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The Bone Lady is Cleveland’s most iconic superfan: Part 1

25 questions with Browns representation in her own unique, wacky style

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There is a recognizable superfan for every NFL team. They get Jumbotron time during home games plus television cameramen focus on their fandom - and outlandishness - during nationally broadcast games. And once that achievement occurs, the superfan has officially been launched and “made it.”

Washington Redskins Enthusiasts in Costumes
Obviously Washington’s Hogettes
Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Barrel Man with the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowman, the Birdman with the Philadelphia Eagles, or License Plate Guy rooting for the New York Football Giants.

Fireman Dave of the New York Jets or the Hogettes for Washington are probably the most famous. And add The Bone Lady of the Cleveland Browns to this shortlist.

Yes, Cleveland has an equally nationally-recognized superfan. In fact, The Bone Lady has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Yep, that kinda famous.

What makes a superfan? Being gritty? A die-hard? Wearing your favorite player’s jersey? Tons of memorabilia? Sure, but a superfan has one thing: the costume and its unique look. Okay, that’s two things. It’s not easy being a sports fan in Cleveland, but to dress up in an elaborate get-up every week is a level of dedication that only a select few have decided to pursue.

As far as the Browns and their superfans, John “Big Dawg” Thompson was one of the first to become a national symbol for Cleveland. Others have been Dawg Face, Captain Cleveland, D. Dawg, Mobile Dawg, The Macho Fan, Dawgpound Mike, and Pumpkinhead.

Pumpkinhead with The Bone Lady

And while each has had their moment in the sun or has sat in the commissioner’s chair on NFL draft day like Pumpkinhead and The Macho Fan have achieved, the major spotlight for the Browns’ trail began with The Bone Lady holding the lantern.

Very few women are considered superfans. There is Bird Lady Freeman for the Atlanta Falcons, Seattle’s Mrs. Seahawk, the Puppet Lady from Kansas City, and Cleveland’s Bone Lady. And only one of these has been featured on national commercials - and she reps Cleveland.

Artist Debra Darnall’s story of The Bone Lady is fascinating. When Debra discusses being in costume, she refers to this alto ego as “her” like there is some split personality going on. But Debra and Bone (what her friends now call her) are one in the same. And they are very much connected.

Part of humankind’s quest is trying to find out answers to the mysteries of the universe. Without Debra and her sense of adventure, graphic design awareness, artistic abilities plus her inner drive as a devoted Browns fan, The Bone Lady would never have been invented despite what the universe was up to.

In fact, The Bone Lady was not even dreamed up - nor planned.

Many magazines have featured Debra’s art and mural artistry. This is the majority of her income and always has been. Her journey as The Bone Lady came about after she painted her Volvo station wagon to look like a Browns helmet, and then needed a costume to adorn the look of the vehicle. More on that later.

The Bone Lady was basically an instant hit from the get-go. Her costume is outlandish complete with a huge wig. To top it off, she is boisterous, a talker, friendly, always equipped with a smile, engaging, and most of all, loves her Browns.

Cleveland Browns vs. Miami Dolphins Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

So Debra stepping into this role was the easy part. Keeping it going, at times, was the exhausting portion of this story. The Bone Lady was so popular that she appeared in several commercials, did umpteen public appearances for Browns Backers chapters plus the Browns themselves, along with radio, podcast and TV spots. Traveling became the norm whether it was throughout the State of Ohio or across the country.

All the while white sunglasses remained perched on the end of her nose, those white ‘70’s stacked shoes kept her upright, that wide swooping skirt kept her, well.....protected from grabby fans, plus the headdress just kept growing and evolving as she added various trinkets and mementos from fans, celebrities, or other NFL team superfans.

While John Big Dawg Thompson donned a jersey and slipped on a rubber mask, The Bone Lady is a creation that takes time to become presentable with all the parts and pieces. And the entire ensemble had to last through hours of tailgating, a three-hour game, plus any after-parties that she was invited - or coaxed - to attend.

