An Interview with the Lady Aye, the Dorothy Parker of Sword Swallowers
by Kirsten Schofield
I grew up as a very serious, adult-like child, but I have grown into a very childish adult. As a result, I am mildly obsessed with the circus. It’s my dream for my Google search results to autocomplete to “Kirsten Schofield Circus,” so I’ll always take on an assignment where I get to talk to professional mischief-makers.
A couple weeks ago, I was working on a story about “hot guys who are also clowns,” and I got deep into circus research. My friend pointed me in the direction of The Lady Aye, née Ilise S. Carter, a New York-based performer and one of the only female sword swallowers in the world. We took a few minutes to talk about the glass big top, American Horror Story, and performing for the “absurdly cute” Usher.
So before we get started, I wanted to tell you that prior to meeting all these people for my clown stories, I honestly thought that sword swallowing was some kind of visual trick, like so much magic is. It’s really cool to know there’s some kind of real magic in the world.
Nope. My line is always: “If you could fake this, Criss Angel would do it.”
How long have you been sword swallowing? How did you first get interested in that? Who were your teachers and what was the learning process like? I imagine you don’t, like, just grab a sword and do it.
About 7 years now. I became interested in sideshow when I was about 12, when I saw Penn & Teller Off Broadway. The people who answered my technical questions were C.M. Christ and Johnny Fox. Johnny Fox used to own the Freakatorium Museum here in NYC and he’s a great performer. C.M. Christ owns World of Wonders Sideshow and he’s partners with Ward Hall, King of the Sideshows. He’s been working since the 1950s or 60s.
For sideshow people, Ward Hall is living history. He carries it with him and he’s so generous about sharing it. He’s a national treasure. He’s in his eighties and still actively involved in running shows; he started performing with the sideshow at 14 or so. He’s a charmer. all you have to do is say hello and he’ll taaaaaaaalk. I spent five hours talking to him at a show. He’s a born showman. And I never answer questions about training, other than it’s brutal and dangerous. People think everything is advice and they can learn via YouTube or articles.
So what is a typical day like for you?
Pretty dull, really. I split my time now between freelance copywriting/journalism and performing, so my days are mostly sitting in my pajamas trying to sell articles or writing about sweaters.
As a freelancer, I, too, have a “sweaters” tab open in Google Drive. When you tell people you’re a pro sword swallower, what is their reaction?
Mostly, people are intrigued, but reactions have run the gamut from disgust to a little too familiar. I don’t always bring it up, just for ease of getting through a conversation. I love what I do, I’m proud of it, but explaining it takes time.
When I told someone I was interviewing you today, he said, “I bet men say the most disgusting things to her,” and I was like, “I hadn’t thought of that, but…probably.”
Honestly, women are worse.
Yeah, women feel entitled out of some odd sense of sisterhood. I think men are a little more cowed by me. Not that they don’t jump in too occasionally, but more often it’s women who make me feel ooky.
What’s your audience usually like for your sword swallowing gigs?
I’ve done kids’ parties, I do corporate speaking, I do fancy private events, tattoo conventions. I used to host burlesque shows a lot. Usually they’re great. My feeling is that if you left the house and paid money, you’re there to have fun and people want to be entertained, so they’re really open to the collective experience of a live show. Once in a while I get people who are too cool for school, but really rarely.
I saw on your CV that you once performed for Usher! I love Usher, so, WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH USHER?
He’s adorable! Like one of the most absurdly cute humans I have ever seen. His girlfriend hired me and a couple of other performers for his private birthday dinner. They were really fun and gracious. Honestly, walking in, I didn’t know any of his music. I just knew he was someone famous enough to have a signature scent. But he pulled a sword out of my throat and was really having a great time, so I loved it.
That’s amazing. I have this cute image of a very delighted Usher. So you mentioned that there are very few female sword swallowers on this planet. Why do you think that is?
A bunch of reasons. Partly, it’s a hang over from the old timers, who had a misconception about height and sword swallowing. The guy who trained me said I was too short. I’m 5’4″, so I’m average-ish! Partly, there are just very few to begin with because it’s dangerous and not an easy thing to train for. There may be more now, because sideshow is somewhat trendier, in a teensy way, than it’s ever been.
What do you think about this season of American Horror Story, the sideshow theme?
I LOVE IT! I mean, as someone who knows a good bit of the history, yeah, your head could explode from the inaccuracy, but as a sideshow super fan and someone with the aesthetic taste of John Waters, its amazing. Plus, Mat Fraser (Paul the Illustrated Seal), amazing talent, great guy, I want him to be a huge star.
Are you noticing an uptick in bookings, hits on site, etc? I’m sure you saw the thing where the clown group said American Horror Story is perpetuating clown fear. My mom was a clown, so I am pretty sympathetic in my feelings re: clowns, but understand I am in the minority.
One of my earliest memories is literally cowering from a clown and nothing has changed that, so clowns are on their own. But certainly, yes—there’s more interest in me as a writer and “expert.” I’m not sure about bookings yet, but I sure hope so!
What advice would you have for someone who wants to become a sword swallower?
That’s tough. I don’t want to say, “No, don’t do it,” because I’m not the gatekeeper. But I think people get in to it for all the wrong reasons. I think what I’d really, really, really like performers to consider is two factors: have a sense of yourself in history, and bring something new to the table. I studied history extensively before I even became a performer, so I have a huge respect for my heritage.
