Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bearded Venus

Posted by Chris Haire on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 7:34 AM

As you're probably aware by now, this year's Best of Charleston is stachetastic. And as with previous years, we've had more content than what actually hit the page. Here's a rather swell essay from Jon Santiago about the most famous bearded lady of all time — Lady Olga.

Bearded Venus

Lady Olga can set you free

As nearly as she could recall, one day when her father was out of town, Jane Barnell’s mother gave her outright to the Great Orient Family Circus and Menagerie. Barnell was four years old.

In a 1940 New Yorker profile of Barnell, she recalled that day: “I never been able to find out if Mamma got any money for me or just gave me away to get rid of me. She hated me, I know that. Daddy told me years later that he gave her a good beating when he got home from Baltimore and found out what had happened.”

Barnell worked for Great Orient and Barnum & Bailey, and spent six years with Ringling Brothers. She took the stage name Lady Olga. Her career spanned decades. She travelled the globe.

Mitchell’s sympathetic portrait reveals a woman who married four times, kept a busy career going on her own terms and in private life, and alternated between self-assurance — which some circus colleagues considered haughtiness — and solitary retreats into depression.

Early in life she’d considered joining the Catholic Church as a nun; she’d heard sideshow women sometimes did that. But religion had never meant much to Barnell, and in the end, she liked to think of herself as too “hardboiled” to give up her freedom.

In her later years, Cole Porter invited her to a swank cocktail party at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was not her first brush with the gilded life.

She’d starred in the movies herself. And by any measure she could think of, at Porter’s gala she would be a professional among professionals, equal to any of the other entertainers present, for in her day Miss Barnell — Lady Olga — was the country’s foremost Bearded Lady. Her beard was 13 inches long, always meticulously groomed and more than once, it had been her ticket to Hollywood.

That evening she found herself an honored guest among New York’s stage and society glitterati. Later, Barnell remarked on how much she’d enjoyed herself.

“When I was introduced around, I recognized their names. I guess I was a curiosity to them. Some of them sure were a curiosity to me. I been around peculiar people most of my life, but I never saw no women like them before,” Barnell told The New Yorker.

Very few women may imagine themselves letting their hair down like Barnell without repressing a shudder. They remain deeply conflicted with our shamelessly furry nature.

In television commercials and women’s magazines, this conflict triggers the fretful moniker, “unwanted hair.”

It’s just one creepy phrase, but invoking it summons a host of aggressors, a dreadful phalanx of words that describe violent strategies, brutal campaigns, and fanatical purges: waxing, bleaching, tweezing, shaving, depilation, electrolysis, and even, for the tech-enamored, laser obliteration.

It’s possible that this aggression will never end. The unwanted hair removal business is a multi-billion dollar industry.

But what makes all that hair —plucked and yanked and annihilated with death rays — so dismally unwanted?

It depends.

The long, gray beard of the sage and the equally forceful, if less distinguished, whiskers of the brawny biker symbolize wisdom and power. A shoo-in, you’d think, for any male hoping to project assertiveness and judgement. Even so, and perhaps to the detriment of wisdom in business, there are few beards on display in corporate board rooms. (Richard Branson, by virtue of his rebellious, anti-corporate image, doesn’t count.) These days, a denuded male jawline is meant to signal military-style clarity and precision — an inconvenient fiction for anyone who’s glanced at the stock market lately.

Among women, the tolerance for female hirsuteness unhappily slaloms in a minefield of cultural dictates, fashion, gender politics, and probably a great many more things that some will argue just don’t bear thinking about.

Consider this:

The most common, childish way to vandalize a person’s dignity — in particular, female dignity — is to scribble a mustache or beard on their picture.

Even a cultural icon like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa famously got the treatment when the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp retrofitted Mona with a neat, Flemish goatee and rakish upper lip shrubbery. It was an irreverent gag, one that only pays off when a society obsesses over strict follicle control and deviations from the grooming norm are considered, in a word, freakish.

And if “unwanted hair” is a phrase freighted with cultural baggage, then “freak” — that heartless, outcast word — is a whole caravan of mismatched luggage.

“Freak” says “social leper.” It recalls nightmare encounters with bullying classmates. “Freak” says “beyond the pale of tolerance.”

It’s also what we used to call people like Jane Barnell. —Jon Santiago


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