Emmitt and Percilla Bejano were legends in the carnival world, particularly in the "freak show" industry where they performed as the World's Strangest Couple. Before they were married, they performed separately: Percilla was known as "The Monkey Girl," and Emmitt was known as "The Alligator-Skinned Man."
They were human attractions, putting themselves on display for the entertainment of others. Both were born with incurable skin conditions: Percilla's hypertrichosis caused her to grow thick black hair all over her face and body (including a full beard), and Emmitt's ichthyosis gave him dry, hard skin that appeared scaly, like a fish or reptile.
While the exploitation devices used by circus leaders have been heavily criticized, Emmitt and Percilla Bejano did not outwardly act victimized - like many of their fellow performers, they embraced the way they were made and used it to make a respectable living. They figured if people were going to stare anyway, why not make some money?
Emmitt and Percilla truly embodied the spirit of the sideshow and inspired many people with their unusual love story. But when you look past appearances (like they did), they weren't so unusual at all - they led the normal life of a married couple and were devoted to each other until the very end.
The Pair Earned Enough Money To Retire From Show Business
Emmitt and Percilla were very successful on the sideshow circuit, and even branched out into film later in their careers. The couple starred in Carny in 1980 with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster, and they also made appearances in several documentaries. They gave interviews in the '80s and '90s as some of the last veterans of the "freak show" culture; many of their contemporaries had quit or been phased out long ago due to the now-taboo nature of sideshows. Many of the shows had been shut down by activist groups.
They eventually retired and pulled away from life in the public eye in the early '90s.
Percilla Shaved Her Face After Emmitt's Death
Emmitt passed on April 17, 1995; he and Percilla had been married almost 60 years. It was at that point that Percilla started shaving her beard, and she continued to do so for the next six years. She made a few more television and documentary appearances, including the Jerry Springer Show, talking about her long life as a sideshow attraction and her beloved husband.
She passed in her sleep on February 5, 2001, at the age of 90.
Percilla's Father Brought Her To America To Put Her On Display
Percilla's biological father's logic was that if there was no cure for his daughter's condition, the family might as well use her unique appearance to make some money in the United States. Her parents had six other children back in Puerto Rico and could use the extra income. Percilla was 3 years old the first time she went on display for the public.
Percilla's father was originally from Spain and spoke mostly Spanish, so he needed a little help with promoting Percilla as a carnival attraction. He turned to professional showman Carl Lauther, who had years of experience running sideshows. Lauther immediately took an interest in Percilla, and he was helping to care for her when her father was shot and killed in Gainesville, FL.
Percilla's Promoter Adopted Her After Her Father's Demise
Percilla's father's last wish was for Carl Lauther and his wife to adopt Percilla; Lauther had been her sideshow promoter for a brief period of time before her father was slain. He and his wife adopted Percilla as their own, and they continued to promote her as an attraction.
The Lauthers reportedly treated Percilla very well. Percilla was very smart and fluent in English and Spanish. They hired a tutor to make sure she finished her schooling, and when she told them she was lonely, they gave her a pet chimpanzee.
It was very common for sideshow promoters to adopt their "human oddities" in the early 20th century, since their parents often couldn't handle them or knew that performing could give them a better life. Emmitt was also adopted by his promoter, Johnny Bejano.