Vivian Wheeler has been stared at her entire life. She was born in 1948 with a veil of light blond hair covering her face. In addition to the unusual fuzz, baby Vivian was a hermaphrodite. Wheeler claims her mother, who had already bore sons, wanted a daughter and instructed the doctors to remove the male organs. Her father, however, was uncomfortable with his bearded little girl. He saw her as less of a daughter and more of an opportunity to earn money. After all, people would want to look at her, so he decided to capitalize on it. Little Vivian began working in sideshows as early as five years old and sent her earnings home to her family.
“He’d put me on a plane and I’d be gone for seven or eight months a year,” Wheeler says. “You never knew where you’d be. I just traveled all around the United States.” Over the years she worked with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as well as sideshows at state fairs. “With Ringling, as a kid, I worked with five other bearded ladies,” she remembers. “I was the youngest. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone, they would talk to me and that made me feel like there was nothing different about me because they had beards, too. Those people were more of a family than my real family. I could depend on them more than my own flesh and blood.” Between tours she’d return home and reach for a razor. “My dad said to shave because people wouldn’t understand why I had facial hair, saying this is what you’ll have to do to fit into society,” she says. “And because the Wheeler family didn’t want me around having facial hair.” Despite being sent away from home at such a young age, Wheeler doesn’t resent her parents for their decisions. “My mother and father told me they had to work to take care of their family, so I worked to take care of mine,” she says. “I think they thought what they did was okay.” As she grew into adulthood, a deep faith in God gave Wheeler comfort in being herself as she continued working in circuses and sideshows. “I believe in Him unconditionally,” she says. “I have no problem with anything. He takes care of it, He knows what we can handle. He’s never let me down.”
In fact, she believes her faith once saved the lives of many fairgoers and coworkers. She had been working with showman Ward Hall in the 1970s in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and experienced inclement weather all day. After a heavy rainstorm, a tornado was approaching and creating chaos amongst the crowds seeking a safe place to take cover. “I sat down in a puddle, praying, telling the good Lord to come there and save these people and their businesses. I didn’t want their lives to end and asked if He would please help,” she recalls. “I was sitting there and my boss walked out, tapped my shoulder, and he said it looked like a hand came out of the clouds and took the tornado and just gradually turned it.” By this point in her career, she had adopted the name Malinda Maxey and would take the stage wearing a dress and a veil. With a microphone in hand, she would address the audience and talk about herself before lifting the veil and inviting spectators to ask questions. “When I first started, I’d take off the veil and people would pass out from the shock of seeing a woman with a beard,” Wheeler says. Those who remained standing asked common questions, wondering why she doesn’t shave or have her whiskers removed. “I don’t shave my beard because it’s part of me,” she would explain. “I have no problem with being me. People have the problem—because people have a problem adjusting to me. I’m completely different.” Others asked what bathroom she used. Wheeler took advantage of the ambiguity her beard created and used either one. “Little kids would sit on my lap and ask if they could touch my beard and rub their hands on it,” she says. “’Oh my gosh, it’s like silk! It’s really silky!’ they’d say. Women’s beards are like silk, not coarse like a man’s beard. I think some bearded ladies may have had coarse beards in the past, but mine isn’t. It’s like thread, really fine silk.” Being the bearded lady offered plenty of attention and earned money, but it was no easy life. Wheeler had to conceal herself wherever she went on the lot. She woke at 6:00 am, was on stage by 8:00 am and occasionally worked till 3:00 in the morning. Baths were taken in a community shower house and meals were eaten under a communal tent for all the show workers and performers. As with many who face long hours and confinement at a job, Wheeler found romance within the workplace. These relationships occasionally led her to shave. “I did it because of their low self-esteem,” Wheeler explains about the men in her life. “It didn’t bother me.” Those men included three of her four husbands (two legal, two common law). “I’m not sexually attracted to men or women. It’s the person. They were all different—tall, short, skinny, different nationalities.” She met her first husband at age 18 and stayed with him for three years. By her fourth husband she kept her beard. “He didn’t really care,” she said. The last person she shaved for was her mother—after her passing in 1990. She trimmed away all her whiskers during her grieving period, simply to avoid the attention it garnered from others. Though, she noted, it was her beard that helped extend her mother’s life by an estimated ten years. Wheeler’s earnings helped her pay for five bypasses on her mother’s heart. But her clean look was short lived. “People around me said I wasn’t myself,” she says. “So I let it grow back, and I’m much happier. The Man Above does not make mistakes.” Since 1990, Wheeler’s beard has grown to a documented 11 inches in length, leading to appearances in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! and in the 2001 Guinness World Records book. It currently reaches 8 inches. She trims it occasionally to keep it growing. According to Wheeler, at its longest it was 17 inches. But she claims Guinness wouldn’t recognize the new record as the longest in history, and instead continues to list 19th-century bearded lady, Madame Jane Devere, for her 14-inch growth. Wheeler believes Devere is her great-grandmother and hopes to break her record, officially, someday.
In 2004, poor pay and poorer treatment drove her away from the exhibition business and into retirement. “I believe I was worth more than $200 a week,” she says. In addition to low wages, her employers offered inadequate sleeping quarters and food. “I got tired of the disrespect. I never knew where I was going to sleep, never knew anything. Now I have my own place. I have a bed. I have a bathroom. I can watch TV if I want.” Wheeler has no plans to return to the sideshow, but she does hope to continue exhibiting her beard with Guinness World Records. She also looks forward to sharing her life story in an upcoming book.
The above is an edited version of an article I wrote several years ago for a Colombian magazine called Soho. I first wrote about Vivian Wheeler in 2004 while working on American Sideshow (she is featured on pages 277-278). We have stayed in touch over the years and in addition to Soho, I’ve also written about her for Bizarre magazine and AOL Weird News. In 2010, we went on Maury together after my AOL story about her reunion with her son after 30 years. A maternity test proved she was indeed the mother.