Sideshow Seduction: The Rumpus Interview with Heather Holliday

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Heather Holliday was the youngest sword swallower in the world when she first began performing at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore. Before her act, where she ingests two feet of steel with the grace of a ballerina, the host introduces her as “vile and disgusting, yet sweeter than your grandma’s pecan pie.”

I met Heather at the Coney Island Freak Bar in between sets to try the beer that’s named after her and talk swords, sexual innuendos, boys, and books.

The Rumpus: Your bio on the Coney Island website says that were raised Mormon in Utah. Is that true, or part of your sideshow persona?

Heather Holliday: Half true. I was raised Mormon, but in Midtown Manhattan. My family is pretty free spirited, but for the sideshow, I’m the “good girl gone wrong.”  I wasn’t struck by lightening either. For the electric chair act, I do get jolted with electricity. It’s all real, except for the backstory.

Rumpus: How did you discover that sideshow performing is what you wanted to do?

Holliday: You see a lot when you grow up here. In New York, you’re not sheltered. I was at CBGB’s when I saw my first sideshow. I had gone to see a band and The Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow was the opening act, with Insectavora, who I now work with here [at Coney Island]. I was mesmerized. Then, I went to City as High School, where you get credit for internships, which helped me discover what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to work with kids, so I interned at a daycare center, and quickly realized that I didn’t. Then, I went out of my way to get an internship here. I had been going to the freak show for years.

Rumpus: What did you do as an intern?

Holliday: I was on stage. When I showed up, there was a cast shortage and they needed a skin. A skin, quote unquote, is a girl who is pretty but doesn’t have a specific skill, sort of like a musician’s assistant or the Vanna White of the sideshow world. You need to have a skin; It’s part of the balance, especially in a show with a lot of older men. I’m happy to say we have a very attractive cast now, but back when I interned, we needed a skin, so that’s how I got my foot in the door. Then I learned everything here and there from being around everybody.

Rumpus: Did you go to the Coney Island Sideshow School?

Holliday: Well, I did, but I already worked here.  When I was officially hired, I still hadn’t mastered any skills, so I love to say that I was hired solely on my looks. But that aside, performing is the only job I’ve ever had. If I ever decided to get real job out there, I’d have to put on my resume “I dress up and breathe fire” and all this other crazy stuff.

Rumpus: You could put “youngest sword swallower in the world” on your resume. That has to be applicable to something. Are you still the youngest sword swallower?

Holliday: Not anymore. I was when I started. I like to think that I inspired the girls that came after me. Before I was doing it, there were a few females but they were older, and they didn’t do the whole glam route. That has caught on more recently and I’d like to think I had hand in it. People say it’s true. I don’t know these performers personally, but it’s a small community, so even if we’ve never met, we at least l know about the other sideshow acts.

Rumpus: So you basically developed your own act?

Holliday: You have to. A lot of performers, depending on what kind of act they do, will start ripping off an older performer who is not working any more and call it research, but I don’t like to use other people’s jokes.  There are many sword swallowers that use all of the technical terminology, like, “This sword is going down my throat, down my esophagus, narrowly missing my heart, into my stomach, etc.” Personally, when I go on stage dressed the way I do, I know that most people don’t want to hear me talking. They just want to see me do it. I play up the cute. For me, it’s not ever like “This is really scary, so fear me,” it’s like, “How cute can I make this look?” I mean, everyone has their own angle.

Rumpus: But it is dangerous

Holliday: Oh, absolutely. A lot of people think my act is fake because of how easy I make it look. I do this so many times a day that it is easier for me than for someone who does it once a week.

Rumpus: Have you ever been seriously injured?

Heather Holliday: No, not yet. [Knocks on bar.] If you’re not cautious, accidents can happen. It’s not like I’m just swallowing swords; there’s a routine that I’m used to practicing over and over again.

Rumpus: When did the thought occur to you to begin practicing swallowing swords?

Holliday: When I first started practicing, I was seventeen. I had just seen the shows and thought, “I wonder if I could do this.” It was silly at first. I didn’t tell my parents. I mean, now it’s been my career for six years and everyone knows, but in the beginning I didn’t want to say, “I’m shoving things down my throat because I want to be a sword swallower.” You can’t expect anyone to take you seriously when you’re a dumb kid.

