s husband and longtime Backstreet technical director Fred Wise: “One of my favorite all-time Lily White quotes is in ‘Dragtime.’ When they asked her, ‘What’s your favorite kind of audience?’ she replied, ‘The kind facing the stage and paying attention!’”
Brown also credits White for knowing how to make an entrance. The performer recalled the first time Wise, her then-boyfriend, encountered White, in the early 1980s at the Atlanta nightclub Timbers on Cheshire Bridge Road, the building where The Heretic is currently housed. “We were sitting there and the door opened and in walked Lily White. She was dressed in a tight red leopard spandex pantsuit, with gigantic hair and that make up. Over her shoulder was a leash and right behind her came a slave boy in the same exact outfit. Fred’s face dropped as he looked up and said, ‘What in the hell is that?!’ I told him, ‘That is the Lily White. Don’t worry, you’re going to love her once you get to know her. And he did.”
White, slowed in recent years by multiple health challenges, including a heart attack and several strokes, made one of her final public appearances, along with friend and fellow Atlanta drag icon Diamond Lil to attend the 2015 world premiere of “Queer Moxie” at Atlanta’s Out on Film festival. The performers were among those featured in the feature-length documentary focusing on Atlanta’s drag queen and drag king circuit, queer comedy and LGBTQ+ spoken word performers.
According to “Queer Moxie” co-director Leo Hollen, Jr., White agreed to participate in the film project but with the stipulation she not be photographed. “She shared a treasure trove of stories,” says Hollen. “Being able to hear the first-hand history of her performances, meeting Diamond Lil and inspiring a generation of queens was pretty incredible. Knowing she is a part of the fabric of our history is pretty damn profound.”
At the 2015 film premiere held at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, Diamond Lil (who would die a year later in 2016 at 80) and Lily White bantered back and forth during the Q&A with the packed house. At one point, Lil, who first began doing drag in Atlanta at Mrs. P’s in the basement of the Ponce Hotel in the mid-1960s, playfully wagged a finger in her protégé’s direction and quipped ala “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be here, Blanche!” The assembled crowd ate it up.
Here’s to the gash that never heals. The more you rub it, the better it feels. You can scrub it and rub it and wash it to hell, but you’ll never get rid of that fishy smell.”Lily White
In 2013, White attempted a return to the stage with “Foreplay with Lily White” at Jungle nightclub but later lamented that her act was out of step with the current generation of drag performers. “I was history, I wasn’t current,” White explained in a 2014 Georgia Voice interview with reporter Patrick Saunders. “A comedy act is not really what goes over now. I was Aunt Lil, but Aunt Lil doesn’t keep up. So, I retired.”
But at the height of Lily White’s career, Leslie Jordan says she transformed comic drag into art. “Long before ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ brought drag into the mainstream, there were performers like Lily,” says the actor. “It was performance art. She had this one number where she had shaved her head bald and then glued pieces of a wig all over her head. She came onstage lip synching to Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ and mid-performance she had snatched herself baldheaded while being dragged off stage in restraints. It was beyond subversive. It was just nuts. And the crowds went ballistic!”
“A lot of people wouldn’t hire her because she was so out there,” recalls Lena Lust. “It was a bizarre act. I had never seen anything like it. She was acquired taste for a lot of people but I always loved that Lily plotted her own course. She was true to herself.”
“Nobody had that look and nobody could pop a skirt like she could walking across the room,” says Charlie Brown. “As co-emcees, we worked together well because not only was she a great emcee, we were complete opposites. Our styles were completely different. I attacked the straight girls in the audience and she went after the men and the boys, the young queens. I knew once I handed that microphone over to her, I didn’t have to worry.”
Lily White ended up inspiring a generation of drag performers, including former Atlantan Lady Bunny, who called White “The Witch Queen of Punk Rock.”
“Lily White forever changed my perception of what drag could be — something other than a beautiful illusion of the perfect female,” says Richard Cherry, who performs on Atlanta stages as the deliciously deranged drag diva Mary Edith Pitts. “Her act was laugh-out-loud funny, vulgar, offensive, in your face, at times scary and yet every eye in the room was captivated by her creation as she commanded the stage. I had been performing for about eight years when I first met ‘Aunt Lil’. She had been performing at a benefit, had seen my act and came up to me afterwards to compliment me on being an original and daring to be different. I looked her in her eye and said something to the effect of, ‘It’s because of you that Mary Edith is here. You paved the way!’ She humbly dismissed my compliment but over time, I got to see the gentle sweet nurturing man behind the mask.”
Leslie Jordan says that while Lily White isn’t as well-known as Lady Bunny or another Atlanta-birthed drag queen, RuPaul, she belongs in that same club of icons: “Lily White can truly be called an Atlanta legend.”
As for Atlanta’s Aunt Lil herself, she politely declined to add to that legend. Via a text while in hospice she said, “An interview would be hard for me. Thank you for your kindness and for thinking of me. I’m just gonna let my career stand on its own. Love you.”
In the closing minutes of “Queer Moxie” in voice over as photos from her 45-year career flash on screen, Lily White perhaps best summed up her legacy herself as she recalled coming out to her grandmother as a drag performer, while showing her a photo album of her career on stage.
“She told me, ‘I don’t really understand this but you’re doing God’s work. You’re going on stage and keeping peoples’ minds off their bills and bringing them into your life for five minutes.’ I had never thought about it like that. I never realized how much influence you can have until you look in their eyes when you’re performing and you can tell they’re totally inside your world and not thinking about anything else. You’ve got them. You’re making them laugh. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
“Here’s to finding the perfect man. Who could ask for anything more? He’s deaf, he’s dumb, he’s blind. But his [expletive] hangs down to the floor!”Lily White
In one of her final Facebook posts to fans, Lily White wrote: “I wish everyone could have as wonderful a life as I’ve been blessed with. Don’t know what’s next but whatever it is…my spirits are kool.”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.