This is not the Bone Lady’s story. If interested in that, she has a book sold on Amazon entitled appropriately enough: “The Bone Lady- Life’s Lessons Learned as One of Football’s Ultimate Fans.” Somehow, the title fits.

Her book explains how The Bone Lady evolved, but is also a snippet of Debra’s life, her childhood, her pretend marriage to Jeffrey Dahmer (yes, THAT Jeffrey Dahmer) in a marriage prep course in high school, her father’s influence on her that left an indelible love for the Browns, work, love, losses that matter, art, women in football, and of course, the evolution of that wild woman who somehow lives patiently inside her suppressed until game time.


As a tragic event unfolded in Debra’s life in 2001, she was then honored into the Visa Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton as the “2001 Fan of The Year” representing the Cleveland Browns. She talks about this distinction as we certainly asked her about this wonderful accolade. Read on, she’ll tell you.

The Bone Lady is a household name in Cleveland. And, across the country.

DawgsByNature caught up with The Bone Lady on a crisp sunny day as the last cold period had already passed and the anticipation of spring cascaded into every question. By the way, a second book is in the works.

DBN: You were born and raised in Cleveland. Which high school? And since you make your living as an artist, yet in high school you took band instead of art classes. Were you absent the day they handed out electives?

Bone Lady: I was born in Cleveland and then when I was three I lived in Richfield. We moved to Bath when I was 11. I went to Revere High School. They only let you take so many electives and I played the flute so my creative talents were more musical-oriented. Art was a course you had to decide and since I could only take one elective it was band.

DBN: What started this idea?

Bone Lady: I was living in Columbus when the Browns left for Baltimore and was heartbroken. Then in 1999, all the news was about the Browns coming back. One morning I said I’m gonna paint my car like a Browns’ helmet and put a big bone on top. I told my boyfriend Tom at the time and everybody I knew and they said “No you’re not, that’s a Volvo.”

Not listening to what other people thought, but it was like I was just possessed about doing this. It harkens back to when I didn’t take an art class where you were taught more structure. I am a self-made artist and there are no rules. It was much more organic and I followed my gut. This was a time that I almost felt possessed. It was the first time in my life that I really went against the grain and didn’t care what anybody thought. I was just doing it because it was fun and wanted to create it. I was excited about the Browns returning.

DBN: So your character did not begin until the new Browns sprang up in 1999. Who actually coined “The Bone Lady” and were there some other names that were considered?

Bone Lady: No, and I’ll tell you what happened. Because the Browns were coming back in August of 1999 I had my car professionally painted like a Browns’ helmet. And I gave myself a deadline and I thought I’m gonna enter myself into the Doo-Dah Parade in Columbus on the Fourth of July which is a spoof event. I wanted to create a traveling tribute to the Browns’ return. I am really good with a glue gun and filled it to the max. I covered every inch of the inside and I realized I was a little obsessive. And everybody’s excited that the Browns are coming back and literally the night before we decided to have a group of us march in the parade. I wanted to have an outfit because you can’t just be normal in this parade. I started putting my outfit together and was being creative. I had a Marge Simpson wig and spray painted it orange and made a bone for the top. I got dingle balls and dyed those Rit tangerine orange and dyed everything. I went to the Goodwill store and found the shoes. I spray-painted those white. My original shoes were actually from the 1970s. I went to this iconic place in Columbus called Yankee Trader and was getting all little paraphernalia you know like little footballs. I got my glasses there. I wanted my skirt to stick out and got the advice from a well-known drag queen and he said, “Hula hoop, honey.” Brilliant. I was creating my whole outfit the night before the parade. My tagline has always been “This is what happens when you drink too much beer and own a glue gun.” The name Bone Lady just came out of my head and I didn’t ponder it. As an artist, I am just a vehicle - you have to let the ideas come through you. I really believe she was meant to be created.

DBN: Tell us about the first appearance of your character.

