Custom Search 1

The untold story of Europe’s first black female circus star

VENUS OF THE WIRE: Miss La La c1880 (photo credit: Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University)

2018 MARKED the 250th anniversary of the circus. In celebration, an exhibition which highlights diversity and complexity within the circus wasco-curated by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, chair of Early Film and Popular Entertainment in the University of Shefield’s School of English and one of the world’s leading circus historians.

The exhibition, Circus! Show of Shows, was at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, with women and black circus performers being its main theme.

One of more than 200 exhibits is Pablo Fanque, the black equestrian performer who in the 1800s was the first recorded black circus proprietor in Britain, who ran his circus for 30 years.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, however, was Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’ breathtaking Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, one of the world’s most famous circus paintings, on loan from The National Gallery, London.

French impressionist Degas was so obsessed with black circus performer Miss La La that he sketched her 20 times. In his diary, he referred to her as “my beautiful negress”. So who was the subject behind the iconic painting?

“Miss La La was an amazing, powerful black woman in the 19th Century, doing all the things you wouldn’t presume women could do in the 19th Century,” says Professor Toulmin. “People think circus is white performers, tents and clowns but in the 19th century, the circus was women, buildings and a melting pot.”

She continued: “Degas’ painting presents many of the concepts of 19th Century circus that are as relevant today as they were then, including the freedom to perform regardless of race and gender and an appreciation of the sheer physicality and skill of the performer.”

Miss La La was born on April 21, 1858 in the Kingdom of Prussia, in an area that is now Poland. Her white father, Wilhelm Brown, and black mother, Marie Christine Borchardt, named her Anna Olga Albertina Brown.

Her first appearance in the circus was at the age of nine, but it was age 21 that she found fame in France. She toured around numerous circuses and music halls throughout Europe, including the UK – where she performed at London’s Royal Aquarium central hall and Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre.

Although small in stature, Miss La La possessed incredible strength. She was an allround circus star and she worked at various times as a trapeze artiste, a hand balancer, a wire walker, a strength artiste and an iron jaw performer (a popular acrobatic strength act
of the time), which saw her suspended high up in the air while holding a great weight using only her teeth. Miss La La was part of the Kaira troupe and was some- times called “Olga Kaira”.


When the troupe came to Paris in 1879 they caused a sensation. Miss La La was presented as an exotic black woman, under many titles: “The Venus of the Wire”, “The
Venus of the Tropics”, “The Cannon Woman”, “Olga the Negress”, “The Black Pearl” and “The African Princess”. Miss LaLa was part of the troupe called Folies Bergère and the Keziah Sisters, where her African and European ancestry was regularly exploited to create mystery and reinforce her ‘exoticism’ to increase ticket sales.

Acclaimed circus performer Blaze Tarsha dances in front of the Degas painting

In Paris she was hailed as “La Venus Noire” and in London stories were circulated saying that she was an African princess who lost her throne when her chiefs decided to pledge their alle- giance to Queen Victoria.

As a result, they said, Miss La La was sold into slavery and ended up in a circus in the South of France. She partnered with another strength acrobat called Theophila Szterker/Kaira la Blanche. Together they were known as “Les Deux Papillons” (The Two Butteries).

“Miss La La’s most incredible act involved a 250lb cannonball being raised up between her legs and up 100 feet in the air and red. She was a woman of power and strength. She would lift people up with her legs and her teeth,” Professor Toulmin reveals.

She would be suspended from the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between
her teeth, as captured in Edgar Degas’ iconic painting. His famous picture of her was at the Cirque Fernando, close to his studio in Montmartre, Paris.

In writings of the time, Miss La La is described as a “dusky Amazon” and greatly admired for her agility and strength and one who was “strong above the average of womankind in the jaw”.

In Paris, Miss La La’s iron jaw act was described as so much better than those which had come before, including male iron jaw performers. In an 1879 newspaper report, Miss La La’s act is described in detail. The article mentioned how she hung from her hocks (knees) on her trapeze while holding a second trapeze between her teeth.

Then a child, a woman and a man took it in turns to perform poses on this second trapeze before a duo act took their turn, all the while with Miss La La bearing their weight between her teeth.

Then a woman performed a toe hang off this second trapeze while holding the weight of another woman in her arms. The ante was then upped as Miss La La was lifted up to the roof rafters where she hung upside-down on her trapeze, hanging on just one knee, holding the weight of a man on each arm and the weight of one between her teeth.

Miss La La continued to perform from the 1860s up to the late 1880s. In 1888 she married an American contortionist by the name of Emanuel (Manuel) Woodson. The same year, her stage partner Theophila died from a fall; she had previously suffered a bad fall while substitu- ing for Miss La La in a rope act.

Emanuel and Miss La La went on to have a daughter, Rose Eddie Woodson, who was born in London in 1894.

According to the newspaper The New York Age (October 21, 1915), the couple went on to have two more daughters – and the children formed an act as “The Three Keziahs”. In 1911, Miss La La appeared in a manual, Edmond Desbonnet’s Les rois de la force, about the history of strong performers.

Desbonnet was in awe of Miss La La; often referencing the size of her biceps and thighs and how she could lift three men simultaneously. These skills saw her feted at the top of the bill and with her own publicity agent.


“In the 19th Century women were the highest paid circus performers, and Miss La La was no exception,” says Professor Toulmin. Included in the Circus! Show of Shows exhibition, was contemporary circus performer Blaze Tarsha, who specialises in aerial and hula-hooping.

She has created a film of a performance devised in response to Miss La La and the Degas painting. “My mum ran away to the circus and I joined her,” laughed Blaze. “She was a chef and was asked to work at NoFit State Circus – the biggest mainstream contemporary British circus – for two months. She ended up touring with the circus for a year!”

At the age of 15, Blaze also ended up at the NoFit State Circus to be close to her mum. “I learnt so much while I was at the circus with my mum. Being on tour really influenced my work and helped me to get good grades at school as I was surrounded by such strong role models that I was able to learn really good skills – not just for school, but for life.”

Blaze did a few introductory workshops while at NoFit State Circus before studying a BTEC diploma in aerial and physical theatre at Circomedia in Bristol. She picked up hula-hooping while on tour with NoFit State Circus.

“I really like aerial because it has physicality and strength. I also get an adrenaline rush as you work at height,” said Blaze.

“I hadn’t heard of Miss La La, but once I found out more about her I became excited and inspired to see women who looked similar to me and have the same ancestors and culture. I didn’t want to mimic Miss La La as she was amazing in her own right. I just wanted to concentrate on the simplicity of the Degas portrait and the height at which she was hanging from.

“From the painting you can already see how amazing and captivating Miss La La was. I’m very honoured and excited about bringing this painting to life. The exhibition ampli es the fact that circus is diverse in gender, ethnicity and culture. It’s an amazing, respected art form.”

Subscribe to The Voice database!

We'd like to keep in touch with you regarding our daily newsletter, Voice competitions, promotions and marketing material and to further increase our reach with The Voice readers.

If interested, please click the below button to complete the subscription form.

We will never sell your data and will keep it safe and secure.

For further details visit our privacy policy.

You have the right to withdraw at any time, by clicking 'Unsubscribe'.