You may know her as the feisty, insult-slinging, bible-thumping Aunt Esther from the hit television show Sanford and Son, playing the role of Fred’s sister-in-law. But before that LaWanda began her career as a dancer and chorus girl.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio but raised in St. Louis, LaWanda knew from an early age that she was born to be in show business. She met Redd Foxx in elementary school, where they became friends, and later toured the Chitlin’ Circuit, performing in various comedy shows together.
During her teenage years, LaWanda performed as a fire dancer, where she walked over hot coals, ate fire, and lit cigarettes with her finger. As a result, she became known as the Bronze Goddess of Fire and LaWanda, the Flame Goddess. She went from performing in some of the country’s toughest clubs to performing her fire act worldwide, including in Japan and Canada.
Once her fire act came to an end, LaWanda went back to performing standup comedy. After fine-tuning her comedic skills, she became a member of the Skillet, Leroy, and Company comedy troupe, which helped her earn a new title, The Queen of Standup Comedy. She released several successful comedy albums, including the gold-selling album, Watch It, Sucka! She then got noticed by a more mainstream audience giving her access to television talk shows and the call to audition for her most famous character, Aunt Esther. After the ending of Sanford and Son, LaWanda made guest appearances on television shows, commercials, music videos, and even some movies. LaWanda later became an evangelist.
She died on September 14, 2002, from complications of diabetes. Her daughter, Clara Estella Roberta Johnson, died four years later on June 4, 2006, at sixty-nine.