ON A HOT, dry night last summer, a crowd was waiting outside Piranha, a popular Las Vegas club that features an aquarium filled with flesh-eating fish. A mid-size gay ven-ue nestled in a nondescript strip mall known as the “Fruit Loop,” the Piranha is not a typical destination for major talent, but the bar, it seemed, had scored a coup. An e-mail blast had gone out announcing a “Mini Britney Concert,” to be held that evening. Sure, it seemed a little too good to be true. But then, Spears had recently become a Vegas regular, famously passing out while hosting a New Year’s Eve party at Pure, and lately she’d been doing truncated sets around the country.
By the time the doors opened, Spears fans packed the 1,000-capacity venue (which has also hosted for-mer teen idol Tiffany, and more recently, YouTube sen-sation Chris Crocker), to await the fallen diva. By the time the lights dimmed, the crowd had grown rest-less. Striding purposefully to the small circular stage in the center of the room, a tiny figure began belting out the opening lines of “Toxic,” wearing the blue stewardess uniform from the video. A murmur swept through the crowd. Something was off. Not only did the petite blonde gyrating before them look and sound better than Britney had in months, but she was a bit too petite, just a smidge over four feet. Terra Jole, aka Mini Britney, was in the house.
If the appearance of Britney’s pint-size facsimile was cause for disappointment, the letdown didn’t last long. By the time Jole had stripped down to her replica of the red latex cat suit featured in the “Oops, I Did It Again” video, she had the boys in the palm of her tiny hand. Approaching one seated gentleman from behind, she gyrated her hips and rubbed his head lustily, crooning, “I played with your heart. Oooh baby, baby.” By the time she got to the song’s famous battle cry, the whole crowd was singing along: “I’m not that innocent!”
To be honest, Jole was that innocent. The men in the audience weren’t the only ones who’d been misled that night; she herself had only learned of the audience’s false impression a few minutes before she stepped on stage. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they are gonna boo her off,’ ” recalls her costume designer, Hector Perez, who had accompanied her to the gig. “But as soon as she came out, the crowd just went wild.”
After her Piranha show, Jole and her designer were riding high, making appearances all over town. “I had a flight at seven o’clock,” says Perez. “I missed it.”
MINI BRITNEY CAME INTO BEING through a series of fortuitous circumstances. Having just finished a two-year stint in the role of Mini Paula Stanley in an undersized Kiss tribute band, Mini Kiss, Jole had put her showbiz dreams on a back burner. She was working as a dog groomer in San Antonio, her hometown, when she received a call from a “wealthy” computer programmer from Austin looking for entertainment for his Super Bowl party. She told him she was no longer involved with Mini Kiss, but that she might be interested in performing as Mini Madonna or Mini Britney Spears. He picked the latter.
Shortly thereafter, Raquel “Rocky” Giberstein, who managed her during her Mini Kiss days, mentioned Jole’s new character to a friend in New York who, as it happened, was about to walk into a meeting at the Box, the city’s hottest nightclub, which was drawing a star-studded crowd to its racy late-night burlesques.
An hour later, the Box booked Mini Britney for an immediate week-long residency. Within days, she was in New York, practicing her set with a half-dozen backup dancers and a live band, as Perez hurriedly stitched a full wardrobe.
One night at the club, Mini Britney caught the eye of another troubled It girl. Jole had just finished her set and was walking by the upstairs VIP bar when a woman tapped her on the shoulder. “She said someone wanted to meet me,” Jole recalls. She was whisked to one of the club’s private VIP boxes, where the curtain was pulled back to reveal a giddy Lindsay Lohan. The actress had seen the real Spears in concert a few weeks before, she said, but was blown away by the pint-size version. The starlet also copped to a twinge of envy. “She wanted her own Mini Me,” says Jole. “She was mad that Britney had one and she didn’t.”
Linday Lohan had seen the real Spears in concert a few weeks before, she said, but was blown away by the pint-size version. The starlet also copped to a twinge of envy. “She wanted her own Mini Me,” says Jole. “She was mad that Britney had one and she didn’t.”
Jole’s one-week stint at the Box quickly expanded to two, and the ensuing press led to a series of Vegas bookings, including the gig at Piranha and two shows at Beacher’s Madhouse at the Hard Rock Hotel. The club is run by infamous promoter and host Jeff Beacher, who had booked Mini Kiss numerous times.
