My Life as a Sword Swallower

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

Private events are the mainstay of my sideshow income. They're also my biggest leap of faith in terms of my own safety. I generally believe in the goodness of people, but I'm also a born New Yorker and a woman alone (albeit one with weaponry in her bag), so I walk in to every situation with one eye open. I never know what I'll find behind any given door. In the past it's been everything from fancy sweet sixteens, to one of world's biggest R&B stars, to some rather unusual Christmas parties.  Only very occasionally do I genuinely fear for myself, and when I do, it's generally the result of guests who have had too much to drink and consider the bodies of performers to be public property. This is a sadly common complaint among female artists of all kinds, who are expected to ward off wandering hands and inappropriate remarks with professional patience and polite deference.

Last Halloween, for example, I was grabbed by a man who (without a word) turned me around to face his friends and placed his head in my cleavage. Humiliated, angry, and exhausted, I simply freed myself with a polite, but firm, extended arm and left the room. My shift was officially, mercifully over. It was time for me to pack all of my equipment back into its rolling suitcase and head home and wash off my makeup and pay the electric bill, like the rest of the working world.  I've experienced such assaults so often in the last nine years (and it should be noted, it's not at all an exclusively male phenomena, women also feel somehow free to grope in the context fun and cocktails) that I seldom say anything about it to a host, instead choosing just to steel myself against it, adjust my demeanor, and roll with it as part of my job. Such inappropriate touches are all the more frightening when I have a genuine, 19” solid stainless-steel sword down my throat and any unexpected jostling or touching could result in internal hemorrhaging

These incidents are blessedly few and far between and my performance skills have taken the glamorous Lady Aye to places where mild-mannered copywriter, Ilise S. Carter may never have gone, whether it's on primetime TV or on stages across the U.S.—and I am truly grateful. It's also why I've returned to working in the corporate world. As a founding member of Alternative Speakers' Bureau, a business that provides leadership education and personal development through the arts, I combine my experience as an executive and a sideshow attraction and bring the results in to board rooms and conferences. This seemingly odd pairing of skills and storytelling allows me to share (in a strangely relatable way) the joy in my work that I get when I tilt my head back and feel the cold steel slide through me. One of my favorite moments is when I actually swallow my sword, fold in half and take a bow, so I can see the look of amazement in the audience—praise I have seldom felt in all my years in a cubicle as a copywriter and editor. 

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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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