Minnie Woolsey was born in Georgia in 1880 and a wide variety of stories exist in regards to her physical condition. It is generally believed that Minnie was born with Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a condition also known as bird-headed dwarfism. The syndrome is quite rare and is characterized by a small head, stunted growth, beak-like nose, receding jaw as well as some mental limitations. In addition, the syndrome also left Minnie almost completely bald and blind. Toothless, odd and sporting glasses as thick as her thumb Minnie spent the majority of her formative years in a Georgia Asylum until, as legend states, she was rescued by a showman who thought her oddball looks we just odd enough to cash in on.
Minnie began her sideshow career dressed in an American Indian costume and billed as ‘Minnie-Ha-Ha’. The name was an obvious play on North Carolina’s Minnihaha Falls and the gimmick was likely a nod to the Aztec Children exhibits of yesteryear. Minnie, initially reluctant and shy, soon came to love the attention she received as a sideshow attraction. She was known to dance and shake excitedly and to speak in thrilled gibberish to the delight of audiences everywhere.
In 1932, Minnie landed a role in Freaks the movie as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl and a film legend was born. The image of Minnie, dressed in a feathery costume complete with tiny plumed cap and chicken-like feet, shimmying atop a table during a wedding feast is forever synonymous with the film Freaks. Once you seen Minnie’s performance, you will never forget it. In fact, there was actually another ‘Bird Girl’ in the Freaks movie but few remember poor Betty Green as she was completely overshadowed by Minnie. Today Betty Greene is generally only remembered, in error, as being Koo-Koo from Freaks.
Following her Freaks movie debut Minnie continued to perform as ‘Koo Koo – The Bird Girl’ and continued to wear her strange little costume for a number of years. Eventually she had stints at Coney Island where she was billed as ‘The Blind Girl from Mars’. By that time, age or perhaps boredom had taken hold and the dancing had stopped. Minnie’s “Blind Girl’ act consisted primarily of standing or sitting near comatose, deadpanning all audience jeers and interactions.
How long Minnie was involved in human exhibition and how she passed are something of a mystery. Some accounts state that she performed well into her 80’s. There are also reports that Minnie was hit by a car in the 1960’s. Regardless of how her life ended, her peculiar appearance ensured her a small level of immortality.
Australian performer Sarah Houbolt created a performance called Kookoo The Bird Girl. Speaking to Disability Arts Online, Houbolt said, "My full length show, KooKoo the Birdgirl, is about Minnie Woolsley, a historical performer with disability, who starred in Freaks (1932). This is an art history piece, and a female perspective on the side show. My passion to uncover her story is as a result of the importance of telling our history from a disability perspective. Minnie lived in a time of compulsory sterilisation and anti-marriage laws for disabled women, which not many people know about."
Guillermo Del Toro put actress Dian Bachar in the background of the last scene of Nightmare Alley as Fee Fee the Bird Girl who is obviously Koo-Koo.
Koo Koo is mentioned among others in Tom Waits' Lucky Day Overture written for the play Black Rider.