The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow's ringleader talks about women sumo wrestlers, Mr. Lifto, and why no one drinks stomach contents anymore.
The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow has toured with Lollapalooza and Nine Inch Nails, drawing headlines with odd performers ranging from The Enigma (the tattoo-puzzle guy) to Mr. Lifto (the guy who lifts weights with a chain attached to a hole in his penis). Rose's show has continued to receive national attention in the past few years–Rose and The Enigma appeared on an episode of The X-Files, and there was a Rose-esque freak show on The Simpsons—but the group is still touring the world, with more bizarre acts on its roster than ever before. Prior to a big appearance in Denver, Rose spoke to The Onion about his featured attractions, his TV and movie appearances, and the legal limits that hinder his performance.
The Onion: What do you have planned for your current tour?
Jim Rose: [Pauses dramatically.] I've got one young lady whose measurements are 36-24-36—and that's just one leg. You'll feel the earth shake when over 800 pounds of female flesh collide. We've got women Sumo wrestling. In Denver, we've got Judy "The Bull Moose" Jenkins going up against Katie "The Pile Driver" Wilson. We're also looking for full-figured ladies to challenge our world champions. I pay them by the pound. Their diet is pretty impressive, with lots and lots of hamburgers and rice. Mmmm. I've also got a young lady called BeBe The Circus Queen, who blows fire from her vagina.
O: Now, how does that work exactly?
JR: [Loudly] Fire in the hole! C'mon down and see it. We've also got Mexican transvestite wrestling.
O: With the face masks?
JR: Yeah, they're from Mexico City. In Denver, we'll have Billy Martinez, the Barrio Bottom, going up against probably the sexiest man alive, Tickles Valdez. They're former fag-team partners. They hate each other with a pansy passion. The bras are gonna fly when these two mix it up. You know they wear dildos, right?
O: You mean strap-ons?
JR: Yeah. And the rules of the contest are simple: The first sissy who can force the dildo into the other one's mouth for a one-two-three count wins. Slapping is allowed, but fisting, kicking and biting are illegal. No holes barred! Billy Martinez is probably the favorite, because he/she studied Filipino slap-fighting. Tickles Valdez, on the other hand, can take a good bitch-slap, and is known for breaking the rules. There will be no chickens at this cock-fight, all the action takes place below the belt, and it's a fudge-packin' grudge match, because Tickles stole Billy's lover. They've got a bone to pick, and we're gonna settle it right there in Denver.
O: What else? Are Enigma and Mr. Lifto still with the circus?
JR: Oh, yeah. Mr. Lifto's actually changed his act now. He's lifting a 17-pound car battery—while receiving an electrical shock—with his tongue. He also does the concrete block with the nipples and the irons with the ears, and he lifts 'em all at the same time, all three. Of course, he still does his famous, ah, lift, with the part of him that's most a mister.
O: That thing must be getting pretty stretched-out by now.
JR: Oh, yeah. That thing has gotten huge! It's got an elbow! It gets its own lunch money! He's looking for a significant other who can house, um, his manhood. He may have to go to a Realtor.
O: Okay, who else?
JR: We've got the Armenian Rubber Man.
O: He's the guy who steps through the head of a tennis racket?
JR: Yeah, he can do that, but he can also flip his legs up over his head and play the guitar. People can hang off his arms. I mean, this year, basically, it's like biblical times: Miracles are happening everywhere. You'll need a swivel on your neck. A lot of the older stuff is happening all around you, but the main part of the show is the women Sumo wrestlers, the vagina fire, and the Mexican transvestite wrestling. [Brightens.] Oh, you know what else Enigma's doing? Which is brand fuckin' new and just incredibly awesome; it'll bring the house down. He takes a light bulb, an electric light bulb attached to a cord, and threads it through his nose—it's a smaller-size light bulb—and then coughs it into his mouth and sticks a crystal ball in his mouth. Then we turn the house lights out. He becomes a cyborg spotlight. He illuminates the entire audience. It's awesome!
O: Is it better going out with just the circus instead of opening for a band and not being the center of attention?
JR: Well, I had some of the most fun I've ever had touring with Trent [Reznor, Nine Inch Nails]. We've been good friends for a long time. But I've got more freedom and time when we headline.
O: What else is going on—another book? A movie?
JR: Well, my book Freak Like Me was sold as a movie. They've got the script now, and they're going to start trying to cast it. That oughta be an interesting project. But I'm not going to act in it. There's also a documentary being done on us. Both of them will go to theaters. And, you know, The Simpsons did an episode where Homer ran away, joined the circus, and became a human cannonball. [He was actually shot in the stomach with cannonballs. —ed.] Oh, by the way, BeBe The Circus Queen will be lying on a bed of nails with a glass plate on her stomach, and she's gonna have a cannonball dropped down on her. It's pretty awesome.
O: Are you guys still drinking the milkshakes [which consists of a variety of stomach contents]?
JR: [Deep breath.] No. We still do the act, but it's done in a more scientific and explanatory way. And audience participation is not encouraged, nor do I even like the subject, because it just… We're not really doing a gross and disgusting show anymore; it's more of a thrill show. It's like P.T. Barnum meets John Waters.
