Just who is Kandy Kaye Horn? When the East Texas outsider launched a bid for governor in 2022, this was the question everyone asked when they drove by one of her billboards, which had cost an estimated $1.4 million to plant across the state. Clad in a dress emblazoned with dollar bills, her face framed by flame-red bangs, Horn beamed a practiced society-page smile beneath slogans that proclaimed her a “SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIAN BUSINESSWOMAN” and a “DIFFERENT KIND OF REPUBLICAN” who wanted to decriminalize marijuana. Horn made an instant impression, although it proved to be a fleeting one: after she garnered a minuscule one-percent return in the primaries, her political life was over before it had barely begun. Whoever Kandy Kaye Horn was, it seemed, most Texans weren’t too fired up to find out. 

The Austin filmmaker Brandon Gray and his partner, Jess Decelle, were among those who found themselves intrigued by Horn’s media blitz. Curious to know more about “the lady in her money dress,” they reached out to Horn over Facebook. Horn responded by inviting them both to her wedding. It proved to be the first of many weekends that Gray and Decelle would spend at Horn’s La Porte home in Galveston Bay, always staying in the apartment above the old granary she had commandeered as her campaign headquarters. There they gradually built up a trust that, Decelle said, developed into a genuine friendship. As they recorded hours upon hours of interviews with Horn, she opened up, with boozy bravado, about her life’s improbable path from teenage orphan to millionaire philanthropist to, finally, aspiring politician. 

While their finished short, The Baroness From Kaufman County (now streaming for free on YouTube and through Gray’s website), may have started out as a political documentary, it emerged as something more like a fractured fairy tale: a dreamy, occasionally hallucinatory sketch of a truly outlandish subject, one who is not merely self-made but self-mythologized. Horn earned her “Baroness” title not through land or blood, after all, but by purchasing it over the Internet from the house of Marlborough, England. The film—which Horn paid for, too—only burnishes that legend.

In many ways, Horn hearkens back to a presumed-extinct era of flamboyant Texan tycoons like Glenn McCarthy—nouveau-riche nutters who proved that money can buy not just power or influence, but a new identity, if you want it. As the film details, Horn also likes to refer to herself as “The Godmother” (a nod to her all-time favorite movie) and “the motherf—in’ Ace of Spades” (whatever that means). She swaggers onto the screen in a mink coat and sunglasses, swilling a Bud Light whose dregs she uses to water a nearby plant, then fires up an endless chain of Winstons with a butane torch that almost never leaves her hand. Her neck is permanently draped with a heap of pearls, gold, and gaudy baubles that include portraits of her late mother and another of her hero, Elvis Presley, all topped off by a giant pendant with “290” (as in the highway), spelled out in dripping diamonds. 

Horn is no less ostentatious when she talks. She boasts of being a better businessperson than Warren Buffett (“I’m the one who told him to buy Dairy Queen!” Horn exclaims) and brags about sharpening her fearless negotiation skills on Nigerian warlords back in the eighties. When she delivers a hilarious stream-of-consciousness stump speech before a group of perplexed-looking veterans, she somehow winds her way to the assassination of JFK—surely one of the few times you’ll hear a candidate declare, “Kennedy needed to be killed!”

She’s what you might call a real hoot. Gray, whose past subjects have included professional wrestlers and the funeral protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church, has found in Kandy Kaye Horn another larger-than-life character who knows the value of bombast and kayfabe theatricality. To put it lightly, many of her claims end up straining credulity. And eventually, Gray said, he gave up on trying to discern the truth from her bluster. 

“At some point, I stopped viewing this as an objective history,” Gray said over a Zoom call from the home he shares with Decelle. “I decided that this is just Kandy’s story as she tells it.”

“She describes it like she’s a train that goes off onto dirt roads, but it all connects in the end,” Decelle said. “We fact-checked everything we could, but . . . some things came down to, well, she also says Elvis is alive and she saw him riding a tractor.” 

