(Minnie Woolsey, 1880 – after 1960) performed in American sideshows and is known for her one and only film role in Tod Browning's controversial 1932 film, Freaks. Woolsey spent time in a mental hospital before she began performing, but little else is known about her early life.
Woolsey was born with an extremely rare congenital growth skeletal disorder called Seckel Syndrome. Seckel Syndrome caused Woolsey to have a small head, short stature, mild intellectual disability, and a narrow face with a receding jaw and large features, hence the name "Koo Koo the Bird Girl". Woolsey was also bald, had no teeth, and was either fully blind or had severely impaired vision.
In Woolsey's "Koo Koo the Bird Girl" performances, she would wear a bodysuit made of feathers and a single feather on top of her head while she danced and spoke gibberish. Woolsey is in many scenes in Browning's film Freaks, such as the wedding ceremony. Freaks received an overwhelming amount of critical backlash upon release because many people thought the film was exploitative of the real sideshow performers who acted in it. Upon reflection today, many film critics hold the opinion that Freaks is a deeply compassionate film that portrays its actors in an honest and respectful way.
Woolsey performed in a circus sideshow at Coney Island into her '80s. The date and cause of her death is unknown. Woolsey was a fantastic performer who led an extraordinary life. Her performance in Freaks left a big impression on me, and she is an inspiration to others as well:
Australian performer Sarah Houbolt created a performance called Kookoo The Bird Girl. Speaking to Disability Arts Online, Houbolt said, "My full length show, KooKoo the Birdgirl, is about Minnie Woolsley, a historical performer with disability, who starred in Freaks (1932). This is an art history piece, and a female perspective on the side show. My passion to uncover her story is as a result of the importance of telling our history from a disability perspective. Minnie lived in a time of compulsory sterilisation and anti-marriage laws for disabled women, which not many people know about."