The messages began pinging around Instagram around noon on Monday.
Nashom Wooden, an omnipresence on New York’s gay bar and club scene, was dead at 50 after a short illness that he had suspected but not confirmed was Covid-19.
It came as a shock, first because Mr. Wooden looked barely different than he had at 35, but also because among people in nightlife, there was about him a survivalist quality rivaled only by Susanne Bartsch, the drag queen empress whose parties he sometimes appeared at, and Lady Bunny, his drag queen comrade and former roommate.
Over the years, Mr. Wooden performed in heels as Mona Foot; appeared with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert DeNiro in the 1999 movie “Flawless”; co-wrote and performed a song that became a top 10 hit all around Europe; bartended at the Cock, a longtime gay dive in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood; and showed up at countless movie premieres and fashion shows, usually in his fitted Maison Margiela leather jacket, dark jeans and Rick Owens boots.
Mr. Wooden grew up in Brooklyn but came of age at Boy Bar, the not-quite-bar not-quite-nightclub where many an early ’90s drag queen was hatched.
The original idea (it’s not exactly clear whose) was to turn him into what Lady Bunny described as a “a sassy mammy character,” with Aretha Franklin wigs and floral print ’50s dresses.
At night, Mr. Wooden hosted Mona Foot’s “Star Search,” a weekly competition at Barracuda that preceded RuPaul’s “Drag Race” by more than 15 years and probably served as one of its inspirations.
During the day, Mr. Wooden ran the men’s department at the Patricia Field boutique, working alongside Candis Cayne, another of the scene’s best-known personalities.
In heels onstage, he was a terrifying presence. “He could really cut a bitch,” Ms. Cayne said. Out of heels, he was a mensch.
By the end of the ’90s, Mr. Wooden had been cast as one of a gaggle of drag queens in “Flawless,” where he serves as one of Mr. Hoffman’s sidekicks and performs Cher’s “Half Breed” in a drag club.
He and his sisters of the cloth, JoJo Americo and Paul Alexander (performing as the trio The Ones), recorded a song with the movie’s title. It went to No. 4 on the Billboard Club Play chart, No. 7 in the United Kingdom and No. 2 in Belgium.
George Michael added a few lyrics and rerecorded it a few years later as “Flawless (Go to the City).” It became his last big hit.
From there, The Ones recorded a few albums and performed at festivals around the world. But Mr. Wooden was less known for having a career than for being a presence.
“He was at every gym, he was at every club, he was equally beautiful in and out of drag,” said Christopher Peregrin, the global director of partnerships at Magnum, a leading photography agency. “Sometimes, these queens wash their faces, take off the make up and the attractiveness disappears. But he was as compelling out of drag as he was in it.”
“A Tom of Finland-looking god,” Ms. Cayne said
Three weeks ago, Mr. Wooden was in peak physical shape, working out with friends in Chelsea. A week and a half ago, he was holed up at home in the East Village with what seemed to be a strange flu.
Some days it was worse, others better.
In text messages to David Dalrymple, a costume designer who made many of Mona’s outfits, Mr. Wooden expressed confusion about what was going on. “He told me he wasn’t having trouble breathing, but I’m guessing he just didn’t want to worry me,” Mr. Dalrymple said, adding that no one in their circle of friends heard that he sought testing or care.
On Thursday, he told Mr. Dalrymple he was about to start watching “Westworld.”
“He seemed to think he was improving,” Mr. Dalrymple said.
But Saturday rolled around and he fell out of touch. Friends simply couldn’t reach him.
On Monday morning, Mr. Dalrymple became concerned enough to go over to his apartment. Using a spare key, he opened the door and found his collaborator inside, dead.
This was all but unimaginable to those that knew him.
Mr. Wooden had H.I.V. for many years, friends said, but he was on medication and was “undetectable,” the term used for people whose viral load drops to virtually zero.
“He ate well, he slept well, he was at the gym six times a week,” said Josh Jordan, a fashion photographer who’d just run into him in February. “There weren’t mental illness or addiction issues. There was nothing sketchy in his life. That’s why it’s so crazy. It’s an awful wake-up call.”