Bone Lady: We decided we were going to be the “Bone Brigade.” My brother came down from Cleveland and had some friends. There was a guy who drove my car and I walked behind him waving to the people. You have to remember the excitement of the Browns coming back. It was off the charts. Because we were still bitter about Art Modell, I wore orange biker shorts under my skirt and on my ass, I had printed “Art Sucks.” I would tip up my skirt and lean forward and moon everyone. It was funny and clownish.

DBN: Your character’s outfit is awesome. But the headdress makes the ensemble over the top. Did this begin small and was added to as time went on? And what type of alcohol was attributed to that idea?

Bone Lady: The drinking was just the night before. I had already created my car, so The Bone Lady was just an extension of that. It evolved. When I first started I didn’t have as much stuff on the wig. Over the years I kept adding. I didn’t seek out that I was going to be The Bone Lady. I created it out of fun and excitement. That was never my motivation.

DBN: Name some of your favorite Browns players you have met as the Bone Lady.

Bone Lady: I have met a lot of the alumni players. When I was a kid, Leroy Kelly was my favorite player. It was the first year of being The Bone Lady and was a thrill to meet him. I was asked to be in the Akron Autorama and bring my car. He was there signing autographs. That for me was an out-of-body experience. Over the years I have done a lot of Browns Backers appearances with a lot of different alumni. Greg Pruitt is one of the good guys. Golic, Hanford, Bernie. And I have also met a lot of the current players. As a fan that was all fun meeting all those players. I think the fact that a lot of alumni players remain in the city says a lot about Cleveland. Speaks really well for the people who live here.

DBN: Was interaction with these players your favorite part so far?

Bone Lady: I have to tell you, meeting the fans is much better. I have met so many people and I have developed great friendships. Some of my best friends are because I have “boned up.” Some guys I have met because of The Bone Lady. I don’t fawn over famous people because I believe people are people. I have met some interesting and unique people. That is part of being a Browns fan because it is like being a family. I am not saying anything bad about meeting current or ex-players, I am just not all starry-eyed about it.

DBN: The Bone Lady was a feature on a pre-game TV sports show. How did this come about?

Bone Lady: I had some local media and then CNN picked up my story. The news director at our CBS station had me come in and do different things like segments discussing American Idol. I was going out and doing stories. It was really fun for me. I was on a short hiatus and he called me. He said they had Yuengling Beer as a sponsor and they wanted to be in this market. They wanted a tailgate show with some retired players sitting around a desk. Then they had me out at a bar and would go live to me out in the field. I would interview people, do game predictions, and spin this prize wheel. It was so much fun. I loved it. They had used other people in the past and I did it for three years. The station was later sold, changed hands, the news director I was dealing with left, and they went in a different direction.

DBN: The Bone Lady was a feature on “Best Damned Sports Show” as well as the HBO series “Inside the NFL - Episode 9.” That is an amazing feat. How did this all come together?

Bone Lady: That was along with Bob Costas and Chris Collingsworth. The HBO people just happened to be at the same hotel as me during the Hall of Fame weekend. The Bone Mobile was parked outside. I had just finished a thing at the Hall and I was in my garb. I walked into the hotel lobby and they asked if that was my car which I told them it was. They said they wanted to do some filming of me and my car. I didn’t know who these guys were. They ended up doing an entire segment and we kinda yucked it up for the camera. I drove them in the Bone Mobile and just had a ball.

DBN: At one time The Bone Lady was one of the most visible women not just in Cleveland but in football doing a podcast, radio, Cleveland television networks, and some commercials. Your thoughts?

Bone Lady: Thank you for that. I didn’t set out for that. After 1999, I got chosen with Big Dawg to go to the Super Bowl in Atlanta between the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams. We were there for a week doing appearances.

The Bone Lady with John Big Dawg Thompson

I missed the whole pregame because everyone wanted a picture with me, and these were not even Browns fans. After having that experience I thought that was kinda different. That is when I stopped drinking as The Bone Lady. Kids are coming up to me and families. Especially as a woman. Football is already such a boy’s club. 24 years ago women didn’t have anything related to their team to wear. They finally figured it out to market to 50% of their fanbase. I felt a real responsibility to be knowledgeable and articulate. Being a woman you already have all these strikes against you especially when I am in my costume. My motto is “Be who you are.” But now I am representing Cleveland Browns fans so I looked at it in a different way.