At Beacher’s, Mini Britney was one of several attractions, but her two-minute segments inevitably brought down the house. The announcer would scream, “Ladies and gennelmen, MINI-BRITNEYYY!” and Jole would prance out in one of Perez’s costumes, flanked by six average-size dancers. She’d only have time to sing a verse and chorus, though, before the announcer would interrupt, “Oh no! It’s Kevin Federline!” A mini K-Fed, wearing a trucker hat, phat pants, and a bad boy attitude, would emerge to a chorus of jeers, and Jole would douse him with a glass of water, wagging her finger, No, no, no. It was a fun, freaky spectacle.
She might have continued to work for Beacher, Jole says, if she hadn’t stumbled upon a Craigslist ad posted by the nearby Harmon Theater. They were putting together a show called Little Legends made up solely of Little People performers. The contract was for two years, and paid well—some-thing in the neighborhood of $800 a week for six shows, with an additional $1,500 monthly stipend. Jole says she called Beacher to see if he wanted to make her a counteroffer, but she never heard back. She took the deal.
IT’S HARDLY SURPRISING, as the real Britney Spears continues her slow-motion flameout, that Mini Britney is enjoying a full-fledged mini-moment.With Jole, there are no flashes of mini-vagina as she gets out of a car, nor any mini-meltdowns involving head shaving or umbrella-thrashing. Jole doesn’t have kids, so she’s not fighting custody battles with her once-buffoonish, suddenly-responsible-seeming ex-husband. She doesn’t get into hit-and-run accidents and doesn’t perform excruciating routines on national television in a bedazzled two-piece. She’s everything we ever wanted in Britney, and less.
Like Spears herself, Jole is 27, a Southern Christian girl who sports the same buttery blonde hair the singer had at the height of her fame. Like Britney, she has been singing since she was five, and spent years on the local talent show circuit. She was born to two average-size parents (Dad is a real estate inspector, Mom drives a UPS truck) who subsequently adopted another Little Person, a boy named Bourn who manages a grocery store. She and her brother were fortunate, Jole says of their childhood in San Antonio. “I’ve had some close friends of mine who were shoved in lockers,” she explains, but for the most part, she was treated well.
Still, one high school incident in particular continues to irk her. Every year she auditioned for the school choir, only to be turned down. When she finally made the cut her senior year, someone admitted that the other rejections had been because she didn’t “look right.”
“It crushed me when they told me that,” Jole says. “It made me not even want to be in the choir. At the same time, it made me want to show off for the teacher and prove that I was not only capable, but way better than a lot of the people she already had in that choir.”
Like any celebrity, Jole projects the air of someone who is accustomed to being the center of attention: po-lite and friendly, but guarded. But her girlish demeanor belies an ambitious side. She turned down a lucrative role as an elf in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular for what she sees as her shot at a real career—a regular gig headlining Little Legends at the Harmon (which becomes the infamous gay nightclub Krave by night), near Planet Hollywood on the Strip. The show claims to be the first to feature an entire cast of Little People as celebrity impersonators. In addition to Spears, Jole performs as Cher (“If I Could Turn Back Time”), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), and Alanis Morissette (“Hand in My Pocket”). She also joins the rest of the cast as the cowboy in a rousing Village People finale.
At present, the show’s lineup also includes Joe Gnoffo as Mini Tommy Lee (who is—shhh!—dating Mini Britney), and Adam and Abdoul Kone, two 3 foot, 9 inch tall brothers from the Ivory Coast, who perform as duel-ing Michael Jacksons and do a crowd-pleasing Mini Vanilli that includes the duo’s famous chest bump. Originally, the act included a Mini Tina Turner, but she refused to relocate from L.A., and Mini Kid Rock, played by Mighty Mike, was dropped because he was considered “challenging” to work with. But the rest of the cast is eager to take up the slack.
One October evening, the crowd ambles into the theater. It’s 6:30, early by Vegas standards, and the audience is a mix of little old ladies, paunchy middle-age men with flattops, and younger couples from Midwestern towns—some with streaks of magenta spiffing up their otherwise conservative haircuts. Though many of them are probably expecting something of a gag (one young woman giggles that she’s come because “I’ve always had a fear of midgets, so I wanted to see them up close”), the show is no joke. Before it begins, two screens flanking the stage flash a series of earnest PSAs: DWARFISM OCCURS ONE IN EVERY 40,000 BIRTHS, notes one. Another reminds the patrons that Little People are four feet tall, not four years old.
The venue wasn’t always so high-minded. Kelly Murphy, the theater’s co-owner and the show’s creator, admits that Krave once hosted a “midget wrestling” event. But he claims he had an epiphany after meeting Jole and her crew. “We found out nobody has actually taken a Little Person and said, ‘Instead of you being the sideshow, we’re gonna make you the headliner,’ ” Murphy explains. “Whatever handicaps they do or don’t have, they really are a very talented group of people.” Jole’s performance bears that out.
