Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment features reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Lazarus Z. Hellgate and Pinkie Pell, founders of local performance troupe Subterranean Cirqus, about why they’re able to withstand so much pain, the history of sideshow and the stomach-churning act Lazarus considers the low point of his career.
CP: Walk me through when and how the Cirqus got started. It was originally Scenic City Sideshow, right?
LZH: When we originally started, we were called Sadistic Scenic City Sideshow. It was just Pinkie, myself and one of our friends. We started out just doing videos on the Internet. This was before YouTube blew up, mind you. Break.com would pay us money to do these crazy videos. Somewhere along the way, YouTube got started and everyone started putting up videos because they wanted to be on the Internet, not because someone was paying them. They flooded the market, so we decided to stop doing it and stop selling our videos to major conglomerates and put together a full stage show.
What we do on stage and what we were doing in those videos are absolutely two ends of the spectrum. At that point, we put together a small stage show and had some bands contact us wanting us to do something on stage with them. We did that for a little while and realized that bands drama was a little bit more than we could deal with. At that point, we found another guy who was our first talker, emcee, The Doctor. He's not with us anymore. He was our emcee the longest.
We had fun as Scenic City for four years. We did some touring. When he and I split ways, I wanted to take the show in the direction I wanted to to begin with, which was a full circus sideshow with a burlesque show and a strongman and comedians - any kind of variety act we could get our hands on, anything strange and unusual. He just wanted to do the pain acts. Let's be honest, it's always been mine and her show, so we had to put our foot down somewhere.
We changed the name to make sure people knew the difference. This is our third year as Subterranean Cirqus. Scenic City Sadistic Sideshow got started in 2005 or 2006.
CP: Tell me about the videos you did for Break.com.
LZH: It was silly. They were paying us $500 to do the most ridiculous stuff. She drank a whole bottle of Texas Pete, a draft glass of it. One of the first things I did was drinking half a dozen raw eggs. I used to play football, so that was no big deal. We stepped it up the next time, and I may have eaten dog food, puked it up and eaten it again for $500 - not the best thing I've ever done. [Laughs.] It's kind of an all-time career low, but hey, it was money.
PP: He ate a mealworm and earthworm sandwich.
LZH: It was pepperoni, mayonnaise, jelly, peanut butter, mealworms and something else. They were paying us $500 a pop every time, and we thought it was ridiculous, so we gave them the most ridiculous stuff we would never do again anyway. It worked out for a while.
PP: It paid our rent for three months, at least. Six months, maybe.
LZH: Yeah. We made more decent money in four months than I have made in jobs in past years. It's really easy when you're churning out a minute 30 for $500. That's decent money.
CP: So you proposed the videos to the website? They didn't ask you do these things?
PP: They would do contests. A lot of times, we would submit video and they would base the contest around that so we would win because he liked us.
LZH: He ended up losing his job because of us, because of one particular act we sent him that he tried to post and his boss didn't like. That was snorting whiskey and drinking cocaine. There used to be a drink called Cocaine Energy Drink. We did a little bit with that where she snorted a whole shot of whiskey and chased it with the energy drink. The guy said that was the most dangerous thing he'd ever seen, and he couldn't put it on his website because kids would do that and somebody would die and he'd be responsible. That kind of ended the whole run, actually.
PP: We still do that on stage sometimes, like when we perform with Irish bands.
LZH: That was the turning point of putting it on stage. It was like, “If they're going to start telling us we can't do really dangerous stuff, the hell with them.” [Laughs.] I will say I think one of the worst things I did in that entire stint was eating fetal mice.
I used to be a geek. That's a completely different show. When I was in Scenic City Sadistic Sideshow, I did all the gross stuff. I was the wild man and all that, which is why when we started the new show, the whole dynamic changed. Since I was the guy running everything behind the scenes and no one knew it, I said it was time to let people know who was running the show and calling the shots. So I came out as Lazarus Z. Hellgate, the ringleader of the whole thing.
CP: There's a kind of back story to Subterranean Cirqus. How did you come up with the concept?
LZH: Most of it is based off of the same thing all sideshows are based off of: Semi-truths. [Laughs.] It's close enough to be the truth. In fairness, Pinkie and I spent a lot of time doing theater together when we were younger; that's how we met each other and got together.
