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Interview with Jennifer Miller: The Bearded Lady

Miller describes herself as being much more than her facial hair.

Photograph by Karl Giant, Courtesy of Jennifer Miller

September 29, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

No, the coarse, dark hair hanging off Jennifer Miller’s chin and cheeks is neither fake nor attached with glue. If you pull on it, she’s coming, too.

To fans of the innovative outdoor spectacle Circus Amok, she is known as the Bearded Lady. But Miller is much more than her facial hair: she is a playwright, political and social activist, and humanities and media studies professor at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design.

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Miller crosses gender boundaries every day by refusing to subscribe to the stereotypical female archetype. This, along with her circus and sideshow background, made Miller an ideal ringleader for the Citizen Jane Film Festival’s Cirque Du Cinema theme.

Living with her beard has not always been easy, but in quiet resistance to the stigma it carries, Miller wears it with pride.

What do you teach at the Pratt Institute?
I tend to teach in areas that involve making theatre that involves the world around us. I tend to direct more politically oriented work or work that might have to do with some kind of social justice. We’re exploring ways to explain what’s happening in the world today.

Does your work reflect the festival’s theme of women’s creative potential?
Un Cirque de New York was made by two women documentarians from France. In Circus Amok and in the teaching work I do, we try to support the labor and creative, intellectual and artistic work of women in any way we can.

When did your beard start growing?
It started growing in when I was in my young twenties. It’s like with a boy, how it comes in very slowly. There was nothing very sudden about it, but it was something that people, and I, had to get used to.

How did you feel after it grew in?
I embraced the idea of it right away, and then had on-and-off relationships with it over the years. I basically believed that it was a good idea to keep it, but that it wasn’t always easy. I felt stronger and weaker about wearing it depending on what was happening. If at some point I were just feeling more vulnerable in general, that would make it harder. If I was worried about getting a job, I might feel some doubt about my commitment to keeping it.

How did you handle the way people might react to your beard?
I was raised in the energetic, intellectual fervor of second-wave feminism, so I was surrounded by peers who were making me reflect on what it meant to be afraid of what other people were thinking. I was encouraged to be strong in the face of that.

Has it ever been difficult to be a woman with a beard?
There isn’t a real moment that stands out. Of course, using the bathroom in public places is hard. You go into the women’s room, and people are freaked out.

Does your sideshow status make it hard to have traditional social relationships with people?
I teach about the sideshow and have worked in the sideshow. Having a beard is a stigmatized thing. I have to deal with that in the way that so many other people have to deal with the stigma of disability.

Why did you want to participate in the Citizen Jane Film Festival?
I was invited because there was a certain circus theme to the festivities. Then, I got excited that there was a film festival about women filmmakers in Missouri that I didn’t know about.

What is your role in the festival?
We’re having a screening of the film Un Cirque de New York, and I will be introducing that and having a Q&A. I’m going to be having a few classes on campus with some dancers and a women’s studies class where we’ll talk about my work.

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