Sandy Allen wears a size-22 shoe, in case you are wondering. Sooner or later, everyone she meets wants to know.
On New Year's Eve at a physical rehabilitation center in Indianapolis, Ind., Allen — the world's tallest woman — has three resolutions: "I want to laugh. I want to be around children. And I want to get back on my feet."
The Guinness Book of World Records certifies Allen's height at 7 feet 7-1/4 inches. But it's been more than a year since she's stood up. Suffering from a severe bladder infection, atrophied muscles and a variety of ailments, she vows that she will walk again. "Don't laugh," she says, "But I have high hopes."
'Life's Short, I'm Not'
At 46, Allen has outlived many other giants. Unusual growth can trigger a variety of health issues. The world's tallest man, Robert Wadlow, who was 8 feet 11 inches, died at 22. The tallest woman, the 8-foot, 2-inch Zeng Jinlian of China, was just 17.
"My time could be running out," she says. "But I'll go down fighting." She has a night shirt that says it all: "Life's short, I'm Not."
Allen's whole life has been a fight. From being an outcast in Shelbyville, Ind., to working in what she called a "glorified freak show" in Niagara Falls, it's been a battle for respect. Her favorite memories are doing assembly programs for elementary school children, teaching the simple lesson, "It's OK to be different." "I felt so much like an outcast, a space alien, someone who didn't belong," she says, as she begins to promote her authorized biography, Cast A Giant Shadow (1stBooks Library) by John Kleinman. "I feel I have a duty to help others who stare up to the sky and say, 'Why me, lord?'"
One Size Fits All … But You
Imagine a world several sizes too small. Terror lurks in the bathroom. She once got her 400-pound frame stuck in a tub for several hours. "Showerheads," she says, "hit me in the bellybutton." Try washing dishes when the sink only comes up to your thigh. Try finding a pair of panty hose that fit. If anyone could complain, "I haven't a thing to wear," it was she. Allen suffers from "acromegaly," commonly known as "giant's disease." She was a normal 6-pounds, 5-onces at birth. But a tumor in the pituitary gland triggered unusual growth. By the sixth grade, she was 6 1/2 feet tall, and towered over her teacher.
"We had a graduation party at a skating ring and I was the only kid who couldn't participate," she said. "My feet were too big to rent skates. I just wanted to be like other girls." Allen couldn't get behind the wheel of a car when it came time to take driver's ed. No boy would dance with her. "They called me a beanpole, a monster, a freak. And that's what they said to my face," she said. "I could only imagine what they said behind my back." 'Why Not Go On TV And Make Some Money?'
Some people turn the other cheek. Not Sandy Allen. "I try not to have anger. But I give it to them back when I need to," she says. "I've learned to pity mean people." "You can laugh off some of those jokes. But how many times do you want to hear 'How's the weather up there?' Especially, if they are being mean about it. Sometimes you want to spit on those people and say, 'It's raining.'" She credits her grandmother for teaching survival instincts. Sandy's mother abandoned her, and she never knew her father. In 1976, only a few years after high school, she was working as a secretary, when Guinness recognized her as the world's tallest living woman and a high school pariah turned international celebrity. "Suddenly, my height became an asset. I was getting invitations everywhere," she says. "I figured why not go on TV and make some money?" Over the next years, she worked for Guinness at a museum and traveling exhibit and became a familiar face on the talk show circuits, speaking with the likes of David Frost, Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin, Oprah Winfrey, Leeza Gibbons, Maury Povich, Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. "Most of the time people were nice, and I got to travel the world," she said. One high point, she says — famed filmmaker Federico Fellini flew her to Europe to appear in his version of Casanova. In case you missed it, She played an arm-wrestling giantess who, at one point, takes a provocative bath with two dwarfs. "I was definitely proud of what I did and to be a part of a critically acclaimed filmmaker's work," she said. "When it played in Shelbyville, I was the toast of the town."
Michael Jackson and the Giantess
While working at a Guinness exhibit in San Francisco in the mid 1980s, a young black man came up to her one evening and introduced himself as Michael Jackson. "Of course, I didn't believe him," she said. "I shot back, 'Yeah sure, and I'm the next president of the United States.'" But, she says, she and Jackson saw each other several times. He came back the next day with autographed copies of his albums and she later sent him an autographed copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. "I was truly impressed with his humble kindness," she said. "I still can't believe he sought me out." But life on the road had low points. In Niagara Falls, tourists paid a few bucks to pose with her and that grew old fast. While she's always tried to maintain her dignity, it's not always easy. When talk-show host Howard Stern tried to get her to talk about her sex life, she finally admitted on the air that she was a virgin. "I don't want to hurt Howard Stern's reputation," she says. "But he's actually a nice guy. A little strange, but aren't we all?" She talks a little more openly in her book: "A man once pursued me for a relationship, but I found out in no time that he was married and he was just curious." "I'm sure a man would marry me," she now jokes, "But what man could afford a diamond that would fit on my size-16 ring finger?" Post-Sept. 11 Compassion
By the early 1990s, she found herself working as a secretary again, and speaking at elementary schools. "I started to hate traveling. I had trouble getting in and out of planes and cars," she said. "The most satisfying work was speaking to children." The death of her grandmother and the loss of her job hit her rather hard in recent years. Her health has since been in decline, and she's had money issues. At one point she was tried selling signed paint-by-number portraits for $45. While in physical therapy, she heard about the Sept. 11 attack. "I was scared and devastated," she said. "But it also made me want to go forward. It made me feel so close to other Americans, and that we are a country that's compassionate." "I've really struggled with depression, especially recently," she says. "The trick is to get yourself to realize that you can be compassionate and that you can find compassionate people. The idiots and the mean people, you can just ignore."
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.