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Procession at Pop Up
Procession at Pop Up

A performance for Jean Carroll
Presented for the Pop Up Museum of Queer History
Duration 3 hours

Photo credit Jade Yumang

Jean Carroll (born in 1910 as Jean Furella) was the bearded lady at the sideshow in Coney Island. According to Marc Hartzman the author of American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History's Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers, Carroll was sporting a full face of fine silken hair by the age of ten, when she joined the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. As she grew older, the facial follicles flourished and soon provided Carroll with a stable career in the sideshow.

When she was young Carroll met John Carson who was a sideshow caller. She was smitten with Carson and the attraction was mutual. However, the beard was a barrier to their building a romantic relationship. While they continued to be friendly Carson denied romantic aspirations and focused on their friendship. For fifteen years the two saw each other almost daily. Their courtship was a long one and both fell deeply in love. Carroll was faced with a painful decision: give up her career in the sideshow for the promise of a wedding or stay committed to her outsider status.

After years of internal conflict Jean Carroll came to a creative resolution. She would shave off the beard AND maintain her career by reinventing herself. She commissioned over 700 intricate tattoos by famed artist Charlie Wagner. The tattoos covered the majority of her body and were likely very painful. In the end John Carson was won over, apparently having no issues with the new body enhancement, and the two wed almost immediately following her transformation.

They remained with the carnival, John as a sideshow talker and Jean as a tattooed lady. The two were reported to be inseparable until John’s passing in 1951.

In Procession, the artist wishes to mobilize this character from history noting that Carroll’s “queerness” was about gendered expectations of the body and not about her sexuality. The figure of the bearded lady is an almost mythical inspiration to the artist who often refers to themselves as such. Having been assigned to be female at birth, Kris Grey has taken to shaping their body into a queer form of their own design through the use of hormones and surgery. Their body, though it has at different times passed in the world as either male or female, is a hybridized queer gender; one that takes up a position outside of the binary. It is the artists desire to suggest solidarity through history with all those who make a body and life of their own design despite the social pressures to normalize, assimilate, and conform. It is with deep respect and admiration that the artist offers this work in recognition of Jean Carroll’s dedication to her community demonstrated by the body alterations of her choosing.