The Legend of Goddess Bunny, Hollywood's Forgotten, Disabled, Trans Art Star
The Goddess Bunny entertained generations of gay punks through her tap dancing, film roles, and avant-garde performances. I assumed she had died—until one of her adopted "sons" sent me a message, asking me to tell her story.
Photos by Chuck Grant unless otherwise noted
On a late afternoon in Los Angeles, I received a phone call from Sandie Crisp, the 56-year-old queer, disabled actress better known as the Goddess Bunny: "Meet me at the Red Lobster." I agreed. I had to.
For three generations, young gay mall punks have praised the Goddess the way other gay men wallow in the tabloid tragedies of Judy Garland. I was one such mall punk. In high school, my goth friends and I obsessed over the Goddess's story. She contracted polio and underwent several botched surgeries as an infant. The combination stunted her growth, deformed her hands, and left her legs bone-thin and crooked. When she began presenting as a woman—at different times, she has said she was born with both a penis and a vagina and identified as trans—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she used makeup, wigs, dresses, and, most of all, extreme self-confidence to see the beauty in her disability. She modeled for Rick Owens, posed nude with swans for acclaimed photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, appeared as a puppet in Dr. Dre's "Puppet Master" music video, became the breakout star of Marilyn Manson's "The Dope Show," acted opposite Carrie Fisher in the 1986 cult movie Hollywood Vice Squad, and played a female mobster and a number of Tennessee Williams heroines in a series of films directed by the filmmaker and archivist John Aes-Nihil.
For years, I assumed the Goddess had died, because I hadn't seen a new video of her since high school. Then, this spring, I learned she was alive. She's spent the past decade in an assisted living facility in Inglewood, California, near LAX, where her only visitors are a few androgynous young men that she calls her "sons." One of her sons—Hunter, a 23-year-old USC film student who identifies as as "heterosexual, [but] I just see no issue in getting wild"—reached out to me to ask if I would record the Goddess's story. I had been trying to figure out her full biography for years, so I agreed.
I asked her which Red Lobster she wanted me to meet her at.
"It's the Red Lobster," she said, as if it were the Chateau Marmont. After several phone calls, she explained that the Red Lobster was in a shopping plaza on Century Boulevard in Inglewood. I offered to pick her up, but she rebuffed me: She would drive herself in her pink electric wheelchair. When I arrived, I found her in a silver ball gown and socks without shoes in front of the lobster tank. She rotated her wheelchair's joystick to turn towards me and show me her new pig tails. "I wanted to look like a cheerleader," she said. The hostess took us to our seats, and she started showing me dick pics on her phone. "I have this one guy over in Turkey that I'm absolutely in love with," she said. She received a Facebook friend request. "Hot guys are coming out!" She ordered more wine than food and then got down to business. "I need you to write a script," she said. "I need to be back on the screen."
"I'm a journalist," I reminded her.
"Well, it's time you write scripts!"
When her steak arrived, she ordered me to cut it. By the time we left, she was very drunk, and she stopped at the lobster tank again on her way out. "See you next time," she told them.
In the parking lot, she continued talking. She said she wanted to run for president. As she noted in a recent Facebook status, "We once had a disabled president. People seem to forget that he had polio just like I do. And wheelchair[s] have come a long way since then." She believes she could do a better job than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Suddenly, she took a very hard, politician-like pivot. "Humans need to be needed," she said. I sat down on the trunk of a car. "[On Christmas at the assisted living facility], they cook us lunch, give us socks as gifts, and then we go back to our rooms and realize our families don't give a fuck." Tears started to form at the corners of her eyes, but then the Goddess looked towards the sun. She stopped crying and looked back at me. "I can fix America," she said. She told me more about her election plans, and then pressed her joystick and rolled away into horizon, which, in this case, was the parking lot.
Although I visited her several times over the last few months, the Goddess's past remains a mystery because she spins many stories. She claims she went on a double date with Christina Applegate at the Viper Room on the night that River Phoenix died; she says she once starred in "Andy, which is the male version of Annie, on Broadway."
She keeps some of her biography consistent: She was born John Baima in 1960 and has long claimed that "when my mother gave birth to me, I was on the Santa Monica ferris wheel at the top." She contracted polio as an infant, and doctors performed a number of quack operations, including attaching a Harrington Rod along her spine. Aes-Nihil, the filmmaker who directed many of the Goddess's movies, says, "I have her mother on tape confirming the story about the doctors performing all these botched operations."
At some point, the Goddess ended up in the foster care system and bounced from home to home. "I was molested in most of them," she says. "For a physically handicapped person [rape] is devastating," the Goddess said in The Goddess Bunny, a 1994 documentary. "You can't even fight back."
