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Dirt Woman, fighting heart failure, plans to die onstage in 25 years

RICHMOND, Va. -- In a city famous for its unusual characters, Dirt Woman is perhaps RVA's biggest.

And not just in size, but in impact; what he's done, what he's survived and the lives he's touched.

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman" - is 65 now, a colon cancer survivor struggling with congestive heart failure. He has recently survived a heart attack, a stroke and assorted severe complications.

No, he said firmly, he's not dying. "I'm going to make it," he said when we stopped in to see him last week after he got out of a hospital step-down facility. He looked much better than the last time I visited him.

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Dirt Woman is like that old Ajax laundry detergent commercial: "stronger than dirt."

"He's a Phoenix," said Richmond musician Peter Headley. "I visited him 10, 15 years ago it's got to be 15 . . . with flowers in the hospital because he had cancer. So here it is at least 15 years later and he's still schlepping around."

The stories about this cult figure are endless, starting in the 60s when he was a prostitute on Richmond's streets.

He's forthright about his years of "tricking," behavior he is certain "God has forgiven."

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Even most of the beat cops and detectives who would see him have a grudging respect for him.

"Donnie's got a good heart," said Tim Morley, a retired Richmond police lieutenant who used to work the 900 block of W. Grace Street, known as the "battle zone" back in the day.

"Donnie was never mean to anybody," Morley added, noting Dirt Woman and the police knew their respective roles. "It was kind of like the wolf and the sheepdog;  at the end of the day, everybody would punch the time clock and, 'Good night Ralph,' 'Good night Sam."

Imagine being Donnie, growing up in rough-and-tumble Oregon Hill with seven brothers and sisters, the son of a railroad man and his wife who both loved him as he was.

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Donnie never learned to read or write. "I never went to school," he said. "I always rode the city buses."

While other children were in class learning their Rs, Donnie said he was learning the streets and the people of Richmond while he visited with the bus drivers motoring around the city.

He is likely one of the transit authority's most frequent fliers.

Jerry Williams, a longtime Richmond TV critic, producer, and advocate for alternative lifestyles in Richmond, said Donnie sort of blazed a trail - without really meaning to do it.

"Donnie pretty much has just been himself and been outrageous," said Williams, who is resuming work on a documentary about Dirt Woman.

According to legend, Dirt Woman's campy and sometimes wild drag shows got the attention of filmmaker John Waters, and there was some talk of Dirt becoming the next Divine.

dirt-woman-1

Then there was the mud and jello wrestling, along with eating dog food for charity. Dirt Woman would do just about anything.

"He was a lightning rod for bizarreness," said Headley, who dreamed up the annual Christmastime "Hamaganza" benefit ("Hams for the Hamless!") and musical extravaganza two decades ago.

For 20 years, Dirt Woman played a wild and raunchy "Mrs. Claus" for the benefit, raising thousands of dollars and hundreds of hams for the Central Virginia Food Bank and other charities.

He posed for calendars and starred in music videos, including one by Richmond's world-famous GWAR.

He was famously (and falsely) arrested at Doug Wilder's historic inauguration as governor, and filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city that had some merit, but didn't succeed.

In 2008, he ran for mayor, saying "Dirt Woman gonna clean up Richmond," as he told us back then.

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

Donnie Corker - "Dirt Woman"

The stories are endless. And it seemed he was everywhere:

Selling flowers on the street; peeling garlic at Mama Zu; haunting bingo halls; a regular presence at city council meetings.

He is famous for remembering the names and the personal stories of the people he meets. He makes huge rounds of phone calls every day, mostly just touching base or asking for small favors. (He talks to the news desk at CBS 6 practically every day.)

We talked about many of the old times during our recent visit at the South Richmond home he shares with his sister. We're old friends and he knows I'm worried about him - again.

Don't worry, he said. "I'm going to die at 90, onstage," all dressed up - "probably in a two-piece" - so he'll be prepped for the funeral home.

He talked about his dad and his mom and how accepting Richmonders have been to him for all these years. "They knew what I was," he said.

We talked about all the fun, goofy stuff he had done, all the creative projects and people he has helped along over the years.

That's one of the reasons he's certain he's going to heaven.

"Got to be," he said. "God wanted me to do a lot of things for people. I don't go (to heaven), nobody will."