I remember being a teenager and having someone from a car yell “FREAK” at me as I walked by; it really made me think about the word and what it meant. Even though it was meant to be derogatory, I have always taken it as a compliment. If being a freak meant that I loved shock value and standing out from the crowd then I was ready to wave my freak flag proudly. I have always been interested in the culture of the modified. Many people view body modification as a rite of passage, and some as a pure act of self expression. Body modification includes common procedures such as piercings and tattoos, but it also means much more. Some people take it to the next level. These people are real life “freaks” (and I say that with love and awe, not to be offensive). Sideshow performers, oddities, and truly beautiful weirdos; they are not afraid to be themselves and celebrate the fact that being different is beautiful.
The art of circus performance is an age old tradition. It was popular in the Victorian era and revolutionized by PT Barnum and the performers of the Coney Island circuit in the early 20th century. The freak show has always been a main attraction in the old time circus and carnival scene. Individuals who had physical oddities were displayed for entertainment sake. Extremely small and large people, women with beards, people covered in tattoos, biological rarities, physical deformities such as missing or extra limbs, Siamese twins, or whatever else made someone stand apart and made them worthy of being classified as a freak would generate huge crowds full of curiosity. People were willing to pay a pretty penny to sit and stare at these medical wonders with absolute awe and utter amazement.
Modern side show freaks are having a resurgence in popular culture while reviving and innovating old traditions. The side show has transformed and is now more focused on performance. The freaks voluntarily use their bodies as malleable canvases and tools for entertainment. For the sake of political correctness and the humane treatment of all the world’s creatures, the new freak show is based on performance and voluntary body modification rather than physical abnormality or disability. In the modern era, it is obviously distasteful to recognize and mock physical deformities. Modern side shows employ only those who work hard at their unique craft and know how to manipulate their bodies expertly. It is a way of life.
I am a burlesque performer, which has always gone hand in hand with the sideshow entertainment world. Many performers in the burlesque world modify and decorate their bodies with things such as corset training, tattoos, and piercings. During my career I have been lucky enough to perform with two different traveling sideshow circus troupes: The Cockabilly Roadshow from Coney Island and more recently The Hellzapoppin Sideshow Revue from Texas. Helzapoppin Side Show Revue is the biggest current travelling sideshow troupe, and they have been on tour with Ozzfest and more! I can’t believe that I have shared the stage with contortionists, sword swallowers, those who lay on nail beds, participate in play piercings, those with large amounts of tattoos, fire breathers, hook suspensionists, sword walkers, glass eaters, and I even met a woman named Boobzilla who smashes bricks with her chest. Chelsea NoPants, of Helzapoppin swallowed swords, breathed fire, and walked on a ladder of swords the night I met her. She was able to bend a normal coat hanger that was inserted into her throat like a sword. She also participated in play piercing by having darts thrown at her body. It is really an out of this world experience to be part of a show like that.
There are natural freaks and self made freaks. A “natural freak” has a genetic abnormality that shapes their performances, and a made freak has undergone body modification to gain their current physical configuration. These people prove that nothing is impossible. Many forms of body modification have their origins in the freakshow, even way back into antiquity. The current popularity of freakdom has broken into the mainstream once more. Tattoos , piercings, and extreme modification take center stage on this new wave of popularity. Extreme body modification is becoming more and more common and even accepted. Layered full body tattoos creates interesting characters and transforms a normal human into almost a cartoon superhuman. Subdermal implants, injections, and piercings that are stretched to great lengths are also gaining popularity.
Famous Side Show Performers/ Body Modification Stars
-Eric Sprague, aka The Lizardman , has sharpened teeth, a full body tattoo of green scales, split tongue, sub dermal implants on his brows, and stretched ear lobes.
-Dennis Avner, aka the Catman, surgically modified his body to resemble a tiger. Dennis is currently the world record holder for most body modifications.
-Etienne Dumont- Living Art- has tattoos from heat to toe, silicone implants in his head, nostrils and lower lip stretched, and he wears Plexiglas plugs in them to see through.
– The Enigma- has horn implants, a plethora of piercings, a full body puzzle tattoo, and he has the work of over 200 artists on him.
-Katzen the Tiger Lady- has extensive body tattoos and wears whiskers attached via piercings on her face. (Katzen is the German word for cats.)
-Rick Genest- full body zombie tattoos and other body modifications.
-Julia Gnuse- aka the illustrated lady, has 95% of her skin covered in ink.
-Lucky Diamond Rich- most tattooed person in the world.
-Elaine Davidson- the most pierced person in the world.
-Pauly Unstoppable- is heavily modified with large stretched piercings and dermals; he is always changing form, and is the first man to ever get tattoos on his actual eyeball.
You do not have to go to the boardwalk on Coney Island to view the side show anymore. You can check out one of the touring acts or even just browse the interwebs. The age of the internet gives a more broad and endless audience to the sideshow. It is a whole new arena of fame. Photo sharing sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest have sky rocketed the careers of many body modification superstars. These sites celebrate the unique and the unimaginable. Television is also jumping on the bandwagon. The A&E show called “Freakshow” features performers and human oddities that are heavily modified and performing death defying feats.
I have seen power drills inserted into nasal cavities, insertion of Fakirs through skin, sword swallowing, glass eating, laying on a nail bed, and so much more. It amazes me that these fantastic humans know exactly where to place skewers through the flesh or swords in their throats so as to not bleed or damage any muscles and organs. The performers are able to manipulate and move their organs out of way. The human body is truly a miracle to behold; it is magical how it can be molded and what can be done to it. Things that I once assumed were impossible are not; it just takes practice, skill, and dedication. Normal is only what you make of it, and self expression and culture can transform someone into a true masterpiece.