Also, I wanted to be the Dorothy Parker of sideshow ladies, because I just wasn’t seeing it. If you’re just rehashing other peoples’ work or trying for attention, why bother? Honestly, I always wanted to be glamorous— my BA is in American Film History— so I always dress for stage in cocktail dresses or what I consider to be “Hollywood.” I’m very influenced by screwball comedies of the ‘30s, so my stage persona is sort of modeled more on Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard than Jim Rose or P.T. Barnum. I wanted to see how “thinky” I could be in front of audiences, rather than how shocking. It’s not to say there aren’t a ton of super smart sideshow performers, there totally are, it’s just a different stage persona. Generally, it tends to follow the model of the old time-y, waxed, mustachioed spieler or the rock ‘n’ roll mad man. It’s not all Michel Foucault up in here, but it’s just my approach.
Next show: Discipline and Punish with The Lady Aye.
A History of Madness.
As a “thinkier” performer, who are your big influences?
I grew up in the 1980s and I was really attracted to things like Peewee Herman, RuPaul, Elvira, and John Waters, who were using American kitsch and pop culture. I grew up with them and they’re a huge influence. More recently, Alan Cumming. I just saw him in Cabaret and I went a little crazy wondering how a performer can be so dynamic. And Neil Patrick Harris: we share the same birthday to the day, and he loves variety performers, and I love him.
SET IT UP, HOLLYWOOD. I read your piece about becoming the Lady Aye, and I wondered how you came to call yourself the Lady Aye. How do you say it? Like, “the lady, ehhh” or “the lady, eh?” or “the lady, eyeeeeee”? I tried out a couple and couldn’t decide.
It used to be just my first initial, so it’s pronounced “eye.” It was a nickname for when I was really into rockabilly– everyone was Miss Amy or whatever. I didn’t want to be Miss Ilise, so I took it from a Barbara Stanwyck movie, The Lady Eve. My first act was called “The Pyrate Sisters,” so I made it the nautical version. I started it with AV Phibes, a former sideshow performer, who taught me pretty much everything I know, in terms of the sideshow basics. It was a good place to start because it forced me to really focus and learn and become disciplined.
Why did you choose this reinvention? Why did it stick?
I think a lot of it was because I kept postponing my life because I was afraid. I would put stuff off until I was more successful or thinner or “ready” in some nebulous way. There’s no such thing as a perfect time, there’s certainly no such thing if you’re shut down to it, so you might as well do it now.
A lot of what I’ve done with Lady Aye, even learning to swallow swords, was about wanting to not live in fear. I weighed my option and I wanted to be a sword swallower MORE than I wanted to live in fear of my bulimia. Once you walk through the fear you’re sure is going kill you and you just go on living, it’s a very powerful experience.
And now that experience is your life.
It’s part of it. Another thing you need to learn to balance out is being off stage. For example, I’ve seen in the burlesque world people —men especially —fall in love with their stage personas and just become unbearable people. It’s a huge rush to be this beloved, funny, in-control character on stage, and to have the temptation to stay in it off-stage, and chase the rush of performing all the damn time. My friends, most of whom knew me when I was just Ilise, are really grounding. Having a day job helped, because no one gives a rat’s ass that you’re the “Sweetheart of the Sideshow” when they want their copy decks.
I think that I was older when I started helped, too. For me it’s not even so much turning it off, but balancing it out. I will take every job under the sun and never sleep, because I’m from a long line of workaholics. I think my favorite performers to work with and be friends with are those who DON’T stay too long at the party. Personas are great on stage, but they’re really tiring to be all the time and they’re ARE so annoying just talk to. Part of that is growing pains—the first year or two, you have to be obsessed. After that, you just have to figure out how to live with yourself.
Once I saw an interviewer ask Lady Gaga if people call her Stefani and she was like, “only in court.” What do you call yourself in real life?
I treat it like drag. If I’m in the Lady Aye drag, literally or as a writer, I prefer the Lady Aye. To most friends, I’m Ilise or just I.
Since you have all these really interesting talents, I’m tempted to think you’re basically all-powerful. Are there any normalish things you’re bad at?
Au contraire, it’s the “normal” stuff I am bad at! I still get panic attacks when I get voicemails and it’s usually CVS telling me to pick up my meds.
Have you ever dated another sideshow performer?
There’s something normal I’m really bad at. I’m perpetually single, but I figure I’m just sort of a square peg. Also, the Lady Aye’s work is not really a place to meet men. No one wants to go home with the girl who puts nails up her nose.
See, I would think people would be super drawn to that!
Again, people are attracted to the character! Yeah, I don’t know if people assume I sleep on a bed of nails or what, but you’re sort of forced to explain that you’re pretty boring and normal. I mean, I think I’m interesting, but i’m not a lifestyler in terms of sideshow things. I don’t even have tattoos.
Alright, last question: What’s the best part of your job? What makes you pumped to put on your stage makeup and go out of the house and swallow some swords?
A lot of things, but at its heart becoming the Lady Aye was probably the smartest thing I ever did. It let me pick out the person I wanted to be and just put in on like strip lashes. Pretending to be a confident, powerful person onstage helped me be more of those things in real life.
Photo by Rose Callahan.
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