Miller makes issues less hairy by revealing life story

Director. Performer. Professor. Playwright. Woman with a beard. Though the first four adjectives describe big parts of Jennifer Miller’s life, the fact that she wears a beard seems to affect her day-to-day activities most.

“There are times when someone would approach me and ask me, ‘Do you need help, sir?’” Miller said. “Then I speak, and it’s revealed that I am a woman.”

Miller gave a presentation at the Spurlock Museum on Tuesday entitled “How to Wear a Beard: Reflections on a Life in the Sideshow, the Circus and the Academy.” She also spoke to an Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class Monday.

At both talks, Miller spoke about how wearing a beard has shaped and affected her life.

“I was 17 when I first started getting a beard,” Miller said. “That was when I started to lose support from my family. I was also coming out as a lesbian at the time.”

The beard grew in slowly, so Miller had years to think about what to do about it.

“I took it a day at a time. I felt like by shaving the beard and hiding it, I would be seen as a woman who had something wrong with her and that I had something that needed to be covered up,” Miller said. “I recognized that as something that could be very debilitating, and the alternative to that was to let the beard come in.”

Miller has broken many gender barriers because of her beard, even in the lesbian community.

“A little over a decade ago, I would walk into lesbian bars and a group of women would approach me with their arms crossed,” Miller said. “My image even confused lesbians … It’s better today though, lesbians are more used to it, there are more different types of lesbian communities.”

Miller is the founder and director of Circus Amok, a queer circus-theater company based in New York City. She is an associate professor of performance at Pratt Institute and also worked for seven years in a Coney Island sideshow, where she was introduced as the “Bearded Lady.” However, Miller opposes being addressed as a “bearded lady.”

“I’m not the only woman with a beard in the world, so why should I be called a bearded lady?” Miller said.

At the talk Tuesday night, Miller demonstrated an act from her “Bearded Lady” stint. She juggled three machete knives, sometimes getting within inches of audience members. At the beginning of the talk, she ate glass from a crushed light bulb, a feat she accomplished by putting “mind over matter,” in her own words.

She spoke to a full house, emitting frequent laughter and applause.

“Jennifer was such a captivating and compelling performer … she really owned herself in a delightful and empowering way,” said Nico Brown, graduate student.

“She’s a wonderful voice of the queer community.”