Let’s face it, glamour is over. Done. Kaput. Gone. Bye-bye. Same with stardom. And fame. Hollywood too for that matter.
All of the glitz, opulence, and excess of Southern California went along with The Goddess Bunny, otherwise known as Sandie Crisp, otherwise known as Bunny Victoria Venice (who will go as just The Goddess here in our tribute–you have to give deference to royalty!), who passed away from COVID-19 on January 27. Underground filmmaker John Aes-Nihil refers to The Goddess as “the only truly glamorous star left in Hollywood” in The Goddess’ eponymous 1994 documentary directed by Nick Bougas. And now, as one of The Goddess’ favorite songs “Puppy Love” goes: “Oh please tell them it isn’t fair to take away my only dream!”
I heard about The Goddess’ passing–and consequently, the end of Hollywood stardom–from another artist obsessed with a similar vision of divine Los Angeles extravagance: Lana Del Rey, who posted a tribute to The Goddess on her Instagram. Like most of Lana’s posts, her tribute was vague enough to be confusing: is The Goddess really gone?! But what was clear is that Lana Del Rey is not a Karen, haters! She’s not only aware of iconic Hollywood weirdoes, but she’s related to one of The Goddess’ children–her sister, Chuck Grant, who photographed The Goddess. In describing how much The Goddess meant to Chuck, Lana articulated how The Goddess’ influence spanned generations, from West Hollywood clubs and film of the 1980s and 1990s to viral videos in the mid-2000s and her continued presence in Hollywood nightlife until recently (when we had nightlife).
Like many “of a certain age,” The Goddess tap-danced into my heart in a video that went viral on Ebaum’s World and YouTube in the mid-2000s. In the video known as “Obedece a la morsa” or “Obey the Walrus,” The Goddess, dressed in a lacy lingerie ensemble, knee-high socks, and a fetching and alarming clown fascinator, tap dances, twirls her parasol, sneers, camps, plays with a dog, rolls her eyes, smiles, and stares blankly into the camera. Though the viral video included a different soundtrack, the original, conceived by Glen Meadmore and filmed by Keith Holland, featured a John Waters-esque rockabilly score of The Jesters’ “Peter Gunn Twist,” Eddie Thomas’ “Frankenstein Rock,” and my personal favorite, Ken Williams’ “Trashcan.” Stomping and tapping her feet on skeletal legs, The Goddess’ body was shocking. And her absurd vaudevillian act even more so, though the defiant joy contained in her vamping adoration of the camera’s attention couldn’t be ignored. It was transgressive, startling, and above all, ecstatic.
Stripped of any context whatsoever and floating through cyberspace, this tap-dancing video raised just one question: who IS she? A disabled child? An anorexic adolescent? A bizarre figment of our collective imagination?
But she wasn’t any of those things. The Goddess Bunny was, by the mid-2000s, already a Los Angeles legend. And one with many lives: a disabled trans performer who lip-synched, sang, and danced through the hustler bars of Santa Monica Boulevard, a star of music videos and films, and a regular character cutting across the Lynchian landscape of Los Angeles.
Though The Goddess’ tales tended to skirt their way around the truth (isn’t that true of ALL religious texts?), one consistent story–whether it’s true or not, it is consistent–is that The Goddess was born at the top of the Santa Monica Ferris wheel. Whee! What a way to enter the world. And her life would be a similar ride, full of heights and falls, though certainly faster paced than the Ferris wheels’ slow glide.
Born with polio, The Goddess’ endured a series of botched surgeries and medical interventions that contorted her body into its recognizably warped shape. Living in foster homes and homeless shelters as a child, The Goddess also experienced abuse at the hands of foster parents, before returning to living with her religious mother with whom she had a consistently complicated relationship throughout her life due to her sexuality and gender. For more on her early life, you can read “A Child’s Tear” on her own blog. That is if you can understand it. I certainly couldn’t.
Nevertheless, The Goddess didn’t let any of this get in her way. As LA Weekly’s Danny Fuentes writes in their lovely obituary for The Goddess: “But if you spoke to Sandie, you wouldn’t think it even affected her in the slightest. She was always in the sexiest number she could be squeezed into, ready to steal the mic and wow the audience, and if a stud was at the bar she would be the first to strike up a conversation. She was unbelievably strong and she turned what some might call disfigurements into assets, never letting anything hold her back from her dreams.”
