Glitter and Bleach for Bambi


Had Bambi Lake been a New York resident she would have doubtless become a Warhol Superstar. Lake certainly had all the qualifications that such a job required. The blonde looks of Candy Darling, the arched eyebrow humour of Holly Woodlawn, and the mad bad-ass sass of Jackie Curtis. Too often it is mused to shine you have to burn. After half a century of attracting attention at a high cost to herself, the star that was Bambi Lake has crashed and gone. Mercurial, charming, outrageous, and self-sabotaging her absence will be noticed. That trash and flash attitude often alienated those who might have helped her career. Her addictions didn't help. San Francisco was her home, even when she was without one, but instead of wearing flowers in her hair, it was glitter and bleach for Bambi. 

The fourth of eight children John Purcell was born in Palo Alto on October 20th 1950 to a construction worker father, her mother was a secretary. At school he showed a propensity for acting and through a friend the choreographer Kenny Ortega (Madonna, Michael Jackson and The Tubes) secured a part in the chorus line of the original production of  Oliver on Broadway. The touch-paper for the future path had been lit. Already aware of conflicts within her/his nature she/he survived via his/her involvement in local theatre production. By 1970 whilst studying theatre at Canada Junior College, she was hitchhiking and accepted a lift from Peter Mintun who would become The Cockettes' piano player. It was he who introduced  Lake to the group and she'd found her spiritual home and the freedom to express and explore an identity that would become the force of nature known as Bambi mentored and supported by the group's founder Hibiscus 1949-1982.

A feature on the San Francisco theatre scene since then she first came to prominence via the unfettered hippy, drag and drug psychedelic theatre ensemble "The Cockettes" that also spawned the disco star Sylvester. Via shows in New York and San Francisco their ensemble of spontaneous outrage both shocked and thrilled. When the troupe became Angels Of Light, Bambi was starring in their first production Whatever Happened To Baby Jesus; a combination of the biblical tale and that of The Little Match Girl. Eventually she became their leading lady and performed in London in The Enchanted Miracle and lived there for a year. With the advent of punk she sang with the all female band V2 and toured Europe supporting The Stranglers, and opening for many punk acts across San Francisco. She even spent a year in Berlin with Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

There were also stints as a porn actress, prostitution, mental health issues, drug addiction, and homelessness. She was regularly turned away from women's refuges on account of her trans identity. Depending on the version of events she was sharing at the time, Lake was arrested for ringing the cops with a bomb hoax after being invited to a party by the Stones or it may have been Oasis, and being refused entry by security. She was frequently barred from bars and arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Yet despite maintaining sheer chaos in heels she could warm and charm an audience with her singing. Remarkably Lake managed to pen in 1996 her autobiography The Unsinkable Bambi Lake, edited by Alvin Orloff with an introduction by Henry Rollins, published a collection of poetry, and in 2005 released her sole album My Glamorous Life As A Broadway Hostess which contains the heartbreakingly beautiful elegy "The Golden Age of Hustlers." A song that aches with pathos and earned regret. A perfect fusion of Allen Ginsberg, Dorothy Parker, and Walt Whitman.

"I saw the best bodies of my generation

Sold, bartered, and destroyed

By drugs and prostitution.

Pretty queens on the corners and midnight cowboys in the doorways

If you want it, Daddy, get it here.

It's a candy store

In more ways than one.


Golden girls and boys all must 

Like chimney sweepers come to dust.

It's hard to find someone you can trust

Amidst the rhinestones and the rust."

In 2015 the documentary film maker Silas Howard caught her in all her ramshackle glory in the award winning Sticks And Stones.

Bambi Lake became ill in October and succumbed to cancer on the 4th November 2020. For a life lived fast and against the grain it was an appropriately quick exit. In these snowflake days her brash "Fuck You" abrasiveness is to be applauded and admired. She recently reflected: "I guess my greatest talent is when I perform people cry. I don't know why." They cried because her broken honesty as a chanteuse reflected perfectly in the shattered shards scattered in their own hearts.

Her final performance was as part of the Dan Karkoska produced Cockettes Are Golden - A 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco on January 4th 2020.

Her autobiography has recently been republished and revised.

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