O: That was always the most infamous stunt, the one people remember.
JR: I just didn't want everybody walking out the door going, "Aw, somebody drank vomit!," because then they'd go to the office the next day and tell their friends about it, and get looked at like they'd killed the Lindbergh kid. Like, "How did you have fun?" It's hard to explain how the show is fun, because everybody focuses on the stunts and forgets to mention how goddamn funny it was. And you can't really explain it that way. I'm not really interested in going in that direction, anyway. I mean, the last time you saw us, we only had about six people with us. It's a much, much bigger show now. And that's the natural process of evolution.
O: What big things will the circus do in the future? What's the next level?
JR: Let's not go there.
O: No five-year plan?
JR: Well, I do, but… I can only say that this year's circus is the greatest thing that's ever happened. It's the poetry of circus!
O: Is the audience participation toned down this year, then?
JR: No, I'm not saying that! People can still come up and step on my head while my face is on glass.
O: Well, that's a relief.
JR: I'm doing hypnotism now; I'm a pickpocket, and that's all done with volunteers from the audience. So there are actually more volunteers coming up than in the past. We're just doing different things.
O: What legal limits most frustrate you? Would we get a better performance if there were no rules?
JR: Well, in all other parts of the world, complete nudity is not offensive. I mean, I go all through Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil, and nobody really cares. My women Sumo wrestlers wrestle all over the world topless. In some cities, they have to wear little pasties. And they're not topless for sexploitation purposes; it's because they're athletes, and they don't want to be hindered by extra clothing. I gotta tell you, though, Katie "The Pile Driver" Wilson took a big fall. And she's got a bruise on her butt that is the size of both our heads! That just gives you an idea of how big her butt is. And you know, I got arrested in Lubbock, Texas, last year. The Mexican wrestlers, they said, were simulating a sex act. Of course, that's the buckle on the Bible Belt, and I guess the best compliment I could give my arresting officer was, "Nice tooth." See, I'm not like Marilyn Manson. I like him, but I'm not trying to wind the world up. You go to his show, and he doesn't do anything illegal, so all the hype makes no difference. But I don't want that kind of publicity, because my actual career is based on giving you stuff live that you can't see on TV.
O: Speaking of TV, what's with the X-Files episode you did?
JR: It's their most popular episode! I was the lead murder suspect, and The Enigma was in that with me. He only had one line, but it was a great one. After The X-Files and The Simpsons, things changed for us. People perceived us differently. We've got the rock-and-roll tour buses and nice hotels. It's like some kind of pop-culture thing going on.
O: But you didn't solicit that attention. Didn't they approach you?
JR: Yeah, [The X-Files'] Chris Carter read my book, and The Simpsons wanted to do a Homer-palooza. They knew that my show was pretty much the vibe of that festival for many years, although I only did it one year. [Lollapalooza] kept putting on cheap shit every year after that. I also just got asked to do a movie with Dee Snider [ex-Twisted Sister singer] and Robert Englund [Freddy in the Nightmare On Elm Street movies]. They're filming that right now, as a matter of fact. Maybe I can fit it into my schedule; it's not a big part. I've also been on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, and that's pretty strong, as far as validation goes. I've been in National Geographic. That's kind of weird, isn't it? That same month I was in Hustler. So go figure! It's funny, the people who cover us. I'm about to do a pretty big thing for Spin and Rolling Stone.
O: Reporters going for a ride with the Jim Rose Circus?
JR: Yeah. It seems to be a really big year. There's some kind of special magic this year. And the fans pick up a little piece of it, put it in their pockets, and walk out. Reception for the show has been really cool.
O: What's The Enigma doing on-stage this year?
JR: Oh, yeah. I'd better mention that. Hey, for all you X-Files fans out there, the tattoo-puzzle guy is going to be there! A lot of times, they don't know his name. Now, you know, he had coral grafted to his skull, stimulating the bone to grow, so he's got horns growing out of his head right now.
O: Didn't he used to have those metal-implant horns?
JR: Well, he started that way, by gauging it up so the skin would stretch and the holes would get big enough. What coral does is it tricks the body. For example, if you were to break your arm severely, they would put coral in there, and then the bone would grow over the coral. That's what's happening here; it's not the coral growing, it's the bone actually growing over the coral implants.
O: Does he risk knocking those off through excessive horseplay? Are they fragile?
JR: It could happen, I suspect. But it'd grow back. He'd just look a little askew, a little asymmetrical.
O: What do they look like? How big are they?
JR: Ah, they're only about three inches right now.
O: He needs to let them grow into a full rack of antlers.
JR: Yeah, well, that's the ultimate goal. He'd be a big blue moose.
O: What would people be surprised to learn about you that they won't glean from the books and documentaries?
JR: In the book, I guess I pretty much give it up. I don't think there are many surprises, really, because I was pretty open in the book. But I guess people who haven't read it would be surprised how much I love my wife, and how I spend my down time with her, taking long walks with her and playing pinball.