Picture death personified. Maybe you imagine a skull-faced reaper with a cloak and scythe or a terrifying angel on his pale horse. Or maybe, if you’re of the right age and background, death is a perky goth girl with a penchant for Mary Poppins and an Eye of Horus spiral on her cheek.

This incarnation of Death, introduced in a 1989 issue of the DC/Vertigo comic The Sandman, may be the most beloved of popular culture’s psychopomps—mythical beings that guide the dead souls to the afterlife. Named the fifteenth greatest comic character by Empire Magazine in 2008 (ahead of Iron Man and Wonder Woman), she has graced posters and t-shirts. Even more than twenty years after she first chirped happily through the pages of issue #8, she inspires convention attendees to dress up in detailed recreations of her costumes.

Death (or rather, the woman who inspired her appearance) also happens to be a Salt Lake City native.

Meet Cinamon Hadley, the body-piercer and muse whose portrait was immortalized as the second eldest in a family of anthropomorphized forces, called The Endless, in Neil Gaiman’s cult-classic series. Extremely tall, extraordinarily thin, with bone-white skin, impeccable make-up and thin, black dreadlocks that fall well past her waist, she is an arresting sight. As we’re sitting down to talk, a passing cyclist slows down to exclaim, “I like your locks!” and earns a beaming smile from Hadley. 

Despite most people’s assumptions, Hadley was never Gaiman’s inspiration for the character—neither was Tori Amos, who is sometimes credited as such, nor was Donna Ricci who, in an interview published in Bite Magazine, described in detail meeting with Gaiman for a photo shoot, but has since removed the claims from her website. Hadley has never met Gaiman, although they have exchanged emails. In fact, Death wasn’t even supposed to be a goth girl and Gaiman wasn’t actually responsible for creating Death’s signature look at all.

So how did Hadley end up inspiring Death?

Originally, writes Gaiman in The Sandman Companion, he imagined the character as looking like ‘60s singer Nico as she appeared on the cover of Chelsea Girl. But the comic’s artist, Mike Dringenberg, also a Salt Lake City resident at the time, had other ideas. Gaiman writes, “He sent me a drawing based on a woman he knew named Cinamon—the drawing that was later printed in Sandman 11—and I looked at it and had the immediate reaction of, ‘Wow. That’s really cool.’”

Hadley explains how she went from begging for spare change and living in the infamous ‘80s Salt Lake City flophouse called Kill Pigs to gracing the pages of a world-famous comic. “Mike Dringenberg was a good friend of mine,” says Hadley. “He told me that he wanted to use me for a model for a character in a comic book, but I didn’t think anything about it.” It wasn’t until years later, the conversation long forgotten, that she leafed through an issue at a friend’s apartment in Houston, Texas and found Dringenberg’s original drawing of her looking up from the pages and a personal thanks from the author for the use of her image.

“Hey, this is me!” she exclaimed, to the amazement of her friend.