As a teenager, she returned to her mother's home. In a memoir she published on her blog called A Child's Tear, she describes coming out as a woman at age 14. Her mother rejected her gender and preached to her about Jesus. "My mother always thought I wanted to be her," the Goddess says. "I said, 'No, I'm better.'" She moved out and decided to become a film actress.
"She saw herself as mainstream and she saw herself as being a goddess and a star, and that's how she lived her life and approached the world," says Rick Castro, the artist behind Los Angeles's fetish gallery the Antebellum Gallery. "I think she made it work for her, because if she sat and accepted what her reality is, she probably would not get anything done and just feel sorry for herself."
"She used to always say that us fucking drag queens are ruining her serious career," adds Glen Meadmore, the Canadian "Christian punk" performance artist.
Meadmore met the Goddess during one of her regular wheels through Hollywood on Santa Monica in 1982 or '83. She introduced herself as Bunny Venice, the name she was going by at the time, and asked him to push her down the street. They became friends and, later, roommates.
Then, Meadmore's colleague, Keith Holland, recorded the Goddess tap dancing. Around 1985, she could step out of her wheelchair and walk for brief periods. The video shows her wearing a pink bustier and twirling a matching umbrella, and after a few seconds, she lifts her feet and taps them on the ground. Her taps grow faster and faster, until she dances across a cement pavement.
The video is a triumphant testimony of the Goddess's attitude, and Meadmore would project it onto a wall during his performances at the Limbo Lounge, a gay bar in LA. Years later, it was passed around by curious gay teenagers. "All of a sudden, somebody grabbed that video and put it on YouTube," Meadmore says. "I have no idea who did that."
In the mid-1980s, the Goddess lived with Meadmore in Hollywood. (Accounts differ if the apartment was on Santa Monica, Franklin Street, or Argyle Avenue.) Aes-Nihil remembers the Goddess bringing home young gay prostitutes most nights. "There was a bar right on the corner that used to be called Hunter's, and it used to be a hustler bar," the Goddess recalls. "All the hustlers were my fans. The lower the economics, the more fans I have!" After a night of partying she would go to Oki Dog, a hot dog restaurant, where the hustlers hung out. "Who's with me tonight?" Aes-Nihil recalls the Goddess shouting when she'd wheel into the joint. Most nights, a kid would follow her home. "I think they just needed a place to stay," Aes-Nihil says.
"One time I had 28 kids in [one apartment]," the Goddess says. "Try that out." When Aes-Nihil accused her of bringing home hustlers, he says she told him, "I'm only doing my Christian charity."
Other times, she lived with her mother, of whom the Goddess held contradictory views. Often, she laments that her mom accused her of betraying Christ by identifying as a woman, but other days, she professes love. A video shot by Aes-Nihil in 1996 shows the Goddess dressed in men's clothing, with a short haircut, singing to her mother on Christmas Day. "When she was living with her mother, if you called them and asked for anyone other than John you'd get hung up on, which completely explains what their relationship was like," Aes-Nihil says.
You would never know she had such a conflicted relationship with her mother's view of her gender on Tuesdays, when the Goddess performed at the Limbo Lounge. "Back then, Limbo Lounge was avant-garde weirdness," Aes-Nihil says. "It was also like vaudeville, because there were around six performers who had to come up with a new act every week." Aes-Nihil recognized the Goddess's talent when he saw her performing one night and cast her as the Contessa, an 85-year-old pimp in The Drift, his version of Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He went on to cast her in three more films. She became his muse.
The Goddess caused problems on set. "It was incredibly difficult to get her to do scripted dialogue," Aes-Nihil says. But he knew what she would give his films. "Cinematic glamour ended in 30s and 40s, but Goddess has changed all of that," he says in the 1994 documentary.
If Hollywood won't take me, I'll deal with the underground.
"She's very extreme, and very extreme physically, but also she creates this sort of glamour, almost like a hard glamour," Castro says. "And then her personality is pretty much as extreme as her physical appearance."
The videos took off at Mondo Video A-Go-Go, which was then "the epicenter of weird shit" in Los Angeles, according to Lenora Claire, an MTV True Life producer and the self-proclaimed "Forrest Gump of LA counterculture." From the mid-1980s to early 2000s, the store served as the unofficial headquarters of the LA underground, and outcasts who shared an affinity for punk, porn, and old-school Hollywood glamour congregated there. They would buy cult movies, like Aes-Nihil's films, and discuss their shared interests, turning the video store into the underground equivalent of a literary salon.
