hell's warm welcome
on the road with sugar pie Desanto
By Kelsey Bennett
A train conductor stands outside Hell’s station.
Hell is a quaint little village in Norway that’s the resting place of 1,600 souls. There are red-roofed houses, a post office, a grocery store, even a church. It literally freezes over during the winter, which is yet another example of why its pun-friendly name draws tourists throughout the year. Weirdly enough, hell means “luck” in Norwegian, but the locals play up their association with the netherworld. When you pull into the train station, there’s a sign that reads HELL GODS – EXPEDITION, and the town’s most famous native, Mona Grudt, who won the 1990 Miss Universe beauty pageant, proudly called herself “the beauty queen from Hell.” Then there’s the annual Blues in Hell Festival, which was founded by Kjell Inge Brovoll, better known as “Hell Boss.” This year, the festival brought a host of legendary American blues singers to the peaceful village, including Sugar Pie DeSanto, who is best described as a more unhinged and modern version of her late duet partner and childhood friend, Etta James. Sugar Pie was my ticket to Hell. I first saw the 78-year-old, 4'11" spitfire on New Year’s Eve 2012—she hopped on the stage, kicked off her stiletto heels, and gyrated with the intensity of a woman 55 years her junior. When I asked if I could take some photos of Sugar Pie, her manager asked me to accompany them to Detroit, where she played Aretha Franklin’s Christmas party. A year later, I got offered the chance to go to Hell with Sugar Pie. How could I have said anything other than “Hell, yes”?
How to go to Hell.
Two doors in Hell’s hotel.
Hell’s famous sign. For a while it disappeared, and one local legend is that a longtime train conductor, who was a devout Christian, stole the sign and burned it after he retired. Whatever happened to the original sign, it’s since been replaced.
Mona Grudt, the most famous woman to ever hail from Hell, won the 1990 Miss Universe crown and still refers to herself as “the beauty queen from Hell.” During the pageant, a fellow Miss Universe contestant read her palm over breakfast one morning and told her she would die of a brain tumor.
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