Every adopted child wonders who his biological mother is. Movie star? Rock star? Maybe a big-shot CEO? For Richard Lorenc, she turned out to be the last thing he ever imagined: a sideshow bearded lady.
The 33-year-old Kansas man had always been curious about his birth parents, but with a wife and two young daughters, he was busy making a life of his own. After a recent back injury led to multiple medical exams and many questions about his family medical history, he decided it was time to start digging.
His search began this past spring, when he filed a request with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to find his biological parents.
Six weeks later he received a letter from the department saying it had the identity of his mother: Vivian Wheeler, now 62.
It also informed him that both his mother and his maternal grandmother had hypertrichosis, known as werewolf syndrome. Each had facial hair, even as children. The letter further stated that his mother was born a hermaphrodite, with both male and female reproductive organs.
Wheeler’s facial fuzz had appeared at birth with an inch and a half of light hair covering her cheeks and chin. She says her mother wanted a daughter, and doctors were instructed to remove the male parts.
Wheeler claimed her father was humiliated by his bearded little girl, but it didn’t prevent him from capitalizing on her condition. She began working in sideshows at an early age, earning money to send home to her family.
Between tours, she would return home and reach for a razor.
“My dad said to shave because people wouldn’t understand why I had facial hair, saying, ‘This is what you’ll have to do to fit into society,’” Wheeler told AOL News.
As she grew older, she would shave sometimes to placate the men she dated, “because of their low self-esteem. It didn’t bother me.”
Wheeler stopped shaving her beard entirely in 1990 shortly after the death of her mother.
“I let it grow back to be myself,” she said. “Without my beard, I’m not me. I’m pretending to be someone I’m not.”
Since then, her beard has grown to 11 inches in length, leading to appearances in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and in the Guinness World Records book.
According to Wheeler, doctors examining her for Guinness said she has a male bone structure, with half her hormones being male. Doctors thought it would be impossible for her to give birth, but she became pregnant, and baby Richard was delivered by cesarean section in 1977.
For Wheeler, a Seventh-Day Adventist, it was a miracle. But she says the father, a carnival ride operator she had met in Nebraska, took the baby away from her soon after the birth.
Lorenc didn’t learn all this until later. After learning his birth mother’s name, he set out to find her. He started by looking her up on the Internet.
“I knew it was her as soon as I saw the picture online,” he said. “We have a resemblance.”
He still didn’t have an address for her, but his online search revealed his mother had a sideshow background. Lorenc then turned to me and some other members of the sideshow community for help in tracking her down. I featured Wheeler in my book “American Sideshow,” and I’ve been in touch with her on and off for the past seven years.
I gave Lorenc the phone numbers I had for her, including one for a friend of hers where I often reached her in the past, but none of the numbers was still in use. I even contacted others who had worked with Wheeler, but they had lost touch with her.
Fortunately, Lorenc had luck on his side.
He had also reached out to George “The Giant” McArthur, who at 7 feet 3 inches is the world’s tallest sword swallower. McArthur lives in Bakersfield, Calif., where as far as I knew Wheeler also resided.
Several weeks after we began the search, Wheeler just happened to turn up at the same local park where McArthur was performing fire manipulation for a music video shoot.
For Wheeler, it was a spiritual moment.
“The Holy Spirit told me to go. He told me George had something to tell me that was very important,” she explained. “I hollered at him from behind, and he turned around and told me my son was looking for me.”
With Wheeler located and contact information in hand, it was time for Lorenc to introduce himself. Of course, after 33 years, that’s no easy task. So he enlisted the help of his wife, Jessica, who made the first call and put Wheeler on a speakerphone.
“She said she might be married to my son, Richard William Chambers Jr. — that was the name on his birth certificate,” Wheeler said. “He wanted to find out if I was his mother. I told her I had a son named Richard William Chambers Jr.”
She considered the chance meeting with McArthur and the sudden connection with her son another miracle.
“I told God I wanted to know if I had grandchildren and if my son was alive. Then, like snapping your fingers, his wife called me,” Wheeler said.
Encouraged, Lorenc called her himself the next day. Each wanted to verify the relationship. “Once that connection was made, we had a good idea we were in fact mother and son,” he said. “There are still tests that people want to do, like a DNA test and such, which I’m fine with.”
A DNA test would prove that Lorenc is in fact the Richard William Chambers Jr. born in Nebraska in 1977 — the same Richard William Chambers Jr. who was taken away by Richard Sr. shortly after Wheeler gave birth.
“We got into an argument, like people do, and he took my son and vanished with him,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler says she spent years searching for her son but never contacted the authorities about the disappearance. “I wanted to believe he was with his father,” she said.
Yet she desperately wanted her son back. The mental toll it took on her caused her to collapse onstage during one of her sideshow performances. After the nervous breakdown, she says doctors recommended she stop thinking about her son or “I’d lose my mind completely.”
But Wheeler’s hope that her son was living happily with his father was far from the case.
“I was found in a motel in Atlanta, that’s all I knew of my life,” Lorenc said. “I think I was maybe 3.”
He moved into an orphanage before his father regained custody of him and headed to Kansas. Teachers noticed abuse marks on his body, and young Richard was placed in foster care. At 7, he was adopted and became Richard Kevin Ryan. When he married, he took his wife’s surname, Lorenc.
At the end of June, Lorenc flew out alone to Bakersfield for two days to finally meet his mother.
He found her living in the industrial part of town at an old motel converted into Section 8 housing for people drawing Social Security or Supplemental Security Income. Wheeler meets with counselors, takes classes at the complex and stays active in the community with her church.
Rather than have their long-awaited reunion in her small room, they met on the other side of town at the apartment of one of Wheeler’s friends. There, they began the long process of becoming acquainted and discussing the past.
“A lot of my questions were answered,” Lorenc said. “I think one of her biggest wishes was fulfilled that day.”
Now he hopes his newfound mom will move closer to his family in Kansas. Wheeler suffers from osteoporosis, doesn’t have a primary physician and needs better living conditions.
“She was not given opportunities we take for granted,” Lorenc said. “She wasn’t given an education or a healthy environment, and it shows. I feel for her, and I want her to know that there’s a place for her here near us where we can give her the things she was never given.”
Wheeler is apprehensive about disrupting his family life, but she is considering moving to Oklahoma, right near the Kansas border, where her maternal grandparents were born. There, she hopes to learn more about her own past.
Since their meeting, Lorenc and Wheeler have spoken every few weeks and plan to see each other again soon. Wheeler hopes their next meeting will be on “Maury.” She hopes host Maury Povich will help her obtain a DNA test to prove Lorenc is her son.
“I want to share the story, and I want to know for sure if it’s my son,” she said. “Even if not, I still love him.”
As for Lorenc, he’s accepting the entire situation and looking forward to developing a stronger bond.
“My whole life growing up, I thought my mom was Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane, but that was just my fantasy. This is kind of better,” he said.
“Whatever happens, I want to be there with her. It’s a great adventure. It’s an unbelievable story, and I just want to be there for the ride with her and spend time with her.”