I was never one of those people that had ridiculous daydreams. I never dreamed of finding a suitcase with millions of dollars in it, or anything like that. I like to set goals within reach, and then when I accomplish something, I actually feel accomplished. I knew that I was going to join the sideshow. I just knew. When I got the job I was thrilled, but it wasn’t something I didn’t expect. My boyfriend says that I got lucky and it doesn’t work that way for everyone. He says the world bows to me because I’m a pretty girl, but it’s not like I showed up here and said “Give me a job; I don’t do anything.” I said, “I’m learning.” I knew what I wanted to do.

Rumpus: How does one learn to swallow swords?

Holliday: Learning is all practice. I had to practice several times a day, but you’d never know by watching me now that I used to be dry heaving and all bloodshot and gagging myself over and over again.

Your body adapts to everything. For example, our sideshow host, Donny Vomit, isn’t here today, so I’m doing whip cracking. I learned how to whip crack at the same time as Donny, but he is much better than me because he does it in the show every day. But this summer, we are dividing into two separate casts at Coney, and Donny and I have our own show. We’re going to alternate, so that when he’s doing fire, I will do whips. That way, we will both get good at it. It looks effortless, like a snap of the wrist, but it makes a huge difference to re-angle it. It’s all muscle memory.

Rumpus: Were there any influences outside of the sideshow world that impacted the development of your “glam sword swallower” persona?

Holliday: My style as a performer has been greatly influenced by burlesque. The seamed thigh-high nylons, the eyelashes, the red glitter lips, the long red nails: all burlesque staples. When I joined The Coney Island Sideshow at 18, I was still a dirty punk rocker who didn’t shave or know a thing about putting on makeup. But I was also growing up. In 2007, I met Go Go Amy, an international burlesque and pin up sensation, when I did a show with the Brothers Grim Sideshow in Florida for a month. She taught me how to put rollers in my hair.  She also brought me to the nail salon after I broke a nail on stage and taught me the wonders of acrylics. She was the big sister I never had, and I adored her.

Rumpus: Tell me about your recent tour with Go Go Amy and The Pretty Things Peepshow. How did you get involved with that?

Holliday: Amy and I performed “family friendly” burlesque at the fair [with Brothers Grim] for two Octobers in a row. Then, I met her again in Sweden at a music festival where we were both performing. She told me she wanted to put together a burlesque variety show called The Pretty Things Peepshow. She had a girl in mind from Vancouver named Bettina May and got her a visa to come to America for burlesque, and wanted me to be the sideshow act. I had never met Bettina until right before we left for our first tour, at the start of 2009. The tour went well, and I came back home for the Coney Island season.  I knew the only way I could have made it better was if Donny Vomit came with us. I wanted him to meet the girls and show them how awesome he was, which was tough in the beginning because he was so shy in front of the red headed beauties. Anyway, long story short, our 2010 tour was amazing thanks to Donny. And me, of course. The Pretty Things helped form me into a lady.

Rumpus: How long were you on tour?

Holliday: I tour for half of the year. It keeps things from getting boring. I work six months here at Coney Island, and then the sideshow closes for the winter and I get to go to sunny places. I got back here on Easter. The Pretty Things tour year round with a rotating door of cast members, so they just dropped off me and Donny and kept going. It was a really fun show. There was only one show a day, not fifty, like there is here.

Rumpus: I would think you need gallons of coffee to keep going.

Holliday: Are you kidding? I had one and a half cappuccinos this morning. My boyfriend is a bartender and he comes home really late, but I still make him wake up earlier than me to make me coffee before I go to work. He got me a cappuccino maker for Christmas but I don’t know how to work it, and I refuse to learn cause that way he’ll have to keep doing it.

So, yeah, I drink a lot of caffeine. I also hold off my main meal until after five p.m., because once I feel full, I start to feel sluggish. That’s when I have to loosen my corset and it’s harder to stay peppy.

Rumpus: You were recently on an episode of Miami Ink. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind your tattoos?

Holliday: I have several tattoos based on books by Louis Sachar, the author of the Wayside School children’s series. He has been my hero since I was nine years old.  I met him at a book signing four years ago and showed him my first Louis Sachar tattoo, a potato on my ankle, from Wayside School is Falling Down. I was the oldest person at the reading. Then I totally called him up and told him to watch the Miami Ink episode where I got my Johnny’s in the Basement tattoo, and he told me I was too pretty to get so many tattoos. Since then, I’ve gotten another Sachar tattoo on my wrist from There’s a Boy in the Girls Bathroom, one of his best books. I’m a dork, and I’m still completely into the books I read in 4th grade.

Rumpus: What are some of your other favorite books?

