When Sandy Allen was 10 years old, she stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall. That she towered over most adults at such a young age would portend an incredible—if short-lived—struggle to fit in. By the time she was an adult, Allen stood 7 feet, 7 inches—tall enough to be the Guinness World Record holder as the tallest woman on the planet.
It was Guinness that actually helped Allen come to terms with her soaring frame. After reaching adulthood, Allen wrote to the company, hoping that they might be able to put her in touch with someone as tall as she was. Her social life was “practically nil,” she wrote, owing to her self-consciousness.
A Legend Is Born
Allen was born in Chicago in 1955. Weighing in at 6.5 pounds, her newborn mass didn’t offer much of a hint at her future outsized dimensions. A tumor in her pituitary gland produced an excess amount of growth hormone and caused acromegaly, or gigantism, the same condition that had affected André the Giant. Even at home, where she grew up with her grandmother in Shelbyville, Indiana, Allen's height created some challenges. Her bed frame was so enormous that it could not fit in her bedroom; instead, it had to be placed in the dining room. At school, Allen felt ostracized—she was too tall to fit in, and too uncoordinated to take advantage of her height in sports.
In 1974, while working as a secretary, some of Allen’s co-workers convinced her to send in her measurements to Guinness. Her height was indeed a world record, and she appeared in the 1976 edition of the book. That led to a slew of publicity, which Allen seemed to embrace. Instead of teasing her, as her classmates had, people seemed to have a genuine curiosity about her.
The ensuing public interest landed Allen a role in a Federico Fellini film, Fellini's Casanova, where she played “Angelina the Giantess.” Numerous television talk show appearances followed, as did personal speaking engagements, where Allen stressed to children the importance of accepting who you are. Allen even bought a bus with the words “World’s Tallest Woman” printed on the side.
When Allen returned from Rome after shooting the Fellini movie, she was examined by doctors and urged to have the tumor—which could cause her to go blind—removed. Even then, the host of health problems prompted by the excessive growth of her organs had doctors concerned that she might not live to see her 30th birthday.
Rather than dwell on that prognosis, Allen took a job at the Guinness Museum in Niagara Falls, where she became a kind of living exhibition. She spoke of her size-22 feet and fielded questions from spectators on her diet. (She ate “short people,” she joked.)
The Guinness job lasted eight years, at which point Allen returned to Indiana. Throughout the 1980s, she earned a living through secretarial work and made sporadic television appearances. As travel became increasingly difficult for her—standing or walking too long could prompt blisters, one of which got so bad she had to have a toe amputated—she required more assistance. Allen lived in a care facility before her death at age 53 in 2008. Among the other residents was 115-year-old Edna Parker, then recognized by Guiness as the world’s oldest living person.
Though Allen’s record was eventually surpassed by Zeng Jinlian of China, who measured 8 feet, 1 inch, Allen is probably the better-known Guinness legend. After her death, friends often said it was her stature as a good and kind person they remembered most.