Gulfport multi-media artist and comedian Cindy Heidel invited OUTCOAST into her home and artist sanctuary to discuss her life-long struggles with Scoliosis, alcoholism, sexuality, and how she’s survived it all through art and laughter.

Cindy Heidel
Cindy Heidel’s baby photo (Image courtesy of C. Heidel)

Born in Baltimore, MD and raised Catholic, along with two sisters, Cindy Heidel never fully felt like she belonged.

“I felt like a freak,” says Heidel of the Milwaukee Back Brace she wore throughout high school, which extended the length of her lanky torso, from her pelvis to the base of her skull.

But her struggles began far before high school. “My dad told me that when I was about six, I changed. ‘You were no longer my joyful little girl. Something changed inside you,’ he had said.”

Heidel, who began drinking excessively in her teenage years, had an epiphany during one of many Twelve Step meetings. “Someone suggested that we look at baby pictures to see how joyful we were as babies. My photos didn’t show that at all. I didn’t look happy or joyful. My photos said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”

“I also struggled with my sexuality from a young age,” she continues. “When I was in high school wearing a brace, I was so sad and miserable. I was basically in a ‘shark cage’ during puberty. No spin the bottle, no playing post office. I was alone and afraid. I felt like a freak.”

“On the school bus, trying to ignore the public school kids who were making fun on me, I would look at rock magazines and the gorgeous girls in them. I guess I was angry at the way I looked, so I would erase the eyes of the beautiful people until they were just white orbs. I didn’t know it then but I needed to deform them in order to deal with my own body image issues.”

She eventually started making dolls with big white eyes, resembling the models in the photos she once erased.

Cindy Heidel
Heidel’s nude performance art titled “Use Me” (Image by Claudia Berman)

When she finally got out of the brace, she felt the need to express herself physically. “I started doing performance art using nudity. I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a freak, I might as well let everyone see it. So I started taking my clothes off a lot for the sake of art.”

Heidel depicted her personal relationship with sexuality and challenges with intimacy through her performance art and nude self-portraiture. She also paid homage to the AIDS crisis with her use of condoms. “In one of my pieces I was a sperm in a diaphragm lying in two feet of gelatin, a bubble machine, blown up condoms filled with helium, and a tape loop of a Grace Jones song Use Me.”

“I was trying to work through how I looked and how I felt, because of the brace,” Heidel explains. “I had a very skewed image of what I looked like.”

Cindy Heidel
A piece pop culture clothing made for a performer. (Image provided by Heidel)

Sadly, Heidel would lose three close friends to AIDS over the next two years.

In 1979, Heidel received a fine arts degree from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Two years later, a younger student at MICA did her senior thesis in photography on Heidel. The student focused her images primarily on fashion inspired by Heidel’s AstroTurf Wear. “You could have the look of summer all winter long!” proclaims Heidel.

“I always thought of myself as ugly. When people said otherwise, or looked at my body or work as beautiful, it helped me survive,” Heidel said of the art student’s interest in her work. “People have featured me in several projects since then, and it has kept me alive. Given me hope.”

In 1983, Heidel moved to LA, where she waited tables at the Improv.

From a young age, Heidel used comedy to deal with her body image issues. “Although no longer alive, my dad’s sense of humor is where my humor started. When we started going monthly to get my brace adjusted at Children’s Hospital, he would walk me into the burn unit and say ‘see how good you got it?’ Morbid, I know, but as in the theater, tragedy equals comedy!”

And in high school, Heidel had a friend who personified her brace by giving it the name Screw. “She did so to help me laugh at my situation, rather than keep things negative. She would say, ‘Where would Screw like to go today?’”

Cindy Heidel
Heidel performs during mic nights and eventually entertains audiences everywhere. (Image provided by C. Heidel)

In 1986, she worked through her internal strife on stage during open mic nights. She used brace stories and struggles with alcoholism as material for her comic routines. She was good at it and began performing on a regular basis all over the country.

“Do you remember the 70’s?” she would say to audience members as she showed a photo of herself so high that her eyes were rolled to the back of her head. “Because I don’t!”

She won first prize at the California State Wide Talent Contest and RAVE Nightclub in West Hollywood and landed acting roles in Falls Road, Homicide: Life in the Streets, and several commercials. In 1987, she was cast on To Tell the Truth as a transgender man.

“But then I left Los Angeles for New York for a relationship, where I had to start all over again. I had just appeared on the Vicki Lawrence Show, but you can’t leave one town at one level and expect to be at the same level in the next town. It doesn’t work like that in the comedy world.”

In 1997, after realizing that she lacked the drive of a road comic, Heidel returned to Baltimore to work in the burgeoning film industry in Maryland. Because she had been well-known among the art scene, an old friend connected her with a job as a production assistant on a feature film.

Sadly, the Scoliosis Heidel dealt with since childhood worsened. “When I hit menopause, pain came. I was working on a Nicole Kidman film when my back gave out. I didn’t lose the job because my boss covered for me. I am forever indebted to her.”

Heidel managed through her pain and progressed through various roles including set dressing, location scouting, and finally location manager.