DBN: The Bone Mobile and yourself were even featured in a McDonald’s commercial. It was great! What was it like filming, and in lieu of being paid did you get a lifetime supply of McDonald’s fries?

Bone Lady: I am vegan, so no. People ask me how I can be The Bone Lady and be vegan. We filmed at the McDonald’s on Clark. It was fun. It’s not about doing these things, for me, it was a creative opportunity. I love being a performer in a sense. I would hope that people I worked with would remember me as being gracious and kind while at the same time being kinda a smart-ass. My two lines in that commercial were “Woof, woof” so there you go.

DBN: You published a book in 2015 currently sold on Amazon called “The Bone Lady - Life Lessons Learned as One of Football’s Ultimate Fans.” What was the inspiration?

Bone Lady: Not that I am not grateful for opportunities, the doors just opened for me. If you are meant to do something the universe will align and it will happen. I was just walking through those doors. I was living on this ride. The idea came from David Lee Morgan who had written books on LeBron James. He had interviewed me for the Akron Beacon Journal where he worked. He mentioned to me that I had all these interesting stories and should write a book. He really encouraged me. His publisher David Gray did a complete line of books some of which are sports and Cleveland history. So I put together an outline and met with the publisher. And he wanted it to be like really football-oriented. And it just wasn’t coming through. He showed it to a friend of his who would end up the editor of the book. after he read through he told the publisher, “You’re missing it. She’s the story.” Basically then I could be myself and I wanted it to be like I was sitting in a room with someone just talking and telling my story. I wrote it all myself. I wanted it to bookend two photos - one in the front and one at the end of the book. Both are in black and white. It’s bits and pieces of my life. I dedicated it to my dog Molly and the whole book is all about being who you are.

DBN: Here at the DBN offices we have a running bet that you bath, swim in Lake Erie, surf along the Gulf Coast and go tubing while wearing the beehive. How much of that is true and is it true that salt water makes the beehive swell?

Bone Lady: What have you guys been smoking? I couldn’t be swimming in it because all my dog bones would melt. I don’t know if salt water makes the beehive swell. I still have the exact same beehive that I’ve always had but now there’s a hanger inside to hold it upright because there was a moment where it just couldn’t stand up on its own. Here’s a little Bone Lady maintenance that people may not know. I’ve had to make a lot of new shirts and skirts along the way. I have to take the milk bones off occasionally, then shellac the new ones and redo them because they’re food. All of that starts looking a little tired - just like me.

Stay tuned for The Bone Lady interview Part 2 where she talks about how the fans are slowly being squeezed by high prices, the time that huge bone fell off her Bone Mobile, and her experience with going to school with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Here at Dawgs By Nature, we love The Bone Lady! And we have acquired five of her books that we are giving away that she has graciously autographed.

To win one of these signed books, just answer the below five questions and email them to: In the subject section put something bone-related like “Bone me up, Scotty!” You can’t use that one because we now own it so get your own.

The most correct answers will go into a Browns hat and four entries will be drawn by this Browns fan’s mailman whose aunt’s brother used to cut the hair of the dentist’s son whose sister-in-law’s cousin is Bernie Kosar’s landscaper. So there, our link to Bernie Kosar will pull out the winners.

The fifth signed Bone Lady book will go to the email with the wittiest bone-related subject line entry.

List your five answers, plus name, address, city, state, and zip in the email body. Good boning!

  1. Which former Brown was The Bone Lady’s favorite while growing up?
  2. How does The Bone Lady prefer her meat cooked: grilled or baked?
  3. What do The Bone Lady’s friends call her?
  4. The Bone Lady has a message displayed on her behind. Who is the intended person this message is for?
  5. Which of these three things are NOT attached to her beehive wig: a) a tiara, b) a picture of Marge Simpson, or c) a trophy?