A few months ago, while drifting aimlessly through broken links and gruesome mpegs in a dark corner of the internet I clicked on something that came with a guarantee to make me sick. Moments later I was watching The Goddess Bunny and her now infamous 'tap dance with parasol'.
Words can't replicate the experience. It's creepy, sure, but so much more. It is weird and disturbing but those words on their own ignore the undefinable something that leaves unprepared viewers confused and mildly traumatised. Watch it and you will understand why people have compared it to The Ring and the work of John Waters and David Lynch.
Nick Bougas, who directed a documentary about Bunny, sums up the power of the clip pretty well. "Although it was essentially an innocent, almost quaint scene, this video had a tendency to really unnerve first time viewers," he explains. "It seemed as though the sight of a horribly malformed individual attempting to do something graceful was somehow unbearably appalling to most people."
Bunny prefers to be called Sandie, and she is in fact male; a drag queen rather than a transsexual. The name Bunny is a remnant of her first stage name: Bunny Victoria Venice.
Over time, the name The Goddess Bunny gave way to Sandie Crisp, the most recent stage name she uses for her shows where she sings, dances. But before Bunny or Sandie, she was Johnny Edward Baima.
Johnny, was born in January 1960 and rendered a quadriplegic three months later after contracting polio.
"I couldn't move my hands. I couldn't move my arms - nothing. I was paralysed from the neck down. Doctors had said that that was going to be it for the rest of my life," Sandie says. It robbed her of any independence.
"My mother had to carry me by my brace and had to load me in and out of my wheelchair and in and out of the car. It was hard on her. With the braces on I weighed a good seventy or eighty pounds," Sandie explains.
But it turned out that the doctor's prognosis of life in a wheelchair was premature. At six. during a church service, the physical damage caused by the polio was reversed.
" I had fallen asleep in service. And Jesus came up to me, and when I awoke I told my grandparents to take off my braces. My grandmother, of course, was hesitant, but my grandfather listened to me and took off my braces and it was the very first time that I could feel my legs.
"My mother took me into the hospital and showed the doctors that I was able to walk. The doctors gathered round and they were like, "Why is this person walking? They're not supposed to be walking." I was a miracle child."
But the good news didn't last long. Sandie's parents divorced not long after her remarkable recovery, suffering from stress, her mother accepted that Sandie had to go into foster care.
Sandie was placed in various foster homes with varying degrees of further damage.
"In one foster home I had my arms and my right hip broken. I got two degree burns on my face. I got tied to toilets and was made to defecate on myself. I had my nose broken." says Sandie.
Another well-meaning foster parent felt that the best way to help Sandie develop the muscle strength that six years of paralysis had robbed her of was to make her spend up to eight hours a day swimming.
"I had been told to do upper-respiratory exercises and of course she thought that swimming would the best thing. She kept me in the pool for six or seven hours, sometimes eight, and my back collapsed. I used to be able to run and do cartwheels, but I ended up back in the hospital and in traction. I had a spinal fusion operation. I was in hospital for about ten months," Sandie says. "Believe me, I know what medieval torture is."
The spinal fusion operation meant that a metal rod "about half an inch in diameter and about eighteen inches long" was clamped to Sandie's spine. It was meant to be removed when Sandie was sixteen, but the doctor who performed the initial operation died before then and the rod remains in place to this day. "I can feel it moving around every once in a while but hey, what can you do?" says Sandie.
Even when she found foster parents prepared to offer her the care she needed, the young Sandie was forced to deal with very adult problems. Sandie's best friend, Johnny, suffered from muscular dystrophy and each night Sandie would help him prepare for a safe night's sleep by doing 'lung compressions' for him.
"That was my job every night," Sandie says. "I was about eleven or twelve when he died in my arms," she says before adding, "I had to grow up very quickly. My mother used to say to me, 'You were never a child'."
Sandie also alleges that she was sexually assaulted by one of her foster siblings and that of all the bad luck, abuse and tragedy that has entered her life, it is her time in foster care that hurts her the most. So much that the hiatus she is experiencing writing her autobiography is because she can't bear to think about what happened.
Sandie finally came out of foster care when she was sixteen. Her alleged abuser didn't receive a custodial sentence as he was a minor at the time of the alleged offence and due to legal technicalities, and what appears, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been bad legal advice, Sandie only received 00 compensation.
