Lady Iris isn’t shy about the origin of her name. As she tells it, her father was the court painter to the Swedish royal family, and, one day, he was making a portrait of the queen when a handmaiden caught his eye. “I was conceived under a moonlit sky in the royal iris garden before they ran away to raise me,” she explains matter-of-factly, in a vaguely British accent.
The Lady has since followed in her father’s artistic footsteps to become one of the finest face painters in the Kingdom of Todd Mission, although others might know the damsel by her alternate identity, Debbie Bullock. As of this season, the Houston native has donned a maiden dress and assumed the Lady Iris character at the Texas Renaissance Festival for 26 years, making her one of the fest’s longest-serving artists. The career face painter always makes sure to block out the season on her busy calendar, otherwise filled with corporate picnics, Houston Zoo events, and visits to Texas Children’s Hospital. “As soon as those breezes turn each fall, I start to feel the magic,” she says.
Bullock grew up in the area without ever hearing about the sprawling festival, one of the largest of its kind. It was around 1981 that an eccentric friend from the Society for Creative Anachronism—an international medieval reenactment group—first invited her to tag along to the festival. It wasn’t much in those days—“lots of open fields, Porta-Potties everywhere”—and “definitely not a place for kids.” She mostly forgot about it as her fledgling family shuffled from San Antonio to Corpus Christi and back to Houston a few years later.
That was when friends started asking her to lend her painting skills—honed by an associate degree in commercial art and plenty of face painting at PTA events—to the festival as a substitute for a vendor who’d retired. She fell in love with the role immediately but didn’t see a future. “That’s like a Mecca for face painters,” she remembers thinking. “I never expected to be asked back.” But after submitting a bunch of sketches and surviving a jury, Lady Iris was born.
These days the 62-year-old Bullock calls herself an “multi-generational painter.” Festivalgoers who were children when they first had their faces painted by Lady Iris have started bringing their own children and, in some cases, grandchildren to see her. “I feel like it’s a big responsibility that when people come through the gate, I’m the first person they really get to spend any time with and talk to,” Bullock says. “I want them to escape for the day, whether it’s through me talking to them, giving them a hug, whatever.”
The job is a lot of butterfly masks and dragon wings, always completed in about three minutes or less, although Bullock says her most unique request came some years ago, when a man marched up to her station and asked her to paint his big, round belly. “He whipped out a knife, cut his shirt, and ripped it straight up from the bottom to the neckline,” she remembers, laughing. “I thought to myself, ‘This is a big, burly biker—how funny would it be to paint a giant mushroom with fairies dancing around?’” It took awhile, but the man sauntered off with the woodland scene emblazoned across his mid-section. Projects like these are Bullock’s preference; Lady Iris is, after all, an artist. “The board is for people who can’t make up their mind,” she says. The only rule is to “keep it PG.”
Plenty has changed over the years. The festival has grown from a quirky gathering for a few thousand into a Renaissance Super Bowl attracting more than half a million annual visitors, and the kingdom itself has matured from open fields to cobblestone walkways lined with cottages and other permanent structures. As for Bullock, she started out using acrylic paint; nowadays it’s all stage makeup. Rookie artists might subject you to the hexagonal shards of craft glitter; Lady Iris uses only extra-fine polyester glitter that won’t scratch your cornea.
What will never change is the magic at the heart of Lady Iris’s chosen profession. “We grow up too quickly,” Bullock says. “Really and truly—and I don’t want to sound corny—but there’s so much ugliness in the world. Who wouldn’t want a temporary escape from that?”
The Texas Renaissance Festival runs through December 1.