Adam Pearson: Freak Show
I’ll definitely be watching this tonight at 9pm on BBC Three:
TV presenter and actor Adam Pearson has starred in a film alongside Scarlett Johansson and presented programmes, but how did he feel when he was asked to join a freak show?
Last year I received the weirdest job offer of my life. A famous American freak show got in touch to say they would love to work with me. Slightly taken aback I replied that while I was flattered, I had no skills that would in any way benefit the show – a statement that my family can quickly verify.
The only reason I had received the offer was because of how I look. I have neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition which means that non-cancerous tumours grow along my nerve endings. While these can grow anywhere, they have grown mainly on my face, causing severe disfigurement.
But months later while out for a drink with work colleagues I was asked whether or not I would do it. “It depends how much they paid me,” I replied. The idea for my next documentary was born.
The mere notion of freak shows made me feel very uncomfortable, my only knowledge of them stems back to the old Victorian days of exploitation, men and women with various deformities and genetic anomalies being paraded around for the masses to jeer at.
Elephant Man – the name given to Joseph Merrick – was the moniker that haunted my childhood. It was a name that was continuously hurled at me in the school playground and as a result I have always avoided watching the David Lynch film of the same name and wouldn’t even talk about Mr Merrick. It is safe to say our relationship was dysfunctional.
But I was about to go on a journey to America to meet some modern day “freaks” and if this journey was going to hold any merit or meaning I needed to face my fears, I needed to meet the Elephant Man.
I went to the Royal London Hospital and joined the exclusive list of people who have seen Joseph Merrick’s skeleton close up. The feeling of meeting a man who predates your existence by 150 years, but who you have avoided for so long is bizarrely therapeutic. Later, that same evening, I went home and finally sat down, took a deep breath, and watched The Elephant Man on DVD. To my great surprise I found myself utterly enthralled by the story.
A few days later I boarded a plane set for Michigan, on my way to meet a lady called Bethany who was about to travel to Texas to make her freak show debut with the 999 Eyes Freakshow. Bethany has ectrodactyly, more commonly known as Lobster Claw Syndrome, and had her leg amputated at the age of three. I had dinner with her and her family and discussed her motivations for joining. She described 999 Eyes as a “freaky family”, a place where the unique are celebrated. While her family shared the same concerns that I had – that she might be being exploited – they were none the less supportive.
I travelled with Bethany to meet the rest of the 999 Eyes Freakshow. The most bizarre thing by far about meeting them was that a lot of people assumed I already worked there.
As soon as she saw me, Samantha X – owner and operator – ran straight up and hugged me, introducing me to the rest of the performers. I spoke to Black Scorpion – who also has Ectrodactyly – a man who is very much the heart and soul of the 999 Eyes. He described how performing in freak shows had changed his life. Growing up, he felt like an outsider who didn’t have a voice but the freak show gave him both a place to belong and a voice to tell his story.
As I left Texas I felt slightly more at ease about the idea, but I still had my doubts.
Having dipped my toe into the world of freak shows it was time to go big – so I travelled to Las Vegas on Halloween. I hate Halloween. It’s the one night of the year I can guarantee people are going to talk crap to me.
I met Jake, a little person who is a freak show performer and who also runs a wrestling company called Midgets Unleashed. I asked him if I would fit in in Vegas. He instantly replied that I could make a lot of money, just by having my picture taken. So that night I put his theory to the test. As things turned out I was a complete and utter rock star. In little under half an hour I had my photo taken at least 20 times and made $18 (£12) in tips. I was beginning to think maybe there is a career in this for me.
I flew to Mexico City to meet Jesus “Chuy” Aceves who’s known on stage as Wolf Boy. Chuy has a rare genetic condition called hypertrichosis, causing thick hair to grow on his face. Of the 80 known cases in the world he and his family account for 30 of them. His experience of freak shows is much darker than Black Scorpion’s. He joined the circus as a teenager and was badly mistreated, to the point where despite being a headline act all over the world, he has turned his back on freak shows for a quiet life with his family and now works on a rubbish tip.
Throughout my journey I had begun to wonder: Is reality TV the new face of freak shows? Back in America, in Maryland, I met the Hamills, a family of five little people who star in their own TLC series Our Little Family. I met them at their family home and after an exhausting time spent playing with their son Jack and twins Cece and Cate, I sat down with Dan and Michelle, who have a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia. Their motivations for doing the programmes are to raise awareness of their condition, something that I totally identify with. “We try and be entertaining,” Dan told me.
They also get the same kind of mistreatment I get in the UK – people staring and taking photos. When people call them “midgets” it strikes a particularly sour note with Michelle. “It’s a derogatory term for little people,” she says. I left Maryland in two minds, having come to America to learn about freak shows could it, in fact, be possible that I’ve actually been performing in them all along?
There comes a point when you’ve done your research and you need to make a decision. I touched down in New York City to meet Mat Fraser. Of all the “freak” performers on the planet he is one who has made it big. He shot to fame when he landed a role in American Horror Story series four and also is renowned for his risque stage shows.
“You need to come to terms with your face,” he told me outside a New York bar. “As far as freak shows go you are the modern day Elephant Man.” He also told me that if I got on stage it was highly likely I’d get sex. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and after coming all this way and meeting the performers it was time to act.
I returned to London to either break out the freak closet and take to the stage or remain in the shadow of The Elephant Man. After much contemplation I came to the conclusion that to go all that way, meet all those people and do absolutely nothing in response was to have been a waste of time. I was hitting the stage.
I developed a script that told the real story of The Elephant Man but also told the story of my journey into the world of freak shows. So on a November evening I took to the stage at the Vauxhall Theatre Tavern in front of a room full of strangers and made my official freak show debut. I was really pleased with the performance and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Regrettably, Mat’s promise of sex didn’t quite work out for me.
Will I be selling everything I own, jacking in my TV career and running off to join the circus? Probably not. But I am no longer living in the shadow of the Elephant Man and if the gentleman that asked me to join the freak show is reading this, please call me – let’s do business.
Adam Pearson: Freak Show is on 19 January at 21:00 on BBC Three.