A Bug's Life

To say that Karen Brandreth is an eclectic entrepreneur is something of an understatement. The pretty blonde with the big smile is a singer, a former owner of a Galveston tavern, a movie extra, a small-plane pilot, a real estate agent, an in-demand private chef ... and she makes art out of roach carcasses.

Since 1985, Brandreth has been known as The Roach Lady, a moniker she actually enjoys. The idea to make miniature sculptural "scenes" using dead roaches came to her in a quintessentially Houston moment of observing the death throes of a Raid-soaked cockroach. Most would have been reaching for a wad of tissue to dispose of the body, but Karen, the entrepreneur, thought, "There's gotta be some way to make money off of this." And so a new, crafty business was born. She trekked to that year's International Festival, sculptures in tow, and rented a booth to sell roach paraphernalia. A local TV news reporter drifted by, interviewed her on camera, and the calls started coming in.

Brandreth has now made over 300 of these sculptures on commission, and they sell for between $500 and $5,000. Who buys these things? Friends, local art patrons, athletes, famous musicians and celebrities, who, according to Brandreth, would rather not have their proclivity for insect art revealed. One outed pop star received threats for being "sick" and "weird." Even Brandreth herself doesn't exactly "get it," but she'll make 'em for whoever wants 'em.

The roach dioramas are clever and detailed, made with dollhouse furniture and props from craft stores. Brandreth begins with a schematic for what she "thinks the roaches should be doing" before decorating the carcasses with handmade birthday hats or glitter-and-glue evening gowns. "A Scene in the Park" featured tiny baby roach diapers, and a satin bedspread was required for "The Honeymooners." Her most bizarre piece, she says, involved putting "rodeo roaches" on horseback.

When she first started the work, it was -- believe it or not -- "hard to find roaches that were big enough." So Brandreth paid an exterminator a penny for every intact shell he gave her. ("The antennae are delicate and come off real easily.") These days, though, her Galveston condo showcases a collection of Barbies, art deco pieces, two kittens, a pot-bellied pig named Mr. Elliott, and two medium-sized terrariums teeming with 150 big, black Madagascar hissing roaches. She prefers the Madagascar roaches to the Galveston kind, which she finds "nasty."

Today they're moving very slowly, which is comforting. "They just had a banana," Brandreth explains. "But they do become quite active at night." She holds up a particularly lethargic, pregnant female, who will have 50 to 60 babies, many of whom will die of natural causes and be immortalized in a decorative diorama. Asked if she's an animal-lover, Brandreth deadpans, "Can you tell?"

Now that the bug business is booming, Brandreth is, of course, looking for "a published author" to co-write her autobiography. She's also in search of backers for "a very unique themed" restaurant.

-- Liz Belile

For a closer look at Karen's roach art, visit our on-line gallery at www.houstonpress.com/urban/index.html. For an extended version of this story, go to www.houstonpress.com. Anyone interested in contacting Karen can write Liz Belile at liz_belile@houstonpress.com.


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