Although the Goddess can lack self-awareness, she understood her status at Mondo. "Not one [disabled person] has a star on the Walk of Fame. Even Lassie has a star," she says in the documentary. "If Hollywood won't take me, I'll deal with the underground."
Today, many of her performances would offend audiences. In the late 1980s or early 90s, she appeared in a Kenny Camp performance called "AIDS Terrorist," taking egg whites and paper towels and putting them on her body to make it look like she had lesions. 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?"
The haze of gay wedding photos and NO H8 billboards has often obscured the motives—and even existence—of 1980s queer punk performances, which used offensiveness to make a point. "The shock value of what I was drawn to when I was younger, with the Goddess Bunny, I assume is the same shock value young people [appreciate] now... It's kind of like an adrenaline rush, but then there's more to it," Castro explains. On stage, the Goddess did everything people weren't supposed to say or do, because society rejected her gender, sexuality, disability, and overall existence. "When you push boundaries, then people all of a sudden open their eyes and see what you're trying to do," the Goddess said in a phone call. "[You're] giving that extra push."
One day, as I cut up the Goddess's eggs and avocado on toast, I asked her how she felt about identity politics. She took my knife and put it in her mouth. I asked her to stop, but she refused unless I would "pay her rent."
"Politics is a game," she said. "If you feel one way, and everyone is telling you to go the other way, tell them to shut up and pay your rent!" she yelled. "Everyone's got an opinion, just like assholes—everyone's got one, alright? Let it go, OK? You know that song that was sung on the Frozen?" She sang: "Let it flow, let it flow." She stopped to point the butcher's knife at my face. "Well, I got a new one for you: Let it go."
The Goddess keeps an optimistic outlook, but she occasionally dwells on some of her problems. The 90s were good to her; she scored roles in the music videos for Dr. Dre's "Puppet Master" and Marilyn Manson's "The Dope Show" music video, which increased her notoriety. But she claims she wasn't paid enough. "I was paid nothing from the start," she says. "I'm actually a very sad person because of how others take advantage of me because of my disability." (Dre's publicist did not return an interview request; Manson was not available for comment.)
"The main thing I thought about it is that Marilyn Manson just cast her as a freak, which is the total obvious thing to do," Aes-Nihil says. "I tried to totally avoid that. I gave her dramatic roles and comedic roles that had absolutely nothing to do with her condition."
Sometime in the 1990s—accounts differ depending on the person and day—the Goddess met a drag queen at a bar. "I saw the man under his drag and told him," she says. "His name was Rocky." They fell in love, and he later proposed. "She has always claimed that when she met Rocky he was in drag, although he absolutely didn't seem to be somebody who would ever be in drag," Aes-Neihil says. "He was somewhat of a stereotype of a convict." The wedding took place at Mondo and has lived on through social media thanks to Aes-Nihil's video footage.
After the wedding, Rocky and the Goddess moved in together. Unlike her birth mother, Rocky's mother, Thelma, adored the Goddess. "She loved me for me," the Goddess says. "Her kids were fucked up." Nihil agrees: "Rocky's mother should've been her mother." But eventually, the Goddess claims, Rocky went back to prison. One day, Goddess told me he died of an illness; another time she said he drove off a cliff. "It ruined the car," she said. "It ruined him, too."
The 2000s were not as kind. Goddess joined a band named after her called Punk Bunny. She moved in with one band member, and says he kicked her out in 2006 or 2007. Her potassium levels dropped, which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and muscle damage, and she ended up at a homeless shelter that placed her in the assisted living facility where she lives today. She wants to move out and insists she could live alone. She hates receiving help. One day, I walked her to 7/11, and I told her to watch out: A car was coming behind her wheelchair. She rolled her eyes and growled, "I'm a car!"
"I think it's a really sad decline," Lenora Claire said. "It really shows how we don't take care of people. I remember one time she called me and I tried to [pick her up], but she was evasive about where she was. She was in a shelter, and they didn't want to move her to the women's side. They wanted her to go to the men's side, which is just totally fucked up and we can talk about this issue all day long. I was just like, can I get you? What can I do for you? And she was like, no, I'm fine. But obviously she wanted to talk with someone."
The Goddess's son Hunter has been one of her biggest recent joys. They met three years ago, when Aes-Nihil invited him to her birthday party at Casa Rios, a Mexican restaurant that's walking distance from her assisted living facility. The Goddess got wasted. She sang a karaoke rendition of Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love," her favorite song, and cursed out a waiter. But she still remembered Hunter.
She started calling him every week, and he visited her at least once a month. When she ran for mayor of Inglewood in 2014, he agreed to serve as her campaign manager and threw her a party at Casa Rios. She performed karaoke and climbed on top of the bar. "That was just general madness, that whole night," Hunter says. "We had a good six people show up."