However, her back pain would end her movie career. “I was finally the location manager for a small independent film when my spine gave out again. By this point, I had a 68-degree curvature that was continuously pulling me sideways and forward. I had to quit work prior to filming and give my job to my assistant location manager. It became obvious to me that the time had come to quit working on movies. It broke me.”

Cindy Heidel
Heidel had rods surgically implanted into her back, along her spine. (Image provided by C. Heidel)

At 52, Heidel had a series of surgeries to implant rods, screws, cages, and hooks into her torse spanning vertebrae T4 to S1. Her recovery was longer than expected. “I kept struggling with pain all the while trying to find a part time job that gave me some semblance of self-worth.”

In 2009, she moved to Florida where she found a job with Planned Parenthood. “I had to find a job that provided the perfect balance of sitting, standing, and walking. I loved counseling girls who were navigating one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. It gave me purpose. Then my second rod broke.”

Heidel had already broken her first rod while playing with her dog the year prior. At the time, she had worked through her pain, which dissipated within a few months time. The pain from the second rod was unbearable.

She flew back to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore only to be told, “it happens.” Her doctor suggested that she see a physical therapist. During a second opinion, it was suggested that she have the surgery redone with more rods and bigger screws.

Feeling discouraged, she headed back to Florida where she lived and worked through the pain until it ended her career with Planned Parenthood.

Around this time, she sold her home on Uptown Street in Gulfport and moved into a condo in Town Shores of Gulfport where she currently resides.

Heidel’s physical challenges with pain were secondary to her mental struggles. “There was a lot of sadness having to let go of what was. I was only 52 when I had the surgeries. I was young.”

Now, nearing 60, she has a different mindset. “Until recently I wasn’t able to understand that I can do things for an hour at a time to accomplish stuff,” Heidel says, reflecting on a conversation with a friend who suggested doing things one hour at a time versus all at once. “Prior to that, I would feel defeated.”

Cindy Heidel
Cindy Heidel at the Studio@620 art exhibit opening. (Image by Rachel Stevenson)

Heidel does everything she can to maintain the body she inhabits today. “I love to practice yoga, walk, dance, swim, and eat well. I’m in great shape. I just take breaks to mix things up so my body remains happy.”

Heidel also reads and writes to work through anxiety and intimacy issues. Her current favorite is The Untethered Soul. 

“If you are doing something to avoid pain, then pain is running your life,” she reads while flipping through Untethered Soul, a staple on her coffee table.

Sober and single now, Heidel reflects on her relationships. “I have anxiety with human interaction. Relationships prevent me from staying focused in myself. I’ve always seemed to lose me and then want to numb my feelings over the loss.”

“I feel like I’m coming out of a long dark period of isolation and pain. Creating art is healing my grief, sadness and childhood pain. It’s new for me to make art with a real purpose in mind – to live!”

Cindy Heidel
Heidel’s piece, Confusion, is on display at the Gulfport Library through July. (Image by Cindy Heidel)

Her current exhibit at the Gulfport Library, shared with Tony Treadway, showcases her use of art to better understand her relationship with her parents, especially her mother. The exhibit features a large headboard with small black and white prints in colorful frames. The images depict kids parenting one another with remedies of feelings. She uses her niece and nephew as models for the images.

“My photos are metaphors for the love and care that was administered to me as a child,” Heidel says of her work. “My caretakers unknowingly ‘mirrored’ their fears onto me. Mother has always been a worrisome hypochondriac. My whole life is about trying to walk through fear. Everything was fearful for me.”

“The smallness of the images was unconsciously meant to draw you closer to the private nature of the subject matter,” she continues. “The family secrets are rarely spoken about out loud, but sometimes, when we are ready, they are whispered into the ear of someone we trust. The colorful frames symbolize what was presented to the outside world. And the bed frame is where it all started!”

“Part of the reason I did the series of kid pictures was because a lot of what I am is what was mirrored onto me by my mother. A lot of the love they were supposed to give me was just them transferring their fear, shame, and confusion.”

Heidel also had an art opening on July 8th at The Studio@620 in Saint Petersburg as part of a larger member show where she showcases a white Barbie doll chandelier. The Barbies have been stripped of their hair and clothes and painted white, stirring up childhood memories of both joy and sadness. The visual effect is an eye-catching, quirky, and elegant masterpiece.

Cindy Heidel
Heidel’s Barbie chandelier is a must-see piece of work at The Studio@620. (Image by Rachel Stevenson)

“I’d eventually like to have my own gallery show with a retrospective of stuff I’ve done.”

Outside of her art, Heidel volunteers with the City of Gulfport and provides pet sitting and pet portraiture to area residents. She also drives around with a full-sized human skeleton in her front seat, leading to quizzical stares and smiles from passersby.

She openly self-identifies as pansexual and has had relationships with all genders. “I see people as people and not whether they’re male, female or trans.” But for now, she is taking a break. “Right now, I’m enjoying being in a relationship with Cindy.”

Heidel’s new left shoulder tattoo of a crooked spine through a broken heart is her way of artistically owning and embracing her life experiences. “Life imitates art and art imitates life.”

Heidel’s photo exhibit at the Gulfport Library will be on display through the end of July.

And if you missed her opening at The Studio@620 on 7/8, stop by for a visit.