Historians say that in the 19th Century, women were the highest-paid circus performers, and Anna Olga Albertina Brown was no exception. Better known as Miss LaLa, she was an amazing powerful Black woman who broke through many racial barriers and dazzled audiences across Europe with her acrobatic feats.
Though LaLa was small, her strength was incredible. She worked in the troupes and became popular for her wire walking, trapeze, and other daring acts. Sources say she could lift three men simultaneously. It is also documented that she was good at doing “iron jaw” tricks, using her mouth and teeth to climb ropes and suspend herself from high places.
Born April 21, 1858, in the now-Polish city of Stettin and being of mixed parentage, her “exotic” look was often exploited by circus troupes. By that, ticket sales were increased. LaLa, who became known as “Olga The Negress,” “Cannon Woman,” “The Venus Of The Tropics” and other names, first appeared in the circus at the age of nine. It was at the age of 21, in France, that she found fame.
According to one account, she toured around countless circuses and music halls throughout Europe including the UK where she performed at London’s Royal Aquarium’s central hall and at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre. In Paris, the audiences loved her because of her iron jaw act and she was often hailed as ‘La Venus Noire’.
In London, her “exotic” look birthed stories that LaLa was an African princess who lost her throne when her chiefs decided to pledge their allegiance to Queen Victoria. Those tales said she was subsequently sold into slavery and ended up in a circus in the South of France.
By and by, LaLa became the subject of a famous painting. French impressionist artist Edward Degas, who was so obsessed with the Black circus performer, painted her in action when she was 21. The painting, “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”, remains one of the world’s most famous circus paintings. It depicts LaLa suspended from the rafters of a circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth.
At the time of the painting, LaLa was already famous across Germany, France and other parts of Europe. She was part of the troupe called Folies Bergère and the Keziah Sisters. She also partnered with another acrobat called Theophila Szterker, and together they were known as Les Deux Papillons (The two butterflies).
“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 Vanessa Toulmin, one of the world’s leading circus historians, said in an interview.
Toulmin said that 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.
LaLa after the painting continued to perform up to the late 1880s when she married an American circus performer named Manuel Woodson. The couple had three daughters, who also became performers, forming an act called the Three Keziahs.
LaLa would apply for a U.S. passport in 1919 and not much is known about her life after that.
“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,” said Toulmin.
“People think circus is white performers, tents and clowns but in the 19th century, the circus was women, buildings and a melting pot.”