This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Sandie Crisp, a transgender actress and model who, under her stage name the Goddess Bunny, served as a muse to generations of artists, gay punks and other denizens of the West Hollywood avant-garde, died on Jan. 27 at a hospital in Los Angeles. She was 61.
Her death was confirmed by Mitchell Sunderland-Jackson, a friend. The cause was Covid-19, he said.
For decades, Ms. Crisp was a familiar presence on the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard and in the hustler bars that once lined it, where she dressed like a grungy diva and lip-synced songs by Donny Osmond, Judy Garland and Selena.
In the 1980s and ’90s, she became a popular subject for artists who frequented that scene as well as their collaborator. Directors cast her in underground movies, and she appeared in music videos by Dr. Dre and Billy Talent. A nude photograph of her sits in the permanent collection of the Louvre.
Her aesthetic, which blended the Hollywood noir of David Lynch with the punk offensiveness of GG Allin and Lydia Lunch, knew few boundaries. For one performance she dressed as Eva Braun alongside a man dressed as Hitler. An audience member leapt to his feet and punched her in the face.
“Being able to shock and offend as a way of avoiding co-option by corporate capitalism — she was the muse for people pursuing that sensibility,” said the Canadian filmmaker Bruce La Bruce, the director, most recently, of “Saint-Narcisse” (2020).
Ms. Crisp was equally renowned among drag performers, especially those of a rawer sensibility.
“If you’re an actual drag queen, you know about the Goddess Bunny,” said Simone Moss, the founder of Bushwig, an annual drag conclave that started in New York and gave Ms. Crisp a lifetime achievement award in 2017. “She’s a part of drag history as much as Divine,” she said, referring to the actress made famous by John Waters in films like “Pink Flamingos.”
Sandie Crisp was born on Jan. 13, 1960, in Los Angeles to John Wesley Baima, a lawyer, and Betty Joann (Sherrod) Baima, a secretary.
Their child contracted polio, causing limited use of her arms and legs. Doctors prescribed a variety of surgeries and medical devices — Milwaukee braces, Harrington rods — but they caused only further physical damage. She used a wheelchair to get around.
After the Baimas divorced, Sandie spent several years in foster homes around Los Angeles, at times subjected to abuse by doctors and at least one foster parent, according to Sandie’s account and that of her half brother, Derryl Dale Piper II.
She returned to live with her mother when she was 11, and by 14 she was beginning to present herself as a woman, Mr. Piper said, a turn that brought conflict with their mother, who was deeply religious.
Ms. Crisp left home after high school, moving to West Hollywood and joining a small community of punks, artists, homeless teens and hustlers. She made her mark almost immediately. Foulmouthed and dressed in sequined gowns that she often sewed herself, she insisted on being treated like a celebrity. Her penchant for telling wild tales about herself — like how she had appeared in off-Broadway musicals and dated celebrities — only made her more intriguing to her peers.
“She was such a visually extreme person,” said the photographer Rick Castro, one of many artists who hired Ms. Crisp to appear in their work in the 1980s and ’90s. “The way she carried herself, like she was a movie star, like old-school Hollywood royalty — she didn’t carry herself like someone who should be ashamed,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Castro first photographed her in 1985, and his work led another photographer, Joel-Peter Witkin, to have her pose nude for his photograph “Leda and the Swan,” which was later bought by the Louvre.
“She was like a surrealist painting, but in real life,” Mr. Castro said.
By the late 1980s, Ms. Crisp she was a mainstay for avant-garde filmmakers like John Aes-Nihil, who cast her in several movies. She also appeared in short films, many of them unscripted and shot on hand-held cameras; they could be found at video stores like Mondo Video A-Go-Go, a gathering place for the Los Angeles underground.
“Every gay teenager in America knew that video,” said Mr. Sunderland-Jackson, who wrote a profile of Ms. Crisp for Vice in 2016.
In the late 2000s, someone in Chile repurposed the parasol short, titling it “Obedece à la morsa,” or “Obey the Walrus,” and setting it to a haunting soundtrack. It became enormously popular in Latin America. After her death, scores of Spanish-speaking fans posted online appreciations of the person they knew only as La Morsa.
For all her status as an underground icon, Ms. Crisp craved mainstream celebrity, and for a moment she came close to achieving it.
The director Penelope Spheeris, whose early films documented the Los Angeles punk scene and who achieved box-office success with movies like “Wayne’s World,” cast Ms. Crisp in the 1986 film “Hollywood Vice Squad,” starring Carrie Fisher. Ms. Crisp later appeared in music videos and performed as a backup dancer for Marilyn Manson at the 1998 MTV Music Awards.
She had a band of followers whom she called her children, and who called her their mother — among them Mr. Sunderland-Jackson, Danny Fuentes and Chuck Grant. Some have developed their own artistic careers. Mr. Fuentes owns a gallery in Los Angeles and Ms. Grant, the sister of the singer Lana Del Rey, is a photographer.
In 1997, Ms. Crisp became involved with Rocky Dale Wilson, but they split up four years later. By then she had contracted H.I.V. She later lived in a series of homeless shelters before entering an assisted living center in Inglewood, southwest of Los Angeles, where she filled her small room with her wigs, fake degrees and photos of her mother. In 2014, she ran for mayor, winning 500 votes.
Though her life had taken a downturn, Ms. Crisp continued to have the occasional success. She appeared in the 2017 cult film “Scumbag,” and in 2020, Harper’s Bazaar included her in a photo shoot of “America’s Most Legendary Drag Queens.”
Even her admirers said that Ms. Crisp could be hard to take, for both her forceful personality and her penchant for embellishment, if not outright lying. But others took comfort in her fabulisms, a reflection of someone who, through her struggles, learned to seek a better world.
“She was a true master at telling the story she wanted to tell,” said Hunter Ray Barker, another of her “children.” “Even though she would embellish things, the world she presented is one I favor over the one we live in.”