The Lure of the Leopard, essay by Valerie Nieman
First, we were freaks.
Louise the Leopard Girl. Frances the Spotted Pony Girl, who was born in Johnson City, TN. Spotty, the Wonderful Leopard Boy. Whole families with spots. Nobonti and Sadie, Mungo Park and Tiger Lily. Their solemn faces stare out from 19th-century posters, like these collected at the Sideshow World site. Almost always, these people are of African descent. Origin stories, each more lurid than the last, postulate how they came to don the leopard's coat.
The patterns, which may be large or small, are caused by an autoimmune disorder known as vitiligo in which the body attacks its melanocytes, leaving areas of skin without color. People of all ethnicities and skin colors may be affected--the spots are simply more noticeable when skin is darker.
I'd never heard of vitiligo when my mother's hands began to lose their color. I blamed her white spots on bleach in the wash water. I was in middle school, and I was mortified at nearly everything, especially this.
My turn would come. The spots appeared first on my fingers, right where I'd had serious reactions to the poison ivy I tugged and cut all around our West Virginia hill farm. I'm not sure at what point I realized this was not a temporary reaction but a permanent change.
Over time, the spots appeared on my feet, ankles, calves. At the corners of my eyes. I learned that the spots, if they appear in one place, will also appear in that same area on the other side of the body. I learned that there is a genetic component, the latent disorder being triggered by environmental or hormonal factors. I learned that vitiligo sometimes retreats, but has no simple cure. I didn't know that it has a long recorded history -- nor that it had a future in my writing.
Out of the past
Descriptions of a skin disease which might have been vitiligo are inscribed on Egyptian papyri from 1500 BCE and thereafter in Indian and East Asian texts.
The name vitiligo may have its root in the Latin "vitium," meaning a blemish or defect. Leviticus warns of skin diseases marked by white spots, and vitiligo became linked with leprosy and a state of spiritual decay.
Physicians of the ancient world continued to group these disorders together, condemning those with non-communicable spots to life as outcasts along with those suffering from the disfiguring attacks of Hansen's disease.
I was born light-skinned, so sunscreen and makeup helped reduce the visibility of my slowly spreading spots. The products available to cover scars, birthmarks, and vitiligo were thick and unnatural, but I slathered them on. I couldn't accept the areas of fish-belly paleness that became more pronounced against my farmer's tan from hiking, gardening, berry-picking.
I practiced my spiel, a reassuring explanation for the spots. I learned to hide my hands.
Then came the voice.
I was writing on the screened porch on a summer night, sometime around 2000, as a storm gathered across the North Carolina Piedmont.
"This leopard-skin come onto me
when I lost love,
(this is not for the marks to know)
when my man's absence
set a hot kindle of distrust
that blowed back on me
as lack of faith
in what is more worthy
than some handful of spit and dust."
It might have been the lightning, but I think it was the arrival of the voice that set my skin a-tingle. It was not a voice I knew, but it was strong and demanded to be heard. I kept writing, lines that would become (with few changes), "The Leopard Lady Speaks." I wrote steadily for nearly 13 pages in my journal, until my hand cramped and the spark faded.
As much as the term "inspiration" is tossed about, I've never felt "inspired" in this way, as though something was breathed into me, from a source I couldn't identify.
Who was the Leopard Lady? I recognized Appalachian in her voice, and something antique as well. And there was the carnival backdrop, evident from the first stanza when she advised that the "marks" were not allowed to know her true story.
I didn't even have a given name for my visitor, just the moniker by which she introduced herself. It would take many poems, and many years, to work my way into her confidence. I once tried to give her a name--Hannah--but it didn't stick. Finally, her true name was revealed. Dinah.
You might say it's all a con, this talk of voice and inspiration, just as the audience looks at the sideshow acts arrayed before them. Yet much of that world of illusion and humbug is actually genuine. Dinah says, "I know you been speculating,/ are them spots just painted on," and The Professor (another voice who showed up, unexpected), had this to say about the "working acts."
"The body, this bin of dust, can endure so much--
point and edge and heat and cold, nails thrust
into the nose, electricity on the skin.
The trick, I have learned, is that there is no trick--
talent must put a hand in the trap, disjoint
shoulders, eat glass, rest on the points of pins."