Holliday: Mostly, for the past however many years, I read comic books. Anything silly and raunchy by Johnny Ryan, old Marvel stuff like Uncanny X-Men, historical Jason Lutes stuff — too many to list. It also surprises people that I frequent the Sci-fi/fantasy aisle of the bookstore.  It started when I got into a fight with my ex- boyfriend and I stole the fantasy novel he was reading to get him mad. It was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.  I couldn’t believe how good it was, or how much I loved reading that junk. So then I read the whole trilogy, and more.

Rumpus: Through some extensive Twitter stalking, I’ve come upon the knowledge that you obsessively eat ice…?

Holliday: I’ve been eating ice for 12 years now. Obsessive compulsively. I read that it was called Pagophagia, and that it was due to a lack of iron. I told my doctor and she ran some tests. She said I was “heavily anemic” and gave me a prescription.  I took it, and sure enough, I didn’t crave ice anymore.  I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d put a cube in my mouth, and it would just sit there. I started freaking out – why didn’t I like this thing I once loved?  So I stopped taking the medication. I got back on my ice habit, and I never looked back. I’m happier this way.

Rumpus: I also read online that you have a pen pal in prison. I need to hear more about this.

Holliday: Once upon a time, I had a crush on a thug boy in Coney Island with gold teeth. A year later he stabbed someone and went to the slammer for one and a half years.  So I thought it’d be fun to send him real cliché perfume soaked letters. Instead of sending photos, I’d draw racy pictures of myself, and then censor parts. I’d draw a banner in front of my boobs, or whatever. It was silly; I was 20 then. He’s out of jail, of course, and he still lives in Coney. He comes by the show every now and again to say hi.

Rumpus: I once went to the sideshow with a guy I was seeing, and we were the only people in the audience at the start of the show. When you came on stage, it was an interesting moment. We were both pretty turned on by your act. You seem conscious of that, of the inherent innuendo when you’re swallowing swords; cognizant of people’s reactions. How much does that affect your performance?

Holliday: I do notice people’s reactions. A lot of girls will come up to me after a show and say “How do you do that?” and I’m like, “I know what you’re interested in. This is not blowjob 101.” That’s what’s on everyone’s mind, but that’s not what I was thinking when I took up learning and practicing.

A couple can make or break the show for me. Half the time, when a couple comes in here, they want to see some weird shit. They’re like “this is going to be a hoot.” They aren’t expecting a pretty girl, or anything they perceive as a threat. Then the girlfriend ends up saying “you better not like that” and the guy is not going to clap or act enthusiastic, because otherwise he’ll hear it later.  I once had a girl cover her boyfriend’s eyes. But I love when couples are clapping together. It’s usually the younger girls that are like “I could do that. Probably. If I tried.” Older women tend to be more mature about it. So how was it for you?

Rumpus: Oh, it was totally a bonding experience. We were holding hands in the theater. I wonder though, if the innuendo affects your dating life. How did you meet your boyfriend?

Holliday: The sword swallowing innuendo hasn’t really affected my dating life, since I’d never date anyone that would come up after a show and feed me one of those overused “What else can you swallow?” lines. I was never interested in dating a fan, or anyone I met after a show. But when you perform as much as I do, you don’t go out as much, so after a while, the only guys you ever meet are the ones that come to your shows.

My boyfriend is one of those guys. I’d see him at my shows, only he didn’t come up to me and try to say something witty about sword swallowing. In fact, he didn’t come up to me at all! I thought, “Who is this gorgeous boy, and why won’t he talk to me?”  So it was I that pursued him.  I found out what bar he worked at, and went in. Even though we had never spoken a word to each other before, we talked like we knew one another. Because we kind of did.

This guy is great. He comes to my shows, and he knows what men are thinking, but he doesn’t get weird and overprotective like other boyfriends did in the past.  It is important for me to date a boy that is confident, and doesn’t get insecure when fans get close to take photos with me in my little costumes.  My boyfriend knows it is work and half the time dudes are congratulating him, slapping him on the back and saying, “You are a lucky man!”

The worst thing in a relationship can be insecurity. I see it when couples come to my show, in how they react to my performance. It’s horrible for me to watch that sort of tension while on stage.  Confident couples have a great time going out to see a burlesque show together, where girls are taking their clothes off to get a rise from the crowd. Those couples cheer me on as the swords I swallow get bigger. I’m just an entertainer. I’m not there to threaten anybody. All I want is to go out on stage and make people happy.


Hannah Miet used to work as a hostess at swinger parties, helping couples find each other. Now she works as a librarian at her grad school. She writes here: http://www.hannahmiet.com. More from this author →