And boy, she certainly didn’t hold back! In her slinky sparkling dresses and hairspray-lacquered hair, she performed in clubs like the Limbo Lounge and attracted Southern Californian hustlers while lip-synching to classics like the aforementioned “Puppy Love,” The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.” She went straight to the top by starring as Charlean in 1986’s Hollywood Vice Squad, a role she claims she got while just sitting on the street in her wheelchair drinking a beer. She appeared in the music videos for currently canceled Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show,” Dr. Dre’s “Puppet Master,” and Tenderloin, one of Vaginal Davis’ many bands, video for “The Golden One.”
Apart from mainstream screens and stages, The Goddess was also an artistic inspiration, modeling for Rick Owens and appearing in Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Leda and the Swan. A surrealist black-and-white photograph that Man Ray would be jealous of, Leda and the Swan is in the collection of the Louvre, according to The New York Times, and the Smithsonian, according to LA Weekly. In addition, The Goddess also appeared in playwright and all-around-genius Reza Abdoh’s theatrical production The Bogeyman.
Though Abdoh’s output is more widely recognized now after his posthumous retrospective at MoMA PS1, he was already renowned in the underground well before being given the institutional treatment. Likewise, The Goddess was also an underground icon, appearing in films by John Aes-Nihil such as The Drift, a take on Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. The Goddess describes Aes-Nihil as “the West Coast answer to John Waters–the shock value at least is on the same level.” However, I’d place Aes-Nihil, with his obsession with the Manson Family as seen in his Manson Family Movies, closer to filmmakers like Nick Zedd and the rest of the demented Cinema of Transgression. Though she sometimes poo-pooed her underground status, reaching instead for a higher echelon of stardom, The Goddess was truly appreciated in this realm. As Aes-Nihil describes, “Basically, cinematic glamour came to the end in the 1930s and 1940s, but The Goddess Bunny has changed all of that.”
The best glimpse at The Goddess has to be the 1994 documentary The Goddess Bunny, which follows The Goddess as she traverses Los Angeles from Mondo Video a Go Go to the Santa Monica pier to the Psychosexual Art Show, curated by Aes-Nihil. Ok. The Goddess didn’t even show up to that one. One of my favorite anecdotes in the film comes courtesy of Aes-Nihil who details the creation of the 40-minute short film Channel Shakespeare, filmed intoxicated and impromptu during the production of The Drift:
“We were using the Cosmic Danielle’s living room as the set. The Goddess Bunny hadn’t shown up and Paolo hadn’t shown up either. So we called Bunny’s place and her roommate said she was on some bar on Santa Monica so we decided we weren’t going to waste the evening. So we got in the car and drove to the first hustler bar we saw on Santa Monica Boulevard and there she was completely drunk out of her mind with these two hustlers. We dragged all of them in the car and went back to the Cosmic Danielle’s… Due to Bunny’s state of mind, we were having all sorts of difficulty getting her to stick to any dialogue. So we left the camera on because she miraculously started doing some psychotic incoherent version of Shakespeare.”
What a role model!
Now, if I’m being honest, The Goddess was not exactly made for our current hypersensitive, cancel-happy culture in which shock value has disintegrated into something people abhor and scream about on the Internet. Just take the documentary itself in which she complains about living with other trans people because of their hormone-driven mood swings and describes her role as the first “AIDS victim” in Kenny Camp’s photographic series AIDS Terrorist in which The Goddess used egg whites, toilet paper, and eye shadow to create realistic looking lesions. Call Twitter!
And then, there are the performances, including one…um…historical epic. VICE explains:
“At a bar, she dressed as Eva Braun alongside a gay man dressed up as Hitler, and they performed a sketch. Some gay men laughed, but other audience members got pissed. ‘This Jewish guy jumped out of the audience and socked the Goddess,’ Aes-Nihil recalls. Her response: ‘It’s just history. Don’t you get it?’
Fire up Instagram stories!
But, fuck all those finger-waggers! Some of us still find, well, value in shock value. As Bruce La Bruce educates The New York Times, “Being able to shock and offend as a way of avoiding co-option by corporate capitalism — she was the muse for people pursuing that sensibility.”
