Black circus performers have found varying levels of fame over the years, but little is known about the stars of Europe. Olga Kaira, better known as Miss LaLa, dazzled audiences across the continent and was the subject of one of the art world’s most prized works.
Anna Olga Albertina Brown was born April 21, 1858 to German parents in the now-Polish city of Stettin. Being of mixed parentage gave the young acrobat an advantage that was used by circus troupes to exploit her so-called “exotic” look. She began working in the troupes at by the age of nine and became well-known for her wire walking, trapeze, and other death-defying acts.
Miss LaLa was known as “Olga The Negress,” “Cannon Woman,” “The Venus Of The Tropics” and other names that played to whatever crowd she was slated to perform in front of. LaLa was also adept at doing “iron jaw” tricks, using her mouth and teeth to climb ropes and suspend herself from high places.
In 1879, French impressionist artist Edward Degas, he too of mixed parentage, painted LaLa in action LaLa was 21 in the painting and already famous across France, Germany and other parts of Europe. The painting, “Miss La La At The Cirque Fernando,” is on display at the National Gallery of London.
LaLa’s later life is much of a mystery but she did marry an American circus performer named Manuel Woodson in 1888. The pair had three daughters, who all became performers themselves. According to an account from the Circus Girl Blog website, Mrs. Anna or Olga Woodson applied for a U.S. passport in 1919 but little else is known.