From the second she comes out as Alanis Morissette, Jole controls the room. She flirts with grandfathers, shakes her booty, and high-fives people. Though the audience can barely see her as she walks past the tables, her voluptuous, power-ful voice booms over the theater’s sound system. Her delivery is so pitch-perfect, she could almost be lip-synching, but Alanis never sounded this good. “Wow, she’s singing! She’s got a voice on her!” says Chad Swanson from Marshall, Minnesota, who’s in town for his honeymoon. “No way! Holy crap!” replies his new wife, Heidi.
During the much-anticipated Britney medley before the show’s end, Jole does her patented “triple strip,” starting with the blue flight attendant outfit from the “Toxic” video, which she peels off to reveal the all-nude crystal-studded bodysuit, and finally the red leather “Oops” outfit. Throughout, Jole’s performance is smooth, swift, and command-ing. She is confident and sure-footed. For a moment, it really is like Mini Britney has restored the fallen Britney to her rightful status of Number One Star in the World.
With Jole, there are no flashes of mini-vagina and no mini-meltdowns involving clippers or an umbrella. After the show, two girls gossip in the ladies’ room, enthusing over Jole’s performance. “She’s so talented,” says one, applying lip gloss. “She’s so pretty,” says the other. The girl who was afraid of midgets declares her inten-tion to return for a repeat performance.
Backstage, the host, Jeff Hobson, a Vegas stage vet of average size, is changing into his street clothes. “I feel like the minority here, I really do,” he says, with a laugh, “But, you know, they all look up to me.” The MC, who boasts an impressively shellacked helmet of light red hair and a fabulous Liberace-style jacket collection, then turns serious. “At first, when people come in, they’re not quite sure what to think,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Should we laugh?’ They don’t want to offend anyone. That’s why you need a host to explain.”
JEFF BEACHER, WHO owns a rival venue, has never been particularly concerned about such niceties, opting instead to adapt the down-market spectacle of the carnival midway to the modern celebrity era. “That Hard Rock show wasn’t showcasing her talent—that’s for sure,” says Perez of the wacky comedy routine.
“It was so horrible,” Jole says. “I really didn’t want to make fun of Britney.” Even so, Beacher knows how to pack a room (he even rented Jole a snake so she could re-create Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” performance from MTV’s 2001 VMAs), and often filled his 1,400-seat venue to capacity. A natural promoter in the P.T. Barnum mode, he is extremely adept at manipulating the press. Once, when he announced a Mini Kiss show only to discover that the band already had a booking, Beacher assembled his own entourage of Little People Kiss impersonators and dubbed them Tiny Kiss. Then he launched a fake battle between the two bands, landing a lead item in the New York Post’s Page Six and creating a slew of bookings for both acts.
When Jole defected to Krave, Beacher retaliated with a reprise of his Tiny Kiss stunt. He alerted local gossip columnists to the arrival of a new Mini Britney on the scene and announced her debut at the Madhouse. The ploy made national news.
Only this time, there wasn’t a new Mini Brit. After days of leaving voice mails and texts pleading with Jole to ditch Krave and return to the Mad-house, Beacher staged a paparazzi-style photo op featuring another Little Person wearing a blonde wig getting out of a car. But as the date of the prom-ised gig approached, he found himself unable to deliver an actual performer. Rather than accepting defeat, he decided to milk the controversy further by performing the act himself. It was an amazing display, even by Vegas standards: Clad in a glittery two-piece black bikini, the grossly overweight showman took to the stage and reenacted Britney’s much maligned “Gimme More” performance from the VMAs. Since Beacher had recently undergone intestinal surgery, his bare stomach resembled two grotesque flaps—further augmented by a fake spray tan.
“It was horrific,” said one Vegas industry insider. “I texted him during the show that my eyes were burning, and he actually replied back as soon as he was offstage, saying his eyes were burning, too.”
In the absurd world of Las Vegas nightlife, wars erupt over the smallest scraps. Increasingly resentful of Jole’s growing success, Beacher now claims he invented Mini Britney, insisting that numerous Little People did the act before Jole. She vehemently denies the charge. Beacher further alleges that Little Legends is a direct rip-off of a concept he came up with called Tiny Legends, which would feature “MWA (Midgets With Attitude), Tiny Kiss, Wee-Tang Clan, Tiny Michael Jackson, David Wee Roth, and Mini
Federline” (but strangely, no Mini Britney). Documents supplied by Beacher confirm he applied for the trademark in April 2007, but his application was denied because there was already a Little Legends clothing company in existence—separate from the Harmon Theater group.
