Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 | 12:12 a.m.
Michaelina Bellamy likes her new wig, yet she doesn’t. It gives her head a healthy look, fashioned somewhat after the hairstyle of her friend and fellow Las Vegas vocalist Kelly Clinton Holmes.
The new hair looks natural but doesn’t feel so. It itches, this wig. It is not an expensive, top-of-the-line hairpiece. She pulls it free to rub her head, and what is exposed is stunning for what is not: Michaelina Bellamy is very nearly bald.
The seedlings poking through her scalp bring to mind a once-fertile forest strafed by a wildfire.
The roots are short and black; Bellamy has long worn her hair long and blond. Chemotherapy treatment to help thwart the progression of bone cancer -- specifically, acute myeloid leukemia -- has stripped Bellamy of almost all of her hair. She has shrunk, physically, nearly 50 pounds down to about an even 100. She is weakened, physically, and is winded after walking even a short flight of stairs.
Bellamy has spent about 200 days hospitalized, most of them at the San Martin Campus of St. Rose Dominican Hospitals. She is due for a bone marrow transplant at the VA hospital in Seattle and hopes her brother, Reno, will be a suitable match.
Meanwhile, Bellamy has amassed nearly $500,000 in medical bills and has no medical insurance. Her Neupogen shots, which bolster all cells in bone marrow (healthy and otherwise), are $500 apiece. Bellamy has received 40 of those shots.
“Neupogen shots can kill you,” Bellamy says, flatly. “But they can also keep you alive. And now they want to stop them.”
Because she is unable to pay for those shots.
But Bellamy has her will and her faith. She also has her voice, which over the years has furnished a successful career in entertainment onstage in Vegas and across the country. Bellamy can still sing like an angel but today is unable to sustain that harmonic voice for very long. Two minutes, and she’s tapped out.
“I like short songs,” she says. Bellamy doesn’t sing to herself like she used to, not while driving, not while in the shower. She fears the moment when she breathes in, and what comes out is croaky, off-key or even silent.
Nonetheless, Bellamy is singing in public this weekend and again the next.
Tonight and Sunday, she is part of the “Bill Fayne & Friends Celebrate Sondheim” production at Suncoast (show times are 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $17.50 to $44, absent fees; go to the Suncoast Web site or call 636-7075 for information), to mark Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Bellamy has rehearsed her lone song in the production, “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” Fayne, longtime music director for, and friend of, Clint Holmes, himself beat a cancer scare in early 2010 when he had what was feared to be a cancerous esophagus removed.
Then, Oct. 16, from 2 to 4 p.m.. Bellamy will be the focus of an all-star tribute concert at South Point Showroom. Both the Sondheim show and benefit concert will be loaded with entertainers who have known Bellamy for years.
Music, says Bellamy, “is what keeps me alive.” But even absent her health challenges, Bellamy has lived quite a tale in just the past five years.
Bellamy has for decades been familiar to Vegas entertainers and industry types as a touring singer with Engelbert Humperdick and as the vocalist in “Folies Bergere” at Tropicana for a decade ending in 1990. She joined the Air Force at age 18 and during her two-year tour of duty was a vocalist with the Airmen of Note. She performed in Vietnam on a USO Tour with Bob Hope in 1970, at age 16 the youngest female in the troupe. She has been a regular at such hep-cat Vegas haunts as Bootlegger Bistro and the now-closed Casbar Lounge at Sahara. Her family has lived in Las Vegas for nearly 40 years and once operated the Bel-Ami Nutrition store at Commercial Center.
But Bellamy became famous outside entertainment after an incident that sent Vesuvian shock waves through the Catholic community in Las Vegas. Hired in 2006 as singer and entertainment coordinator at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church, Bellamy became the focus of romantic intentions from Father George Chaanine. The priest pursued Bellamy for months, attempting to ply her affections with money and gifts.
The priest’s feelings for Bellamy boiled over on the afternoon of Jan. 26. Without provocation, Chaanine struck Bellamy over the head at least three times with a full wine bottle as she worked in the church offices on Alta Way, just west of Rancho Drive. During the assault, he groped her, choked her and dragged her down a church hallway by her hair until halting the attack only when Bellamy prayed for him to stop.
Bellamy needed more than 20 staples to close the wound in her head. She suffered a fractured left hand and as recently as last year complained of pain in her neck attributed to the assault. Chaanine vanished for six days after the assault and appeared under the title "Fugitive Priest" on the nationally syndicated TV show “America's Most Wanted.” The fugitive father was finally apprehended near Phoenix, presumably on his way to El Paso, where he served at a parish there before being reassigned to Our Lady of Las Vegas. He had traveled across three states during the nearly weeklong search.
In November 2007, in a plea bargain, Chaanine pleaded guilty to a felony charge of battery with a deadly weapon causing bodily harm and was sentenced to four to 12 years in federal prison.
Chaanine is locked up in Lovelock Correctional Center, sharing the same complex of incarceration as O.J. Simpson, another infamous felon whose crimes are traced to Vegas.
Bellamy says she prefers not to discuss the incident of Jan. 26 or its aftermath, as it conjures negative feelings that her body and mind can’t afford to absorb. But the attack marked a moment where her life changed dramatically, and not for the better.
“I’ve been through so much stuff over the last five years, having to defend myself all the time,” she says. “It’s tough.” Bellamy was a regular performer in Las Vegas at the time of the attack. Since, she’s scarcely found work.
“The stuff that happens takes a while to go away,” she says. “I’ve auditioned. I’ve approached people, and they all love me, but it’s, ‘We just can’t give you a gig.’ You’d be surprised at the response. Somebody told me once I can’t sing at a place because, well, you know, there’s too much drama with me. It happens.”
Bellamy has finished her rehearsal with her friend for years, Fayne, who raises “Somewhere” up one key, as she has requested. During the session, Bellamy takes a seat midway through the song, and she’ll likely be seated when she sings it in Fayne’s all-star Sondheim show.
She sings the number beautifully, her voice strong and soaring. “But I was shaking up there,” she says soon after. “I took my heart out of it so I could sing …”
As Bellamy talks, her voice suddenly cracks, and her body sags. She is crying. Sometimes it does seem like too heavy a burden to carry, and her friends’ references to her Job-like obstacles are sadly accurate.
“I don’t like to get emotional, but it’s hard, you know? I’ll break down. I’ll start crying,” she says as the faint sounds of Fayne leading his musicians through a number can be heard in the hallway of Reed Whipple Cultural Center. “I don’t want to do it until I get in my car and drive somewhere. Then I’ll break down. Sorry, I try not to do this. But sometimes the music makes me break down.”
Bellamy is buoyed by the arrival of her fourth grandchild, due any time now by her youngest daughter, Jackie, whose sisters are Maria and Andreanna. The newborn is to be named Ezra. The other Bellamy grandchildren are Elijah (age 8), Isaac (6) and Jonah (3). Elijah is battling juvenile myelosis, which attacks a child’s autoimmune system.
“Elijah is an inspiration to me, how he has fought,” Bellamy says. “We have the same sorts of challenges.”
Of her own prognosis, Bellamy says, “I have to face reality. I have a 50-50 chance of surviving the first 100 days after they do the first infusion of bone marrow treatment. I could come out of it, or I might not come out of it. That is the chance I am taking.”
If she does survive that 100 days, “I have a better chance of surviving 5 to 10 years. So I don’t know what my outcome is, but if it’s anything like what I think it’s going to be, I will never forget to pay back what has been given to me.”
What she says of those musicians who buoy her beautiful singing also is true in life: “It’s what’s behind you that counts.”