Lady Olga, the Bearded Lady

Lady Olga (right) with a man believed to be her husband, circa 1915.

Lady Olga (right) with a man believed to be her husband, circa 1915.

On August 3, 1940, an article about North Carolina native Lady Olga, considered the world’s greatest bearded lady, was published in The New Yorker.

The profile, written by literary journalist Joseph Mitchell, himself a native North Carolinian, recounted with a sweet solemnity Lady Olga’s life from her birth as Jane Barnell in 1871 in Wilmington.

Barnell had a tragic childhood. She was sold by her mother to a passing circus at a young age before ending up in an orphanage. Retrieved by her father and sent to live with her grandmother in Mecklenburg County, she met a man there who convinced her to grow her beard once again and join the circus.

So at age 21, and this time by her choice, she became Lady Olga. Though she was popular in the circus, it wasn’t until she played a bearded lady in Tod Browning’s infamous film Freaks in 1932 that she gained wider recognition.

The New Yorker article articulates the often conflicting feelings that Barnell had about her long career in circuses, carnivals and fairs, as well as her opinion of sideshows Mitchell recounted her life simply, and his powerful prose leads the reader to know, as Lady Olga knows, that the real freaks are not those standing behind the curtain, but those watching from in front of the curtain.

Lady Olga’s last circus performance was with the Ringling Brothers in New York City in 1938, though she continued making public appearances until her death in 1951.

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