For most people, that would have been their life event right there; they would never have done anything more conversation-worthy as long as they lived. But not Sandie. She's what you call tenacious.
The hospital that treated Sandie as a child used to invite celebrities to join the children for the Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. One year when Mary Tyler Moore visited, Sandie impressed her with her piano playing.
She said, 'You're very talented. When you get older you've got to come see me.' She offered me a job when I graduated High School. Well, I was six, but I remembered that all the way through elementary, through junior high and High School. When I was eighteen, , I went to MGM studio, got into see Grant Tinker [Mary Tyler Moore's husband] and said, "Well, your wife told me to come and I am here. Where's the job?"
Unsurprisingly, what the six-year-old Sandie regarded as a solid job offer, Mary Tyler Moore had intended as morale-boosting small talk for a child spending the holidays in hospital. And at 18, there was no job.
"Well, I was disappointed and upset and angry so I started wandering about the studio with my wheelchair. I came across a sound studio that was open and I rode my happy little ass in there and found a phony elevator - I pushed a button and the doors opened and then they shut behind me - and I was trapped there for an hour. Then the lights came on and I heard people and so I kept quiet. They had started shooting. Ed Asner [who won five Emmy awards for playing Mary Tyler Moore's boss Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show] walked in an actress. I said, "Good afternoon Mr Grant," and he said, 'Good afternoon' back to me.
"They thought it was very natural and kept it in. A few days later it showed on TV and my mother said, 'When did you do that?'"
Sandie's debut movie role came about in equally unlikely circumstances eight years later. While sitting smoking a cigarette on Hollywood Boulevard - "I was just watching traffic go by" - a woman pulled up, handed Sandie a business card and said she wanted her to be in a movie. The woman was Penelope Spheeris, who would later direct Wayne's World, and the film was Hollywood Vice Squad, starring Carrie Fisher. It wasn't a big part and the film wasn't exactly Citizen Kane but it made casting agents aware of Sandie and doubtless helped her get future work.
But a lot happened in the eight years between Sandie's small screen and big screen debuts. She worked as a children’s speech therapist. She also claims she had three children, although her second marriage ended after two years when her wife felt that the marriage was unreconcilable with her lesbian feelings.
Whether it is true about the children or not is unclear. But one thing that definitely happened during this period of turmoil in her life was the the creation of the infamous tap-dancing video. And both the existence of and Sandie's gaunt, skeletal appearance are both due to Sandie being diagnosed HIV positive when she was just twenty years old.
"I was diagnosed back in 1980," she says. "They said that I got it through a blood transfusion; I had lots of operations. There are so many others who do have it that it is like, 'Whatever. You've got it? Well so do I.' The minute they come up with the right solution we will all be getting better. Now I take enough pills to choke a horse. It is distressing," she says.
The video was shot at the same time as a series of photographs intended to portray Sandie as "an AIDS terrorist". The photos showed Sandie covered in false-lesions made using eye-liner and other make-up, holding various weapons. “They made eight by ten photographs of them and sent them to President Reagan," she says. "I've been stopped in several clubs by people who say, "I loved you in your tap dancing video". That shows that people are paying me attention."
Sandie is emaciated in the video. "I was very thin," Sandie explains, casually understating the fact that she weighed barely five stone and is so thin that a surprising amount of people who see the tap dance video for the first time assume that it isn't a real person at all.
"I was going through a lot of depression and not eating and I was trying to deny my condition and I refused to eat. I was refusing to eat because I was thinking that I was going to die anyway so what is the point in eating? I looked like a cut-out of a Karen Carpenter doll."
"I was feeling sorry for myself. I needed to do something for myself and get myself healthy and that's what I did. Drinking a lot of weight gain stuff and eating a lot of stuff that would fatten me up. Now I eat and I am healthy and I feel good about myself. I now weigh somewhere between 114 and 121 pounds."
Her return to health led to more work. In 1986 Sandie was approached by artist Joel-Peter Witkin who asked her to appear in a photographic reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci's Leda and the Swan. Witkin is one of the most controversial artists currently working. He has been accused of being sacrilegious, sick, and everything inbetween for his persistence in working with dead bodies and the physically deformed.