Among the few facts that are not in dispute is Horn’s tragic backstory, which The Baroness From Kaufman County circles back to repeatedly as a mournful countermelody to Horn’s triumphant song of herself. Horn lost her mother in an ambulance accident when she was just fifteen. (“I died that day,” she tells Gray and Decelle’s camera, in a rare vulnerable moment.) She then used her mother’s Social Security money to put herself through college, eventually earning her MBA on her way to a remarkably successful career. Doing what, however, is where it gets a little nebulous. 

In the past, Horn has always identified herself as a mortgage broker. Yet in Gray and Decelle’s film, she says she made her fortune drilling for oil, including running pipelines and managing logistics in exotic, tempestuous locales like Lagos and Jakarta. Does it matter that Horn has apparently never discussed her oil adventures before—even when she was running for governor of a state that would have eaten it up? Is it significant that Horn claims to hold a doctorate in economics, another impressive credential that also went unmentioned during her campaign? The Baroness From Kaufman County doesn’t ask. 

As Gray explained, any attempt to corroborate those assertions was complicated by the fact there isn’t all that much to be found on Horn in the public record. The only interview of any real substance they could find was the one conducted by Texas Monthly’s Jonathan Tilove just last year. Most of the documentation on Horn’s life to date is limited to Junior League newsletters, lawsuits, and the occasional arrest. As for the rest, well, you’ll just have to take her word for it. 

“There are elements that I wish I had pushed her harder on,” Gray said. “But to be honest, some things were just hard to verify. It could be true. It could not be. Who knows?”

Part of the filmmakers’ reluctance to pry may be explained by Horn’s role as their financier. Covering Gray and Decelle’s expenses didn’t give Horn creative control over their project, they maintain. Still, it seems to have earned her a certain amount of protection. The film begins with a disclaimer that “some names, faces, and foul language have been edited at the request of the Baroness.” (This last point proves to be especially hilarious, given that Horn swears like a Quentin Tarantino character.) It closes with a note thanking Horn for her “trust, friendship, and support of the arts.” The filmmakers acknowledged that, in the end, they wanted to make Horn happy. 

“She’s been betrayed in the past by people that she’s given money to, and that’s a pattern in her life,” Gray said. “It was important for me that she signed off on [the film]. And she did.”

“We didn’t want to do a hit job,” he added. “Kandy does a lot of good. She’s a genuine philanthropist. She’s also very smart, very funny. She has a lot of admirable qualities to her also, and those all needed to be in there.”

As the film points out, Horn has given millions to organizations like the Houston Food Bank and Career & Recovery Resources through her Baroness Kandy Kaye Horn Foundation, repeatedly dedicating herself to helping veterans, the unhoused, and former felons find jobs. And while The Baroness doesn’t shy away from showing what Gray called her “more unsavory elements”—Decelle noted that Horn, who appears visibly inebriated throughout, polished off an entire bottle of Glenlivet during one of their interviews—it also doesn’t set out to exploit them or ridicule her. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a complicated person, one who’s overcome significant misfortune and loss and managed to draw strength from it. 

Some will surely quibble with the film’s kid-glove handling in light of Horn’s political ambitions, particularly in the age of George Santos, when candidates increasingly embellish—and even flat-out lie—their way to the top. But although Horn ends The Baroness From Kaufman County by announcing another run for office in 2024, this time for President of the United States, neither Gray nor Decelle believe that she seriously wants the job. “I think she just wants that level of legitimacy,” Decelle said. “This lady has been screaming into the void, wanting somebody to tell her story for so long. She wants to show people that she’s made it, to feel important and loved and validated. She wants it all to mean something.”

“She has, like a lot of people, pain that she doesn’t know how to heal or what to do with,” Gray said. “And I think she just wants to be seen.”

The Baroness From Kaufman County certainly accomplishes that. Although, as with those billboards, you’re likely to come away with more questions than answers. Horn’s story is a rich, rollicking one that the film, over its 29 impressionistic minutes, seems to just barely tap into—a teaser for a much larger tale that’s still to be told.

“Maybe someday there will be a more comprehensive biography of her,” Gray said. He paused, then added with a laugh, “I don’t want that f—ing job.”