I learned that lesson at the Coney Island Museum, where I went in search of Dinah's story. I had been planning to take the class offered in sideshow performance--learn how to eat fire, lie on the bed of nails, sit in the electric chair, swallow swords, be a Human Blockhead! But each of those acts involves some real hazard. The swords, the fire, and the nails are all genuine. I chickened out after reading the liability waiver, and instead studied carnival banners and the art of the sideshow from Marie Roberts, who guided me in painting the image of the Leopard Lady that became the book's cover.
And as the story of Dinah and The Professor arrived, poem by poem, I came to terms with my own spotted self.
At one point Dinah considers her mixed heritage, white and black, and the irony of her ailment.
"Now I am half one thing half another
they say, but I am only one creature
in this world. My father's skin set me
out as a Negro, so called, but only half
of me harks to my father,
and I do not carry his name,
so why am I any more beholding
to him than to my mother,
who grew me up in her own body?
They say she was Irish, a folk
gifted with second sight,
that much and her red hair come true,
but the rest of her is folded
inside me, blood and bone.
She's working to get out, though,
That white woman what left me
is taking me back,
inch by inch."
Dinah suffers fearful loss, from her arrival in Depression-era Appalachia as an orphan, to misuse and abuse by those who offered to protect her, to abandonment and the appearance of vitiligo. Yet she is indomitable, rising above it all, climbing through the ranks of the carnival hierarchy from hootchie-kootchie dancer to fortune teller to "natural" freak. And as she rises, she gains control over her life, and shows her body without shame or fear.
"...the kimono falls
and I turn and stand.
They see me top to toe
allover speckled, face to breast to ankles,
my affliction being such that where
one side is marked
so will be t'other.
Here I am."
The spotted cat
A spotted cat arrives at the carnival at the same time as The Professor, and Dinah is drawn to them both. Like them, we are fascinated by the leopard's skin, those ragged rings imprinted on the tawny coat.
In her book Fierce: The History of Leopard Print, Jo Weldon discusses the history of leopard pattern, from the skins once worn to show a warrior's prowess or ruler's might, to its use by imperial military regiments, then film stars and celebrities and contemporary artists including Nicki Minaj and Rihanna.
From silent melodramas to science fiction, from Cat People to the Island of Dr. Moreau, an uncanny link between humans and cats, especially spotted cats, has persisted. Leopard people appear in film titles, though in these movies, the characters control leopards rather than being spotted like them. In the 1928 movie The Leopard Lady, a woman rules over jungle cats (her "primitive nature rejoiced in these fierce beasts") while there was an earlier Leopard Woman silent film, and the Johnny Weismuller movie Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. A Google search for "Leopard Lady" turns up images from stiletto heels and bathing suits to tattoos and fantasies of blended natures.
For the crowds along the midway in Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, the prospect of a half-cat, half-woman is irresistible. The outside talker lures them in, extracting coins from their pockets with the promise of an exotic encounter:
"By day our dappled Lady is as sweet as they come,
but beware the dreadful stroke of midnight! On some
nights when the moon blows white as a magnolia flower
and the wind is warm as breath, heavy with the power
of a tropical hurricane--now, it might be just such
a night as we have here, when the uncanny clutches
at our immortal souls--then, Mesdames, Messieurs,
she alters from frail woman into beast, conjured
complete with pointy fangs and claws and hairy pelt,
and, it's true, a twitching tail right where her svelte
bottom naturally ends!"
I've long since grown into my spots. They are a part of me, as much as eye color or my gradually shrinking stature.
Recently, a model with vitiligo--she vigorously rejects such labels as "suffering from" -- has brought awareness to this different form of beauty. Winnie Harlow was a contestant on "America's Next Top Model," and has appeared in magazines such as Glamour as well as modeling for Victoria's Secret, Sprite, Diesel, and other companies.
Artist Kay Black now makes customized dolls with, among other options, vitiligo. Even Barbie, that emblem of a brittle kind of female perfection, has a line of Fashionistas exhibiting variety instead of sameness.
Spotted people aren't freaks any longer. Nor are we hiding.
What is beauty? The definitions keep expanding. Gerard Manley Hopkins knew this long ago:
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Valerie Nieman's fourth novel, To the Bones, a horror/mystery set in the West Virginia coalfields, came out in 2019, and her third collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, the year before. She is a graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing at NC A&T State University.
Poems reprinted with the permission of the author.