Why I Violate The Rule Of Not Saying I'm Attractive

Photographed by: Cait Oppermann
I’m a professional sword-swallower, fire eater, and escape artist, and I recently did something onstage that could be viewed as incredibly dangerous and subversive: I told an audience that I’m adorable.

Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like a big deal for someone who owns a bed of nails, but to me it’s actually the most frightening thing I do. I’m north of 40, more than a single-digit size, and not what you’d call a conventional beauty; unless I am behind the mic, in which case, I’m an unstoppable badass. Not because I actually feel that way about myself all day, every day. Because women — in ways subtle and overt — are taught to never verbalize that feeling.

To violate that tacit rule is to be vain, “asking for it,” or speaking without being spoken to. We may be told we are pretty or hot or beautiful, and therefore worthy by consensus, but we are trained to never announce it ourselves. Which is, in a word, bullshit. Onstage, as in life, Erin McKean’s maxim applies: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” In that arena, pretty is a powerful thing, especially if you’re swinging it around for yourself.
Photographed by: Cait Oppermann
I was not born a performer; I was not a theater nerd in high school. In fact, I spent most of my life with terrible stage fright. I started performing in my 30s, because after the trauma of being a World Trade Center survivor and a lifetime dabbler in eating disorders, I needed to find a new outlet for my aging punk-rock rage.

At the time, comedy held no appeal for me — it was run by and for men, and the few women who got onstage spent a lot of time apologizing for their perceived ugliness or awkwardness. I had had a lifetime of living that already; I didn’t need to do it for audiences. At the same time, the New York burlesque and variety scene was expanding, and that seemed like something entirely new. In those days, female performers were putting in a lot of good work subverting the expectations we were raised with by declaring, on stages large and small, that fat women could indeed be sexy, hot women could be smart, and everyone could be smart and sexy at the same time without apology. It seemed like a place I needed to be.

So when the opportunity came around to learn the basics of sideshow (e.g. walking on broken glass, lightbulb-eating, straitjacket escape) in a friend’s apartment, I jumped at it.
Photographed by: Cait Oppermann
In retrospect, acquiring the physical skills was the easy part. Getting up in front of audiences and demanding their love and attention was much, much harder. The lashes and costumes and heels helped: They allowed me to become what legendary New York performer World Famous Bob referred to as a “female female impersonator.” That is, we are biologically female performers putting on the trappings of that particular drag and playing the part of a sex symbol. In my mind, this is a better way of describing this state of being than “diva,” which I reject as a form of convenient misogyny, since it implies that women who declare their professional worth are silly and spoiled. This level of confidence is an act — one I learned over many ups and downs — that you could repeat and hone until you came to believe it yourself. Maybe not all the time, maybe not when I was dating or trying on bathing suits, but more so than ever.

Standing in the spotlight, making audiences laugh and gasp convinced me that I deserved to be seen. Moreover, that I deserved to be seen and judged on the rarity of what I do (for context, there are currently fewer than 350 or so living sword-swallowers on Earth) and the skill with which I do it. And mostly I get that, but not always. In New York, where I live, there are stages where I’ve shot national TV shows during the day that would not welcome me at night for fear that I would violate the aesthetic requirements of their bottle-service crowd. I am often reminded that I’m still a female working in showbiz, and there’s no perfectly happy ending here. Like Amy Schumer and Carrie Fisher and Adele and pretty much every female performer, people take my appearance into consideration when deciding whether audiences should even see me.

Standing in the spotlight, making audiences laugh and gasp convinced me that I deserved to be seen.

In the current burlesque scene, women around me whisper about and rail against the male producers, who’ve bragged about the fact that they won’t book women they “wouldn’t fuck.” Our collective response is a figurative “fuck you,” and we just keep going. It’s galling and infuriating, but it’s also the industry I knowingly signed on for, and I can only fight back by putting my star out for audiences who want to enjoy it and creating a space for other performers to do that, too. It keeps me up at night less than it used to, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it still crosses my mind that my calendar would be fuller if looked better in a bikini.

Photographed by: Cait Oppermann
I didn’t climb on to the stage that night — or any night, really — with the intention of overtly smashing the patriarchy. It was a throwaway thought; the opportunity presented itself, since the host was talking about the theme of “lady weirdos,” and there was something about that phrase that made it sound like a choice — like at some point, we had decided to be funny, rather than pretty.

And she wasn’t wrong; those are often the only two options we’re presented with as performers. But in the moment, it just seemed like a funny thing to say: “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m adorable.” And it landed. The audience laughed, which is really the point of what I do onstage. In this particular case, whether they were laughing with me or at me is out of my control, but the laugh itself made me feel like a siren.

At the end of that particular show, a lovely young woman came up and put her arms around me. “You’re so beautiful,” she said, and walked away without saying anything else. A New Age-y former therapist of mine used to explain to me that sometimes, we “hold energy” for other people — and while my spiked-leather soul rejects all things woo-woo, I can’t help but agree in this case.

The spotlight is a sacred and liminal space between our own extremes: hero and villain, male and female, shocking and sublime, ugly and beautiful. So I fill that space with the energy I’ve always needed, and I hope that the universe sends a message back in the form of audiences who hear me. I am, after all, the flame-proof, pain-proof Lady Aye, sweetheart of the sideshow, and I’m adorable.

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