The shoot took place in a dance studio in Santa Monica early in the morning. After establishing that Sandie was comfortable with nudity Witkin asked Sandie if she could get an erection. "I said, 'Not in front of people, I just don't do that' but he still took the picture anyway," she remembers. The result is one of Witkin's most famous pieces. Designer Alexander McQueen told Witkin: "Your Leda and the Swan is one of my favourite pieces. I find the man so graceful."
She can also count Marilyn Manson among her admirers. "Marilyn saw a picture of me on some internet site and he searched all over Hollywood looking for me. He searched and searched and searched and finally a casting director by the name of Scotty called me up and said, "I have someone on the other line that would like to speak to you" and it was Marilyn Manson. He said, "Would you like to do a music video for Dope Show" and I said, "Sure. He's the sweetest guy I've ever met. He just accepted me for me. He's a dynamite person," Sandie says.
When Dr Dre saw Manson's video, not to be outdone, he asked Sandie to appear in his Puppet Master video. "I was dressed up like a marionette puppet nun with hardly anything on. The only part of the habit I was wearing was the head part. They took a live octopus and wired it to my crotch. I've done a lot for my career, let me tell you."
Some other low points that we covered when we talked: A pilot of a TV movie called Werewolf where she played a hooker who got mauled by a werewolf, and her appearance (wearing a zebra skin all in one) in Rhythm's Gonna Get You with Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine.
Although you wouldn't immediately imagine Sandie to have been a successful performer, model and actress, the fact that she has been isn't the most remarkable thing about her. The most astounding aspect of her is how she deals with, what has been by most people's standards, a traumatic life.
As well as the trauma we have already covered, her first husband died in a car accident when he drove her car off Mulholland Drive. Her second was sent to prison for attacking her. A few days before we arrived to shoot these pictures she was mugged. In the past she worked as a prostitute for two years to support her unemployed partner's drug habit and she was raped by two men in an underground car park. The copy of Leda and the Swan that Witkin gave her as a present, was surrendered to an ex-boyfriend simply because he loved it so much. "I've got a big heart. You've got to in this world. That is just the way I have always been. My mother says I am too nice to everybody," she says. 'She always taught me that positive people get positive things back. That is my motto in life. Out of all the negative people in the world, if you are negative, your life goes nowhere. If you are positive then things will go for you.'"
If things are going to come good for Sandie then they are taking their time. She currently lives in a rented apartment and admits that once it is paid for and the bills are settled, she ends each month the same: broke. If anyone is making money from Sandie's work it isn't her. "I should be the wealthy one," she agrees, but without a trace of bitterness.
"You can't be bitter," she says. "I've been stripped, beaten up, broke, homeless, down in the gutter but I always had a good spirit about myself because I always figured that being mad and being frustrated and that, you can't sit there and hold it against people.
It is this kind of spirit rather than her physical condition that Nick Bougas says is what makes her unique. "Bunny was also the subject of scads of wild stories that would circulate around Hollywood tales of wild misadventures and rowdy confrontations. The stories always seemed preposterous given Bunny's physical condition," he said. "Yet they always turned out to be true."
When I asked Sandie about it she admits that she has been thrown out of half the bars in LA, but, she is quick to add, only for being friendly. "I usually drink bourbon and get a little bit too rambunctious and try to be friends with everyone in the bar. I do have a tendency to live my childhood that I never had," she says. "And so I get irresponsible and I do some wacky things. Just like any other teenager. I get drunk. You know. I end up doing something or saying something that is off the wall."
Her current 'off the wall' projects include being a go-go dancer with the frankly filthy Punk Bunny at their live shows. And she is also in their video for the song Watersports, which you can watch on their website: punkbunnymusic.com. (Be sure to check out Felcher while you are there too.) She also performs every Friday night The Study 1723 North Western Avenue, Hollywood. And by the time you read this, she might be Empress of Los Angeles, a position that she hopes will be a stepping stone to serious public office. "Empress is first, then I want to run for city council, then I want to run for mayor, then I want to run for governor," Sandie proclaims. Sandie Crisp, Governor of California might seem hard to imagine but the route from cult documentary focussing on your uncommon physical appearance to Governor's office, via the less cerebral end of Hollywood's output, has been made at least once before. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Especially if you are Sandie Crisp.
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