Krave’s Kelly Murphy says that though he’s aware of Beacher, he’s never met him or seen his show, and that the Krave staff hit upon the Little Legends idea after hearing about Jole’s turn at Piranha. In addition, he dismisses the notion that anyone can actually claim credit for the basic concept. “Having Little People impersonate famous people is no different than a drag queen going out and impersonating famous people. I have that in my club all day long,” Murphy says, noting that he has yet to receive any formal complaint from Beacher. “Jeff Beacher is welcome to mount a competing show,” he adds. “He’s welcome to do whatever he can that will help employ Little People. I’m all about that.”
For his part, Beacher has long been prone to exaggeration. For instance, not long ago, he placed a Page Six item entitled “Budget Britney” claiming he signed Jole to a “mid-six-figure” contract—but now admits he’d never offered her any such deal. “She left the Madhouse,” he says. “Guess what? It makes no difference. When I was tired of Mini Britney, Mini Britney was played out and I didn’t want to see it anymore, I created Big Britney— which was myself, ’cause it’s a spoof. It’s a joke. The whole thing’s a joke,” he adds, a mite bitterly. “Mini Britney is a mini-fraud.”
THOUGH THE 150 or so attendees who turn up at the Harmon represent just a fraction of the crowd that used to watch her at the Madhouse, Jole feels like she’s made the right choice. “I didn’t want to make it just funny, and I feel like that might have been what it was portrayed as at Beacher’s,” she says.
Jole had one other problem with the promoter. “He refers to Little People as midgets,” she says. “That’s something I find pretty offensive.” As a result, she insisted on a clause in her contracts with him stating that she couldn’t be referred to as a midget in the show’s advertising.
“We never use that word,” Beacher insists, though a 2006 profile in Rolling Stone quotes him doing just that. “I love midgets,” he says in the article. “They’re the best. I’m weird, and they’re weird. It’s a weird, weird love.”
“Midget,” derived from midge, a small sand fly, has generally been used to refer to proportionally smaller people, and was popularized in the side-shows of the late 1800s. According to Dan Kennedy, the author of Little People: Learning to See Through my Daughter’s Eyes, “The M-word is inextri-cably tied up with the idea of being put on public display.”
“It was perfectly acceptable maybe a half a century ago,” says Gary Arnold, vice president of public relations at the Little People of America, who notes that the group’s name was originally Midgets of America. “Over the generations, the use of the word has evolved into an objectifying slur, and most people of short stature take the word that way.”
“‘Midgets’ to us, to Little People, it’s kind of like the N-word,” says Gnoffo. “I’ll say it to my friend, ‘What’s up, midget?’ If some guy just comes up and says, ‘Look at the fucking midget,’ then I get pissed. There’s a lot of Little People who don’t give a shit. They’re like, ‘I’m a midget, hire me.’ Whereas I’m not going to subscribe to that.”
Gnoffo points out that other physical differences are rarely considered funny, but being small is. “If you see someone in a wheel-chair, you don’t go, ‘Ha ha ha!'” he says. “We get that shit.”
Still, the actor, who scored a decent speaking part in theAdam Sandler movie The Benchwarmers, admits he’s occasionally allowed his need to earn a living to override his pride. “Sadly, a lot of it comes down to money,” he says. “If they say, ‘We need you for an hour, we’re going to pay you a thousand bucks, but you have to dress in this,’ you know, I might put on my Oompa-Loompa thing. I’ve done it, I’ve totally done it.”
Jole likens the situation to the plight of black actors in Hollywood, who struggled for years to get roles outside of maids, slaves, or buffoons, un-til performers like Dorothy Dandridge managed to break the stereotypes. For many Little People, actors like Wee Man and Verne Troyer are play-ing to old prejudices, while the model of a dwarf actor who’s more acclaimed for his talent than his size is Peter Dinklage. “He had a real part in the Station Agent,” says Jole. “There are a few people who’ve broken out of that shell that I’m really im-pressed with, and that a lot of people should look up to,” she says, allowing with a shrug, “I’m not one of those people.”