Every year, he takes her to gay pride. Two years ago, he lost her. She called him hours later: "Son, I'm in the back of an ambulance." To impress a bunch of gay men, the Goddess had driven off the sidewalk outside the Abbey, a gay bar, and flipped over her wheelchair. Hunter picked her up in his Mercedes and took her back to the Abbey, where she had left her wheelchair. They grabbed it, and he drove her and the wheelchair back to her assisted living facility in Inglewood. On the camcorder he takes everywhere, Hunter has a video of the Goddess crying and holding his head in her lap at her Christmas Showcase last year. "My son! My son!" she wails.
"Before me there've been other sons, but I'm the only one that's on the will," Hunter says. "She really has no family, so she takes in her friends as relatives and holds them really dear."
According to both Hunter and the Goddess, her will states that Hunter must spend her life insurance policy on an elaborate funeral. She demands she be buried in a glass casket, like Snow White, that will be taken down Hollywood Boulevard by a horse-drawn carriage. While she is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Carpenters' song "We've Only Just Begun" and videos of the Goddess's performances will play. Hunter has promised to follow her wishes.
In May, he started taking me on his pilgrimages to the Goddess's home. The facility is gated and surrounded by lower-income housing, a casino, and a run-down sports arena. One day, when I walked through the facility's outdoor area, I found abandoned wheelchairs left on broken cement. "It's the graveyard of wheelchairs," Hunter joked. Goddess met us outside. She had just filled her pink backpack, which she always keeps on the back of her wheelchair, with packets of condiments, mostly mayonnaise and ketchup, and was handing them out to other residents. Hunter wanted her to stop buying condiments. The Goddess says she lives off less than $1,400 from social security, and her rent takes up most her income. "I have to live off $290," she says. "Wigs are expensive!"
She pressed her joystick and led us through the halls. She rolled around in reverse. "Wanna see what Ricky Martin [sent]?" she asked. She smirked and licked her lips. Inside her room, she pulled up her laptop and showed us a photoshopped nude photo of she claimed was Martin, followed by amputee porn and more photoshopped nudes. As a hobby—she calls it her "art"—she photoshops heads on nude bodies. She showed me a slideshow: a photoshopped photo of Tom Cruise with a huge boner, a fake nude photo of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, even one of Hunter. She told me to sit down on her bed, which was covered with a cheetah-print comforter. Above, she had hung fake degrees from the University of Life Church Monastery and California State University of LA. On her table, I noticed a baby bottle, which she drank from. A shelf overflowed with food: Swiss Miss hot cocoa, a box of Sweet'N Low, and a loaf of white bread. In her bathroom, she had storage boxes stacked in her shower; there were flies. Her closet was stuffed with clothes, a collection of wigs were displayed on a stand, and a mannequin with one of her many homemade silver dresses on its back. The room smelled like Las Vegas: cigarettes and hairspray. Her television showed old Westerns and The Munsters round the clock. When I wanted to leave, she begged me to stay. She had decided that I too was her son.
On the day before Easter, the Goddess appeared in the backyard of a six-bedroom mid-century house off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, sipping prosecco out of a champagne glass. She had a black fur coat wrapped around the back of her bulky electric wheelchair, and her silver ball gown sparkled in the Southern California sun. She pressed play on the boxy red MP3 player sitting in her lap, and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" began. Goddess lifted her tiny hands in the air and started lip-syncing: "We'd hear it from the people of the town / They'd call us gypsies, tramps, and thieves / But every night all the men would come around / and lay their money down." The Goddess shook her hands as she sang, moved by the words as if she were belting with the prowess of a Supreme.
She was performing for Hunter, who was recording her for a video he was creating in homage to his mom, and the Los Angeles photographer Chuck Grant. Hunter had arranged for her to shoot family portraits of him and the Goddess. The Goddess insisted I join in some of the photos and also decided that Chuck was her daughter and started calling her Chuckles.
Hunter wore bell bottoms and a velvet jacket, and the Goddess licked her lips when she saw him. (As she once told me, "All my older friends say Hunter is in love with me. Do I lean into it? Maybe.") She turned to me. "My son is 68 pounds [lighter] than me," she lamented.
"Not 69?" Hunter asked.
Moments later, the Goddess was drunk. "I used to be on the A-list, damn it!" she yelled as she rolled around in her wheelchair. She drove around the backyard in circles, at one point running over a glass Elvis Presley cup from Graceland, sending shards into the air. "Be careful," Hunter said. "Obstacles." The Goddess grunted.
"I know obstacles," she said. "I live them everyday."