Judy Tenuta, the eclectic comedienne known as “The Love Goddess” and “Aphrodite of the Accordion” to her legions of fans, has died. She was 72.
Tenuta died Thursday at her home Studio City after a battle with stage 4 ovarian cancer, publicist Harlan Boll announced.
During her first solo stand-up performance, Tenuta shocked audiences by dressing up as the Virgin Mary, and after being encouraged by her friends to incorporate an accordion into her routine — an instrument her mother, a fan of Lawrence Welk, encouraged her to learn — she developed the character into the wisecracking “Love Goddess.”
Tenuta soon introduced the public to such other exaggerated, campy and offbeat personas as “The Petite Flower,” “Fashion-Plate Saint,” “Queen of Candy-Pants,” “Princess of Panty Shields,” “Empress of Elvis Impersonators” and “Buffer of Foreheads.”
Like “The Love Goddess” and “Aphrodite of the Accordion,” these characters sported an array of fantastical costumes made up of feather boots, egg bras, nippy cup necklace and gauzy capes to go with a variety of props ― including her accordion, now on display at the Hollywood Museum.
Tenuta also portrayed the dominatrix Samantha Rottweiler in Butch Camp (1996) and a former child star bent on a comeback in Desperation Boulevard (1998) in a film she also produced; co-starred with Bruce Vilanch in Sister Mary (2011); and had a featured role in Material Girls (2006), starring Hilary and Haylie Duff and directed by Martha Coolidge.
She worked often with a kindred spirit, “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Tenuta appeared onstage in Los Angeles and Chicago in The Vagina Monologues and Menopause the Musical and headlined stand-up specials on HBO, Showtime and Lifetime.
She received Grammy noms for best comedy album for Attention Butt-Pirates and Lesbetarians! and In Goddess We Trust and wrote the books The Power of Judyism, published in 1991, and Full Frontal Tenudity, published in 2014.
One of nine siblings, Tenuda (named after Judy Garland) was born into a Catholic family in Oak Park, Illinois on Nov. 7, 1949. Her mother, Johanna, was Polish and her father, Caesar, was Italian. She attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she majored in theater and was the first of her family to graduate college.
Her interest in comedy began when she took an improv class with The Second City and she was quickly opening for other comics in the Windy City throughout the 1970s.
Tenuta left Chicago and moved to New York City in the ’80s to co-host an HBO comedy special with Ellen DeGeneres, Rita Rudner, Martin Short and Paula Poundstone.
Tenuta gained mainstream notoriety for a series of television ads for MTV and Diet Dr. Pepper and headed to Los Angeles, where she harbored a fiercely independent attitude, openly rejecting Hollywood beauty standards and celebrity.
Tenuta was an outspoken advocate for gay rights and had a faithful following in the LGBTQ community. Early on, she performed at gay bars and clubs around Chicago, appeared as a grand marshal at Gay Pride festivals and became ordained as a minister to officiate same-sex marriages.
She recently completed an inspirational video she called Kicking Cancer’s Ass, which was shot during isolation and quarantine at home during the months of COVID-19.
Survivors include her life partner, Vern Pang; brothers Daniel, John, Steven, Thomas and James; sister Barbara; and two nephews, four nieces and a grand-niece. She will be interred at the Hollywood Forever cemetery.
Donations in her memory can be made to Make a Wish Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or City of Hope.