Last year, the classically inspired circus sideshow known as the Venice Beach Freakshow made the leap into reality TV. As reality shows are, essentially, modern-day freak shows, AMC's Freakshow is a concept squared. But unlike the surgically enhanced Real Housewives, say, or the insane pageant moms of Toddlers & Tiaras, the cast members of this unscripted series have made their peace with the term "freak."
The performer known as Morgue, for one, is used to those sorts of insults. Morgue is a "shock artist": His act involves stunts such as drilling himself in the face with power tools.
Clad in head-to-toe black, Morgue, who declines to share his age, has luminous pale skin and long, white-blond hair. Nobody pays him much attention here on the Venice boardwalk, where the atmosphere is right out of a carnival.
Morgue, who grew up in Montana, says people there would drive by and yell out, "Freak! Vampire!" Raised in a conservative Christian household, he says, "I felt like I was broken or defective, because everyone else was doing this thing, but I had no interest in it whatsoever."
These days, he takes it as a compliment when anyone is jostled by his existence. Being a freak is something to be proud of.
He's a philosophical sort, and what shocks people is sometimes shocking. Often, it's the little things that freak people out. "For example, I do a thing where I hammer a nail into my face?" he says. The audience all but yawns. "Then I pull it out and lick it. And that shocks them. They'll gag and scream." He shakes his head. "It's like, are you serious? Really? That? It's very confusing to me as to why that is."
At a time when political correctness and diversity training are the name of the game, a classic freak show can seem like an anachronism. Or, at the very least, redundant. The Internet, after all, is basically one big freak show.
But Todd Ray, the founder and driving force of the Venice Beach Freakshow, rejects the idea that there is nothing left in the world to marvel or wonder at. "Listen, you Googlemaniacs," he says to kids, "I Google all day long, too. But there's things inside here that you can't Google. There's things inside here that you'll talk about until the day you die. So if you've got $5, you can get a gallon of gas. Or you can come in and get yourself a memory of a lifetime."
Ray is sitting inside the theater, a rented unit in a large commercial building, right at the heart of the boardwalk's insanity. It's not much bigger than the souvenir shops that line Ocean Front Walk, but it's still sizable enough to fit a couple of small stages, a bunch of odd animals and vintage sideshow ephemera. It's dark and moody, like a carnival at night, with velvet curtains and curious stuff in every corner — two-headed mice in jars of formaldehyde, taxidermy, voodoo dolls, skulls and skeletons, antique circus paintings.
It was Ray who recruited Morgue to the show. The Montana native had been working as a street performer on the Venice boardwalk. He'd started to learn sword swallowing because his other acts were scaring people away, "which is good," he notes, "but not good if you're trying to make money." Sword swallowing seemed "more traditional, more family-friendly."
Ray was instantly intrigued. "When I heard he was swallowing swords, I thought, 'This guy, he keeps taking it next level,'?" he says. "I told him, 'You gotta come in. This is where you belong.'?"
Ray turns to Gabriel Pimentel, who is America's shortest male. Pimentel was riding his bike around Venice when Ray's daughter spotted him. Now he's a freak show star — and a star of Freakshow, too.
"When you meet Gabriel," Ray says, "he's 2½ feet tall. You'd never imagine someone this little could be so big."
Pimentel is fully independent. He drives. He acts. He has a young son. But growing up in "rough" Pacoima, little kids tried to bully him.
Pimentel, however, had tall friends who'd take care of him. "They were my bodyguards," he says with a grin.
Wee Matt McCarthy takes an alternate approach. Ray brought in the 4-foot-2-inch McCarthy to be the freak show's "hype man," whose job is to warm up the audience. He also brought in McCarthy's wife, Ali. The two are billed as "the littlest married couple." By McCarthy's own account, he "was always a crazy, wild, tough little dude."
Occasionally someone harasses him, but, like Morgue, McCarthy refuses to let it bother him. Where Morgue takes the high ground, McCarthy takes the low: "I say, 'Say it to my face!' Then, bam! Punch them in the balls. What's up! You just got nailed by a little dude. Dwarf power, mother f-er."
He was, unsurprisingly, popular in junior high school.
Pretty and demure Sunshine English, the show's fire eater, grew up in the sideshow community. For her, "freak" is a way of life. The term does not offend her in the slightest.
"We have a freak philosophy," Ray says. To his cast of performers, "freak" has come to mean something unique, out of the ordinary. "We don't want to be the next Real Housewives of New Jersey, or whatever," he continues. "We don't want to be anybody but ourselves. For us, 'normal' is the bad word. It puts people in a box. It causes people to struggle with their identity. Because none of us are the same."
He points to Wee Matt. "This guy, he's a party animal." McCarthy growls.
"Sunshine, she's such a beautiful young woman," Ray adds. "But you see her eating flaming torches the way you'd eat an ice cream cone. Or sitting on an electric chair taking 100,000 volts of electricity through her body, to the point where she lights up light bulbs with her fingertips."