This isn’t to say The Goddess didn’t continue to attract fanatics today. After her tap-dancing video broke the Internet, younger gay punks flocked to her and some of the lucky few become her sons. One of these dedicated fans was Mitchell Sunderland-Jackson who became friends with The Goddess after a riot of a VICE article The Legend of the Goddess Bunny, Hollywood’s Forgotten Disabled Trans Art Star. Beginning with getting trashed at a Red Lobster, The Goddess is a tour de force, showing Sunderland-Jackson dick pics, demanding a screenplay in which to star, and concluding with running over a glass emblazoned with Elvis with her wheelchair.
The clear favorite of these children, however, is Hunter Ray Barker who is the only son on The Goddess’ will and who is currently raising money for The Goddess’ memorial service (including, hopefully, a plot made for a star of her caliber at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery). Barker was The Goddess’ campaign manager in her run for mayor of Inglewood (they got 500 votes) and made a disarmingly sweet, hallucinatory but heartfelt short film about his mother for Dazed. In the film, he describes her as “a song and dance diva who’s made foster homes, hospitals, and bus stops her Broadway stage” and “an A-list celebrity in a black velvet dress.” He also details his love and admiration for her: “You make me feel free and unashamed. And If I’m ever sad, you’ll run over my toes to remind me that love is so much greater than the suffering. That your balls are bigger than mine. That wild is our nature and we don’t need legs to dance.”
Despite all this, it wasn’t always a bed of roses for The Goddess. She married an ex-con who became a current con and then died (with several conflicting stories as to how). She was HIV positive. She sometimes lived between homeless shelters and assisted living facilities. Yet even her room at her assisted living facility was…uh…all her own, filled with, as The New York Times describes, “wigs, fake degrees, and photos of her mother.”
Now, as those who knew The Goddess (unfortunately being on the East Coast, I never was one of them) can attest, she tended to weave wild tales that may or may not–emphasis on the may not–be true. “Her tales of glamour and lust were often hard to decipher. What was a real anecdote and what was complete fiction? From her wild accounts of Hollywood movie set rivalries and nightclub follies to secret love affairs with the Hollywood elite- in Bunny’s world, reality and fantasy were one and the same, perhaps serving as part of her life performance. She always wanted to dazzle, amaze, entertain and inspire and she did live a fantastic life, so the reality outweighed any embellishment she may have added,” writes Danny Fuentes in LA Weekly.
Want an example? Here’s some of what she told Harper’s Bazaar:
“By her own account, The Goddess is a descendent of the Italian royal bloodline, worked as Ronald Reagan’s personal secretary, dated Ricky Martin when he was 19, and personally discovered Divine’s body after her untimely death in 1988—and those are just a few morsels she divulged over brunch.”
But, who cares?! Seems true enough to me! I don’t have any proof she didn’t date Ricky Martin. Plus, isn’t constructing your own fantastical life just the definition of queer world-making? I’m not the only one who doesn’t mind. As Lethal Amounts curator Danny Lethal writes in his Instagram tribute: “I believed everyone one of her stories even if they were extremely questionable…I can’t confirm if she had a 3-way with both Corys or if Tom Cruise really let her top him at the bathhouses, but I really don’t want to live in a world where this didn’t happen so I chose to believe her.”
And even if you have some anachronistic attachment to the truth (I mean, you lived the past five years and you still care?), the real stories of encounters with The Goddess are good enough. Take, for example, Waiyde Palmer’s Instagram post:
“I met this rainbow-colored hurricane at WeHo’s long gone hustlers bar, Hunters, in 1998. She punched the bouncer playfully in the dick on her way in and yelled, ‘Which of you bitches is buying your Goddess a drink?!’, as she wheeled her way thru the crowd. My ex and I volunteered immediately. Within moments she’d rolled her way to the jukebox, cued up Madonna’s Vogue and began to lipsync. The room was transfixed by her awe inspiring performance!”
Above all and despite it all, The Goddess demanded to be seen as an A-list star. Barker told Dazed, “Sandie puts every breathing second into being a star, believing that it is only the world that is not ready for her.” And she was a star. Unquestionably. To the end. As LA Weekly declares, “She inspired you to believe in yourself, forget whatever simple problems you might have and be fearless, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”
And even though glamour might be dead, its memory lives on. So enjoy some more videos of The Goddess: