“She never thought of herself as anything other than a goddess”: Rick Castro pays tribute to the avant-garde actress and model, who has died of Covid-19
Sandie Crisp, born Johnnie Baima on 13 January 1960 but known by her stage name the Goddess Bunny, died of Covid-19 on 27 January 2021.
As a child, the Goddess Bunny developed polio which caused severe deformity to her body and forced her into disability. But she never thought of herself as anything other than a goddess. This is how she presented herself to the world.
I first met her at Limbo Lounge, which was held on Thursday nights at Four Star in West Hollywood, circa 1985; one of the few bars in the WeHo that wasn’t for the clone-only, white gay men of the era. She performed a lip-sync rendition of Debby Boone’s, You Light Up My Life (1977), which cleared the room. I became fascinated by her physical appearance, which was contrasted by the way she carried herself – like a bona fide movie star.
I decided to create a photographic portrait of the Goddess Bunny. For her attire, I purchased a satin teddy at the bargain basement of Playmates of Hollywood for one dollar. My friend Richard/Wanda (RIP) created her make-up and wig. I’m very proud of this portrait and feel it presents her the way she saw herself. For me, it’s the perfect combination of old school Hollywood glamour, (a tinge of Joey Heatherton) showbiz glitz and postmodern surrealism. I’ve exhibited this portrait of the Goddess Bunny many times, including at my fetish art gallery, Antebellum Hollywood (2005-2017).
Later on, I was working as an art director, stylist and assistant to the art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. I presented my portrait of the Goddess Bunny to Mr Witkin, who became obsessed calling me on a weekly basis, “Do you think Bunny would look good with this backdrop? Imagine Bunny on a horse!” This went on until we finally did our photoshoot in early 1986, when I hired the Goddess Bunny to portray Leda in Joel Witkin’s version of Leda and the Swan.
The Goddess Bunny was returning from a visit with her mother somewhere in the Midwest, so her hormones had worn off. When I picked her up at the airport she was presenting as male, with black facial hair. She told me at the farm she was driving a tractor. The Goddess Bunny also randomly stated she was once Carol Burnett’s double and worked as her stand in. I replied, “Isn’t that Vicki Lawrence?” She ignored my question. She asked me to drive her by her PO box to retrieve mail. There, waiting for her, was an autographed photo of minor celebrity teen star Ricky Schroder, sent by a publicity department. “To Sandie, Love, Ricky Schroder,” it read. “He’s my boyfriend,” the Goddess Bunny replied, “he’s obsessed with me.”
The following day we created our Leda and the Swan photo at the studio of Herb Ritts, (who I also worked for) on Hudson Avenue, Hollywood. Joel’s wife, Cynthia, made a wig in the style of a renaissance, Princess Leia bun. I did the make-up and also hired two babies (mothers present of course) to portray flying cherubs. We used dove feathers to create the look of wings. I hired a real swan and swan wrangler as well. I didn’t know swans were so clumsy out of water. It would continuously fall off the fake rock, landing on its back, then flail about not able to get up. We had to have the wrangler close by so the swan wouldn’t fall on the babies. The Goddess Bunny as Leda (1986) is now part of the permanent collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris.
“We were the last royal lineage of Italy. If I were to go back and kick the Pope off his throne, I’d be the queen” – The Goddess Bunny
Joel offered to pay the Goddess Bunny cash or receive a photographic print of our session. I suggested she take the print as it would become collectable but she chose cash. On the way home she made me stop at a cheap wig shop on Western Avenue, where she spent all her just-earned cash.
Months later I received numerous phone calls from the Goddess Bunny. “Ricky, she bellowed, “I’ve decided that I want a print from our session with Mr Witkin.”
“But Bunny,” I tried to reason, “you opted for the cash.” “I don’t care,” she went on, “I want a print!” I contacted Joel and implored him, “ I know you don’t usually do this, but please give Bunny a print, she’s calling me night and day!” Mr Witkin obliged. But when the goddess received the print she stated, “I don’t like it.” She gave the print to post-punk, queer, reborn-Christian, kuntry singer Glen Meadmore, who was living with her at the time.
Around 1987, her friends Keith Holland and Quasi O’Shea were trying out their new VHS recorder. They dressed the Goddess Bunny in frilly lingerie and placed a styrofoam clownie on her head, a parasol in her hand and shiny patent tap shoes on her feet, and made a short clip of her tapping up a storm, followed by her famous zombie walk. Glen Meadmore used the footage as backdrop for his live performances at the Limbo Lounge. When YouTube took off, someone posted the footage; thus one of the first viral videos was born. The Goddess Bunny tap-dancing has been reposted and recreated thousands of times, with millions of views.
Years later, I saw the Goddess Bunny at the Pride Festival in West Hollywood. She was wearing a tiara with a sash that read Miss West Hollywood (she wasn’t) over a Dynasty-like sequined gown. Sitting like a queen on a throne on a motorised wheelchair, she zoomed up to me at the speed of light, greeting me with a plastic sceptre. “Wow Bunny this is fancy!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, I was on the WeHo bus and the driver didn’t buckle me in properly so I rolled down the aisle and flipped over,” she explained, “I can’t walk much at all anymore. With the money I collected, I got this!”
One evening around 2010, I hosted Punk Bunny as the musical performance at my fetish art gallery, Antebellum Hollywood. The set was amazing, lead singer ‘Luigi’ Sandoval was a bundle of energy. Local eccentrics Francine Dancer and the Goddess Bunny were go-go dancers, both in wheelchairs. After the high-energy performance, the Goddess Bunny asked if she could do a solo performance. Of course, I obliged and slipped her CD into the player. Once again Debby Boone’s, You Light Up My Life came on the speakers – 26 years later! Once again, her performance cleared the room.
Then around 2011, Rick Owens published a book that included a photo his crew shot of the Goddess Bunny. Now the Goddess Bunny contacted me on Facebook Messenger. “Rick I want a book! Send me a book!!”
“Bunny,” I responded, “I’m not Rick Owens, I’m Rick Castro.” This was as irrelevant to her as the Republican’s version of who won the election. “NO! I WANT A BOOK! SEND ME A BOOK!” I passed the message along.
“Don’t you know who I am? Well, go to the movies” – The Goddess Bunny
In the later 2010s, the Goddess Bunny had to move into a hospice facility in Inglewood, a sleepy black neighbourhood in South LA. She had many health issues over the years and was HIV positive. But this didn’t deter her: she ran for mayor of Inglewood in 2014. I actually talked one of my friends who lived in her district into voting for her. I was told the Goddess Bunny received five-hundred votes.
She was also a write-in candidate for the 2020 presidential election.
On 15 October 2018, the Goddess posted a live stream on YouTube imploring people to stop being so cruel and disparaging about her looks, harking back to the late 19th-century plea by Joseph Merrick; “I am not an animal. I am a human being.”
“I’ve worked my complete career trying to be the most fabulous looking person for me to look like,” she said. “I could’ve been the boring everyday looking male, and stayed in my closet, and never had as much fun as I’ve had. I’m a human being and I would appreciate it if people would recognise that.”
On 16 June 2020, the Goddess Bunny posted a video from her hospice bed sans make-up and wig, sporting facial stubble, giving stark realness. She implored her fans to stay home and warned that the pandemic was far from over. She worried about her friends and mentioned some of them by name. Sadly, Bunny was taken by the plague the morning of January 27 2021.
The Goddess Bunny lived through adversity and pain (both physical, internal and external) her entire life. Against all odds, she became a worldwide phenomenon and celebrity through her own volition. She knew who she was, knew the limitations bestowed on her and made them work. She was a fascinating enigma, and a sight to behold. Without question, Bunny was exploited throughout her life, but many were in awe of her, respecting her self-determination – especially millennials and younger generations who loved her just the way she was. I personally saw the Goddess Bunny as surrealist art in the form of diva. Rest in peace, Goddess. You deserve it.
As a full-fledged movie star, it was the Goddess Bunny’s dream to be interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The location where Rudolph Valentino, Peter Lorre, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Jr, Clifton Webb, Mickey Rooney, Hattie McDaniel, Jayne Mansfield, Chris Cornell, Johnny Ramone, Tomata DuPlenty, Roz Willams, Judy Garland, Toto, Holly Woodlawn and Joan Hackett, all rest for eternity. A GoFundMe page has been created by the Goddess’s “sons” to make her last wish come true. Head here to make a donation.