Who is Kandy Kay Horn? When the East Texas underdog filed for governor in 2022, everyone asked the same question when they drove past one of her billboards, which cost an estimated $1.4 million to install across the state. Dressed in a dress adorned with dollar bills, her face framed by fiery red bangs, Horne beamed the habitual smile of a secular page under slogans that proclaimed her a “SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIAN BUSINESS WOMAN” and a “DIFFERENT KIND OF REPUBLICAN” who wanted to decriminalize marijuana. . Horne made an immediate impression, though it was fleeting: after she got a tiny 1 percent in the primary, her political life ended as soon as it began. Whoever Kandy Kay Horne is, it seems most Texans aren’t too fired up to find out.
Austin filmmaker Brandon Gray and his partner Jess Deselle were among those intrigued by Horne’s media escapade. Wanting to know more about “the lady in the money dress”, they contacted Horn via Facebook. Horn responded by inviting both of them to his wedding. It was the first of many weekends that Gray and Decelle spent at Horn’s home in La Porte on Galveston Bay, always staying in the apartment above the old granary she had confiscated as her campaign headquarters. There, they gradually established a trust that, according to Dessel, grew into a true friendship. As they recorded hours of interviews with Horne, she spoke with drunken bravado about her incredible journey from orphan teen to millionaire philanthropist and finally up-and-coming politician.
While they were finished for a short time, Baroness of Kauffman County (now streaming for free on YouTube and Grey’s website) may have started as a political documentary, but has evolved into something more like a broken fairy tale: a dreamy, sometimes hallucinatory sketch of a truly outlandish subject, one who is not just self-made, but self-mythologized. In the end, Horne earned her title of baroness not through land or blood, but by purchasing it over the Internet from the home of Marlborough, England. The film, for which Horn also paid, only embellishes this legend.
In many ways, Horne harkens back to a supposedly bygone era of flamboyant Texas tycoons like Glenn McCarthy—crazy nouveau riche who proved that money can buy not only power or influence, but a new identity, if that’s what you want. As revealed in the film, Horne also likes to refer to herself as “The Godmother” (an allusion to her all-time favorite movie) and “the mother in Ace of Spades” (whatever that means). She enters the screen with a solemn air in a mink coat and sunglasses, swallowing Bud Light, the remains of which she uses to water a nearby plant, and then ignites an endless chain of Winstons with a butane torch that almost never leaves her hand. Her neck is constantly adorned with a bunch of pearls, gold and gaudy trinkets, including portraits of her late mother and another of her heroes, Elvis Presley, all topped with a giant pendant with the number “290” (like on the highway). outlined by dripping diamonds.
Horne is no less ostentatious when she speaks. She brags about being a better businessman than Warren Buffett (“I told him to buy Dairy Queen!” exclaims Horne) and brags about honing her fearless negotiating skills with Nigerian warlords in the 1980s. When she delivers a funny deceitful speech to a group of bewildered veterans, she somehow finds herself on her way to assassinating John F. Kennedy – surely one of the few times you’ll hear a candidate claim, “Kennedy required be killed!”
She is what you might call real hoot. Gray, whose past stories have included professional wrestlers and protesters at a Westboro Baptist church funeral, has found another big character in Kandy Kay Horne who knows the price of bombast and theatricality. To put it mildly, many of her statements are distrustful. And in the end, as Gray said, he gave up trying to tell the truth from her boast.
“At some point, I stopped seeing it as an objective story,” Gray said during a Zoom call from the home he shares with Desel. “I decided that this was just the story of Kandy, because she tells it.”
“She describes it as if she is a train that travels on dirt roads, but in the end everything connects,” Desel said. “We checked everything we could, but…. . some things came down to her also saying that Elvis is alive and she saw him riding a tractor.”
Among the few facts that are not disputed is Horne’s tragic backstory, which Baroness of Kauffman County returns again and again as a mournful counter-melody to Horne’s triumphal song about herself. Horn lost her mother in a car accident when she was only fifteen. (“I died that day,” she tells Gray and Desel on camera in a rare moment of vulnerability.) She then used her mother’s Social Security money to go to college, eventually earning an MBA en route to amazing successful career. Doing what, however, gets a little hazy.
Horn has always referred to herself as a mortgage broker in the past. However, in Gray and Desel’s film, she says she made her fortune in oil production, including laying pipelines and managing logistics in exotic, rugged locations like Lagos and Jakarta. Does it matter that Horn has never spoken about her oil adventures before—even when she was running for governor of a state that would have swallowed her up? Does it matter that Horn claims to have a PhD in economics, another impressive credential that was also not mentioned during her campaign? Baroness of Kauffman County doesn’t ask.
As Gray explained, any attempt to substantiate these claims was complicated by the fact that there is not much information about Horn in open sources. The only interview they could find was an interview conducted by Texas MonthlyJonathan Tilov just last year. Much of Horn’s life documentation to date is limited to Junior League newsletters, lawsuits, and random arrests. Otherwise, well, you’ll just have to take her word for it.
“There are elements that I would like to push her harder,” Gray said. “But to be honest, some things were just hard to verify. This may be true. This cannot be. Who knows?”
Part of the filmmakers’ reluctance to peep can be attributed to Horne’s role as their financier. They argue that covering Grey’s and Desel’s expenses did not give Horn creative control over their project. However, this seems to have brought her some protection. The film begins with the statement that “certain names, faces and foul language have been edited at the request of the Baroness”. (This last point turns out to be particularly amusing, given that Horne swears like a Quentin Tarantino character.) It ends with a note thanking Horne for her “trust, friendship, and support for the arts.” The filmmakers admitted that they wanted to make Horn happy in the end.
“She’s been betrayed in the past by people she gave money to, and that’s a pattern in her life,” Gray said. “It was important to me that she signed [the film]. And she did.
“We didn’t want to do a hit job,” he added. “Candy does a lot of good things. She is a true philanthropist. She is also very smart, very funny. She also has many wonderful qualities, and all of them should be in her.”
As shown in the film, Horne has donated millions to organizations such as the Houston Food Bank and Career & Recovery Resources through her Baroness Kandy Kay Horne Foundation, repeatedly devoting herself to helping veterans, the homeless and ex-convicts find work. And while baroness doesn’t shy away from showing what Gray called her “nastier elements” – Deselle noted that Horne, who looks visibly drunk all the time, drank a whole bottle of Glenlivet during one of their interviews – he also has no intention of exploiting them or make fun of her. This is a sympathetic portrait of a complex person who survived great misfortunes and losses and managed to draw strength from them.
Some will no doubt argue with the film’s sloppiness in light of Horne’s political ambitions, especially in the era of George Santos, when candidates are increasingly embellishing – and even outright lying – their way to the top. But though the horn ends Baroness of Kauffman County after announcing another run for office in 2024, this time for President of the United States, neither Gray nor Decelle believe she seriously wants the job. “I think she just wants that level of legitimacy,” Desel said. “This lady has been screaming into the void for so long, wishing someone would tell her story. She wants to show people that she has achieved her goal, to feel important, loved and recognized. She wants it all to mean something.
“She, like many people, has pain that she doesn’t know how to treat or what to do about it,” Gray said. “And I think she just wants to be seen.”
Baroness of Kauffman County it certainly succeeds. Although, as with these billboards, you will likely have more questions than answers. Horn’s story – a rich, reckless one that the film, in its 29 impressionistic minutes, seems to barely touch – is a teaser for a much larger story yet to be told.
“Perhaps someday there will be a more complete biography of her,” Gray said. He paused and then added with a laugh, “I don’t want the damn job.”