He waves his arm at Morgue, who likes to swallow a metal billiard ball, then follow it with a sword, then upchuck the ball again. "I mean, every time he does it, I feel like he's an alien," Ray says; Morgue smirks.
Some people feel sorry for the freaks and the various two-headed animals, of which Ray has one of the largest living collections in the world. His wife, Danielle, thanks these empathetic sorts for their compassion but urges them to save their pity. Look at it from the two-headed turtle's perspective: It just ate, is basking in the afternoon sun enjoying its existence.
"You're thinking, 'Poor thing, he's got two heads,'?" she says, "But he's probably looking at you thinking, 'Aww, I feel so bad for her. She's only got one head.'?"
The Venice Beach Freakshow was here for five years before AMC picked it up as a series. And it will, Ray expects, be here long after the show is concluded. (Now in its second season, the show has drawn respectable ratings for cable — not as high as Discovery's Auction Kings but higher than AMC's Immortalized, which focuses on the world of competitive taxidermy.)
Before the Freakshow, Todd Ray worked in a different sort of bizarre reality — the music business. For 25 years he produced artists such as Carlos Santana, The Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. He won some Grammys. He made a lot of money. He "got to the point where everybody wants to get" and was offered a long-term, multimillion-dollar, artist-development contract with Warner Bros. "They were trying to get me to shape artists the way they wanted them to be," he says. "I'd come home frustrated by all the corporate crap."
At the time, he and Danielle were living in a big house in Malibu on the beach. One day, looking around the house with his strange stuff everywhere, he remembered Otis Jordan, the Human Cigarette Factory.
Ray had been 12, a budding magician, when he met Jordan at a fair in North Carolina. Jordan was born ossified, with tiny limbs curled up into his torso. "He couldn't use his body," Ray recalls. "Just his chest, chin, shoulders."
The handlers lifted him from his wheelchair and set him onstage. Beside him, they set a tin of tobacco, a sheaf of rolling papers and a box of matches.
Gingerly, painstakingly, Jordan flicked up a paper with his tongue, poured a perfect line of tobacco with his shoulders, rolled a cigarette inside his mouth, nudged open the box of matches, lit the cigarette and took two puffs.
"That was his act!" Ray says.
Ray went up to Jordan afterward to express his admiration. "I have hands, and I couldn't do that," Ray said to him.
"Son," Jordan replied, "if I can do what you just saw me do in my condition, a young man like you can do anything you ever dream of."
Years later, remembering Jordan's words, Ray told Danielle he wasn't signing the contract.
Danielle, unsurprisingly, had her own rush of memories — of her poor grandparents coming over from Italy to pursue the American dream; of her children, who had yet to attend college; of the dumpster diving she and Ray used to do while living in a shack down South; of having nothing for so many years. "What are we gonna do?"
"We're gonna do a freak show," Ray said.
"What are you fucking talking about?" Danielle said.
They laugh about it now. "Doing the freak show has been the best thing," Danielle says. "I feel so full inside."
She looks at her husband, the king of freaks, amidst his retinue. This life is their passion. Once, she says, Ray gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a two-headed bearded dragon lizard and brought it back from the dead. Not long ago, he bought a six-legged cow. And at home, at this very moment, in their bathroom, sits an eight-tailed iguana. Sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense.
While some people are born different, others become so by choice. Ray embraces them both just the same. He's had a giant on the show, and a guy with super-stretchy skin who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. There's Jessa the Bearded Lady and Larry, the hairy-faced Wolf Boy. Recently, he brought in the Vampire Lady from Mexico. "She was a lawyer and mother who was in an abusive relationship. She had a vision of transforming herself. She began to tattoo herself, got implants, got horns, piercings, sharpened her teeth, and she became the Vampire Lady," he says. "She's incredible."
While it has plenty of admirers, the Freakshow is not always an easy sell. Not long ago, Ray had the idea to replicate an old sideshow photo he'd seen of two paraplegics riding a tandem bike. The guy steering in front had no legs. The guy pedaling in back had no arms. By chance, Ray happened to have two friends who fit the bill: one without legs, and another without arms. He flew them out to L.A. and they rode a tandem bike.
Shortly before the episode aired, a group of parents of children born without limbs got wind of the stunt and complained. "This show is going to make it OK for kids to call my kid a freak," they said.
"But when the show came out, those parents flip-flopped," Ray recalls. "It was like, wow, for the first time my kid felt excited to have no limbs. Saw the two guys with no limbs and the people cheering for them. They were the stars."
"Or remember the mom with the daughter with no toes?" Danielle adds.
The mom took Ray aside one day after a show. Her daughter, who'd been born with twisted, shrunken toes, always hid her feet. After watching the Freakshow, the mom confessed — tearing up — that her daughter went to hang out by the pool. "She was wiggling her toes," Ray concludes.
Being a freak is something to be proud of. Being normal? That's the thing to avoid.
A few months ago, the freaks even staged a sweetly hokey funeral for normal, with a casket that Morgue and others carried like pallbearers. Hundreds of people watched as they chanted, "Say no to normal!"
"It was sick," Wee Matt recalls. "Yeah. Arrr. Uh-huh."
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