In modern times, there has been a reclamation of the term “freak,” and freak show performers are working for themselves, helped out by Internet visibility and global access to their faces and stories. Bearded ladies can now be women who subvert gender stereotypes, make their own money, and perform or exhibit on their terms. Bearded sisters are, to be quite clear, doing it for themselves.
The future of the freak show is glittering, consensual, and disarming, and right now, there is nothing hotter than a beautiful bearded lady. So step right up and see these bearded ladies who redefined beauty, from the 1500s to the present day.
There is little information to be found about Helena Antonia, a bearded lady born in the 1500s, but her status and her role in the court of Holy Roman Empress Maria of Austria makes this mysterious bearded lady more than worthy of inclusion in this list. Helena Antonia was a bearded dwarf who was valuable enough for her portrait to be painted as a member of the court. She was clearly dressed in the feminine attire of the time, and contemporary depictions of her show a full, dark beard.
The story of Julia Pastrana is one of the saddest, most heartrending tales of abuse and dehumanization in the history of showbiz.
Born in 1834 in Mexico, Pastrana was variously referred to as the “ape woman,” “bear woman,” “baboon woman,” or “the ugliest woman in the world” due to her uncommon features and hairy face and body.
Pastrana was an incredibly intelligent and accomplished woman. She spoke three languages, and she could dance and sing opera with great skill. Plucked from a Mexican orphanage by the governor of Sinaloa, she was taken to New York to perform. Soon, she had a manager and was touring the world. She married her manager and was soon pregnant with his child. The child inherited her hypertrichosis but died soon after birth. She soon followed him, dying five days later of complications from the birth at only 26.
Josephine Boisdechen was born in 1831 in Switzerland. She had hair all over her body at birth, and by the age of two, she had a full beard. She met a heavily bearded man named Fortune Clofullia, and they married. Subsequently, Josephine Clofullia became a mother. Her first child died, but her second, a son, survived and also displayed a lovely beard, even as an infant.
Annie Jones was born in 1865 to American parents, her beard already starting to form in the womb and visible at birth.
At just over a year old, she was dubbed “the Infant Esau” and exhibited by P.T. Barnum. After being offered $150 a week, which was a lot of money back then, Annie’s mother set up a home in New York with her daughter.
Annie became the Esau Child, and then the Esau Lady, and became a professional freak, traveling the world. She became an accomplished musician Annie was married twice and died at the age of 37. Surviving photos of her show a delicate, well-dressed woman with a luxurious growth of well-kept facial hair.
Clementine Delait was a Frenchwoman who delighted in the beauty of her double-plumed beard.
Bearded from her teenage years, Clementine was married to a baker and ran a cafe and bakery in Lorraine. Originally, she shaved her beard, but after seeing another bearded woman, she bet her husband that she could grow a better beard. The wager attracted customers to their cafe, which, before long, was renamed “Cafe of the Bearded Woman.”
In 1904, she obtained government permission to dress in men’s clothing, which she did sometimes. She preferred to cycle in a skirt, though.
Jane Barnell, a.k.a. Lady Olga
Jane Barnell rose to lasting fame in her role as a bearded lady in the 1932 movie Freaks.
Jane was sold to a circus by her mother at the age of four, when her father was away on a business trip. That circus soon left for Europe. She was dumped in an orphanage in Germany when she became ill. Somehow, her father found and rescued her when she was five.
As an adult, Jane performed under the names Lady Olga, Madame Olga, and Lady Olga Roderick. She performed on the trapeze until a railroad accident ended her trapeze career. Then she became a commercial photographer.
Jane Barnell was married several times and had two children, whom she outlived.
Vivian Wheeler was born in 1948. Unlike the other women in this list, Vivian was born intersex and had operations to change her genitals to reflect a more traditionally female presentation.
While her mother loved Vivian, her father just wanted the money he could make from her. From the age of five, young Vivian worked the sideshows and sent money home for most of the year. On tour, she was taken under the wing of older bearded ladies, while at home, she was forced to shave.
As she grew, Vivian changed her name to Malinda Maxey and became a person of great faith. She was married twice and had two more long-term relationships with men, despite not being exclusive in her attraction to men.
Jennifer Miler is a contemporary, out-and-proud bearded lady who has embraced the “freak show” part of her life by taking control of her own performance in her own circus. Jennifer is the owner of Circus Amok. She is a creative force to be reckoned with as a writer, playwright, performer, and activist.
Harnaam Kaur is a bearded lady who is an Instagram star. Despite having a full beard from the effects of PCOS, Harnaam is now a bona fide Instagram personality and model. She is an example of positivity and variance in beauty in a world that so often expects women to look, weigh, and act a certain way.