My Life as a Sword Swallower

What it's like to make your living in the sideshow industry
Rose Callahan

We have a number of mantras in sideshow that emphasize our credo of profit, solidarity, and showmanship: “For it, with it, never against it”; “A quick nickel beats a slow dime,” and (my personal favorite) credited to legendary showman Melvin Burkhart, “It's a hard way to make an easy living.”

That last one especially sums up what we do and hints at some of the misconceptions surrounding what it means to be a professional performer.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am the Lady Aye and I'm the Sweetheart of the Sideshow! Also, for the right hourly rate, I am Ilise S. Carter, fashion and beauty copywriter. And as Ilise “The Lady Aye” Carter, I'm a speaker and instructor. The point is, I'll be here all week, tell your friends and neighbors!

As a sideshow performer, I'm what's aptly known as a working act. In the parlance of sideshow, this means you are neither a born human oddity (e.g., conjoined twins, alligator man, bearded lady) nor chose to become self-made freak (tattooed, pierced, corseted, or otherwise physically modified). It means I only have my skills to offer: sword-swallowing, bed-of-nails lying, fire-eating, straitjacket-escaping, and a number of other classic “shock and amaze” bits. I work hard—for my audiences, my rent, and my own satisfaction.

Like so many others in the sideshow industry, to make ends meet I've had to diversify, innovate, and just plain scramble. On any given day, I can find myself writing catalogs for upscale denim companies, gluing on false eyelashes in a dive bar bathroom, or addressing a convention of executives on the importance of bringing creativity and fearlessness in to the work place—or some combination thereof. This is the side of showbiz we rarely see and the reality that most journeymen performers live. We are the ones who do not have an entourage, royalties, nor (until recently) health insurance.

I'm not writing this in complaint. I love my jobs. But I feel the need to provide the world with enough of a peek behind the curtain in order to see the sweat that goes into the sparkle of the sideshow. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them for me is the low value we as a society put on creativity, and the way we dehumanize the body in the working world. To me the former means a constant battle to get people to pay a viable rate for my skills, and the latter because my body is vulnerable to people's expectations.

Put in real world terms, clients often think my demands for payment are outrageous, especially when it comes to working at their parties. If I had a nickel for every time an amateur party planner countered my request for money with “but you can hang out afterwards and have something to drink,” I'd actually have some serious change in my bank account. Your party is my office, so, sure, while I work a lot of fun places—bars, rock shows, birthday parties—I'm still there to work and I bring an appreciable skill set with me, one that's the result of thousands of hours of work, planning, travel, and professional investment. So as much as I love your applause (and I do), I also pay my rent the same way you do (hint: not in drinks). If I am going to pack approximately 30 pounds of equipment and costumes into a rolling suitcase and haul it up and down the subway stairs, sit patiently in basements and bathrooms until I'm called to entertain a crowd, then do up to a dozen sets a night of one of the world's rarest skills (it's estimated there are fewer than 300 other living sword swallowers on a planet of 7 billion), it's just not unreasonable that I go home with a little money. I love entertaining you, but I want to remind you that there are people who love accounting, and you wouldn't expect them to do your taxes for the thrill of it and some leftover cake. 

Presented by

Ilise S. Carter is a writer and sideshow performer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Penthouse, and Salon.

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