Drag icon Heklina’s untimely death last April didn’t just leave a giant void in San Francisco’s still-grieving drag universe. Her passing also created a challenge of a more practical nature.
Who could possibly replace her as Dorothy Zbornak in the Victoria Theater’s annual tradition of live drag reenactments of holiday-themed Golden Girls episodes?
There was probably only one answer to that: Miss Coco Peru.
She’s got to be the only drag queen in America as vicious and viper-tongued as both Heklina and Dorothy (played by Bea Arthur) and who knew each of them personally. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a breeze.
“If anybody had a sense of humor about things, it was Heklina,” Coco told The Standard of her departed friend. “I’m hoping she’s getting a kick out of me stressing out.”
Coco, one of the country’s best-known drag performers, has been in the business for decades. Sporting a red flip wig and a heavy, exasperated Bronx accent, she is eternally repulsed by society’s foibles and ready to lay down some hard, hilarious truths.
In one classic—”classic” by the standards of 2010s YouTube, anyway—Coco navigates the crap-filled aisles of various Los Angeles-area big-box discount chains on an unsuccessful quest to find Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer Tea.
Now she will be at the Mission District’s oldest theater for the show’s 18th iteration parodying two classic Golden Girls episodes, running from Nov. 24 to Dec. 23. The show has become a San Francisco holiday tradition in its own right, with fans typically wearing their ugliest 1980s holiday sweaters. Joining Coco are Matthew Martin as the lust-filled Blanche Elizabeth Devereaux née Hollingsworth, Holotta Tymes as diminutive firecracker Sophia Petrillo and San Francisco’s own drag laureate D’Arcy Drollinger, who plays the dimwitted Rose Nylund and directs the production.
“She surrounds herself with people who are talented and get things done,” Coco said of Drollinger. “That’s a talent in and of itself, to know who to hire.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Coco was not a big fan of The Golden Girls during its initial 1985 to ’92 run. She was studying theater at the time and didn’t have a television. Plus, she was a fan of Arthur’s previous show.
“I was so addicted to Bea Arthur as Maude that it’s been very hard for me to let go of that,” she said. “But now I absolutely love The Golden Girls, and I kind of marvel at the writing and then how they picked four brilliant actresses who play it. It’s absurd that they play it so real and honestly.”
Her own career has been, in her own words, “all over the place,” with solo stage shows at the Castro Theatre, a guest spot on Will & Grace and her own “Conversations With Coco” series in which she’s interviewed women like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin or Liza Minelli.
“I’ve been at galas, being celebrated, and then I’m performing in some dive when I’m peeing in a hole in the ground because they didn’t have a bathroom,” she said. “At the end of it all, I can feel very satisfied knowing I’ve lasted in a career for 33 years without having a show like RuPaul’s.”
“Conversations With Coco” also gave her the opportunity to interview Bea Arthur herself. A sitcom actress with impeccable comic timing, Arthur—who died in 2009 at age 86—was a shy, occasionally anxious performer who dispensed good advice.
“She once said to me, ‘Oh darling, remember this: Even stars get the diarrhea,’” Coco recalled, adding that Arthur could be selective about her company. “Her musical director, Billy Goldenberg, who was also a friend of mine, said, ‘She said no to Larry King, but she said yes to Coco Peru.’”
The role of Dorothy isn’t the first to be recast after the death of a queen. Cookie Dough, who played Sophia, died in Mexico in early 2015. And none of the original Golden Girls are still alive, either, after Betty White died on New Year’s Eve 2021 just weeks shy of her 100th birthday. But the Golden Girls character who haunts Coco Peru is a comparatively minor one, that of the girls’ gay cook.
He never made it past the pilot. His name? Coco.
“Can you imagine? His show gets picked up, and they write him off?” Coco said of her namesake. “To this day, I can’t watch that episode.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com