While the entertainment business can be rough on anyone, for Little People it can be par-ticularly cruel, between “midget tossing” (which has been banned in several states) and porn movies like Midget in a Suitcase, featuring Bridget the Midget. For every success story, like that of Meredith Eaton, who appeared on Boston Legal, there are several examples like Henry Nasiff— better known as Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf—a regular on Howard Stern’s show who succumbed to alcoholism and died in 2001. Jole says she has a friend who permanently injured himself doing midget wrestling shows and is now living on disability. “It ruined his life,” she says. “Now, he can’t even walk. He regrets ever even attempting this. His self-esteem was so low. Some Little People think there is nothing else for them in life.” On the other hand, many avoid Hollywood altogether, “because they know the kind of requests they’ll receive in the entertain-ment industry—like being elves.”
Jole’s taken her share of troubling gigs. Several years ago, she got a job riding around concert ven-ues in a miniature car, ramming into drunk Ozzy Osbourne fans before each show. An appearance on The Maury Show, when she was 16, also turned humiliating. After Jole performed a song, Povich brought out a “secret admirer” who wound up being10 years older. “It was really uncomfortable,” she says, “not to mention, totally illegal.” She declined an offer to strip at a party—although the host claimed to be a cousin of Rebecca Romijn—and turned down $5,000 from an Armenian man who wanted her to come into the bathroom with him at the Box. “Hell, no!” she says.
ACCORDING TO THE Little People of America, there are more than 200 different types of dwarfism. “It has to do with the features,” Gnoffo says, chain-smoking in a darkened corner in the Planet Hollywood bar. Gnoffo is the newest member of the Little Legends cast, and he opens the show, drumming along to “We Will Rock You,” while suspended in the air. A Chicago-by-way-of-L.A. transplant, he looks nothing like the Motley Crue drummer, instead resembling a more grizzled Joey from Friends.
As we talk, he plays a few rounds of three-card poker, his favorite game. One woman playing a “blind” hand scores a royal flush and a $500 payout. Gnoffo isn’t so fortunate; he drops $100 in 20 minutes. “I’ve got to live in Las Vegas for two years,” he says. “That’s insane. I’m going to lose all my money.” Gnoffo, who is 3 feet 10 inches tall, has had five operations on his legs and walks with a prominent limp. He is a pseudoachondroplasic dwarf, whereas Jole is the most common type, an achondroplasic dwarf. In Little People slang, they are “pseudo” and “acon.”
“I’ll just get blunt,” he says. “I’ve got these sausage fingers. My hands make me a pseudo. Technically, I have a normal head, a normal face, but there are a lot of leg problems with pseu-dos. Terra’s type, she kind of lucked out. Her type’s got the huge heads, huge asses. She’s got a great ass—it’s fuckin’ bam, it’s out there,” he says, and spreads his hands wide in front of him to illustrate. “Like, a lot of Little People with her dwarfism got these huge asses and huge heads. They’re weird looking. But she’s not. She lucked out. She’s got the cranium going on, I make fun of her for it. She makes fun of me, too.”
The next afternoon, a few hours before show-time, Jole and her manager, Giberstein, get a quickie pedicure in one of Vegas’s many generic strip malls. Though it’s mid-October, it still a summery 80 degrees outside. Jole never aspired to live in Vegas, but it’s growing on her. “It’s a lot like New York and L.A., where the most random people will walk down the street in a tutu and an Afro and it’s totally normal.” Plus, she’s got-ten to hang out with Killers front man Brandon Flowers, whose bodyguard doubles as Adam and Abdoul’s manager.
Eventually, the conversation turns to men. Some treat her “like a pet,” says Jole, and want to pick her up. “I always tell them that they can pick me up as long as I can kick them in the balls. And I get to kick them first. I only had one guy whose friends were like ‘Man, take it for the team, dude!’ ” she says, but he chickened out.
Some are more genuine, and occasionally one will ask Giberstein to help hook him up with Jole, who is in many ways prettier than her alter ego. “She’s a beautiful woman,” Giberstein says. “She’s confident and attractive and funny, and it’s like they have this epiphany that hap-pens. Like, ‘Yah, bro, no kidding.'”
Other people are embarrassingly oversensi-tive to Jole’s size. “People try and tell me, ‘I can totally relate to you. I have an identical twin and we’re always stared at,'” Jole says, shaking her head. “No honey. Soooo not the same.”
If Jole were an average-size person, she might be a world-class star in her own right, instead of relying on aping a fallen one. Indeed, she is recording her own pop songs.
Jole doesn’t want to be Mini Britney forever. “I would rather embark on my own personal career and have this more as a side gig, instead of making this a huge thing and being in her lime-light,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve reached the highest point of my career. I think that there’s still going to be higher points.”
She wiggles her toes, which are now spar-kling, and puts on her tiny size-two shoes. Outside, the desert sun is blazing hot. Mini Britney has to go. She has a show to do.