I've been into sideshow circus stuff since I was seven years old, retained all of it and was obsessed with it. When we started doing those silly videos, it was like, “We both have the theater background, and I have the know how and all the historical background with the circus sideshow stuff, let's throw it together.”
Now, the back story is that, when I first started doing it, yes I was a geek. Basically, my mentor basically grabbed me up and was like, “Look man, there's more to this than just freaking people out and being gross. You've got talent, and I'll show you how." That's where Lazarus came from. The original Hellgate said, “Hey, we're going to recreate you.” I chose Lazarus as my name because of the resurrection and kept Z, which was my original name, as the middle initial.
That's how it's always been. Hellgate has been the moniker of the guy who runs the show, our ominous ringleader who gives us our commands and controls the direction we take everything. The show used to be social experiments to see how people would react to certain things. The act itself was more about [the audience] learning more about themselves than realy seeing what we do.
CP: Do you think audiences got that?
LZH: Absolutely. One of the biggest shows we did that incorporated that whole aspect of it was in St. Louis. That was a really killer show. We haven't been abele to get back to that venue since then since we changed the name. That's been a problem. We did all the touring under the name Scenic City Sadistic Sideshow, and when we split ways with the other fellow, we spent time convincing everyone that he wasn't anything but a face, that we'd just changed the name but it was basically everybody but him. It's been a hard problem, but the last year was a turning point of everyone realizing what happened there. It took about a year to get back to where we were, but it's for the best.
It's always been me and her. Over the years, I've picked up other people, taught them acts and put them in the show. At this point, I'm done with all that. I'm not trying to make a freak anymore. I'm more trying to find performers who know their niche and who have honed their craft or need a little help honing their craft but already know what they're doing. That's instead of picking somebody up off the street who I think has some talent, teaching them some acts and putting them on stage.
In the first couple of years, that's exactly what we did.
PP: It worked pretty well for a while.
LZH: It did, but you have to start being professional. Once you cut your chops, you can't be doing stuff like that anymore. [Laughs.] It takes a certain type of person to do what we do. There are lots of guys who want to get involved in our show, but they're the type of guys who want us to carve our names in their chest or put cigarettes out on them or something like that. That's absolutely not what we're about.
PP: Any drunk can do that.
LZH: Now, if I can put a cigarette out on you and you don't burn, or if I can carve on you and you don't bleed, that's an act. [Laughs.] Everyone bleeds.
PP: Otherwise, it's just self mutilation.
LZH: That's one of the things about her doing the deep muscle piercing. If she does it the right way, there's not a drop of blood. It causes a lot of people to think that we're faking it, but it's like, “Actually, no. That's her being in complete control of what's going on.” To me, it's still amazing every time I see it. It's hard for me to look at some of the stuff she does, even though I've seen it 100 times. [Laughs.]
PP: Every now and again, under certain circumstances, it will bleed, but that's like when it's really hot, and I've been drinking too many energy drinks.
CP: Over the years, the group has attracted many satellite members, some from as far as away as Knoxville. When did that start happening?
PP: One of the first members we had was Piso.
LZH: It means "floor" in Spanish. [Laughs.] He was a drunken, silent crown. … Yeah. [Laughs.]
PP: He was pretty good.
LZH: Yeah, he was a fun dynamic. He did a lot of the acts that nobody else wanted to do.
PP: Now, I do them, or you do them.
LZH: We used to break a cinderblock on his head. He would run tubes through his faces and stuff like that. Many of those acts were acts I'd done and had given to them, but … nobody wants a cinderblock broken on their head. [Laughs.] I'm going to go ahead ands say that there's no trick to that; that is a cinderblock being broken on your head with a sledgehammer. You have to really trust someone to do that.
He allowed me to do that for a long time. When he left the show, we didn't put it back in because there's not a single person in the show I would trust to hit me in the head with a sledgehammer. [Laughs.] Pinkie would let me do it to her, but I don't trust myself to trust myself enough to swing a sledgehammer at her head.
PP: It's my moneymaker. [Laughs.]
LZH: There are certain things that are dangerous enough and entertaining, and there are certain things that are just dangerous. We've been trying to cut out the not-entertaining parts, because there's no reason to kill yourself if nobody's enjoying it, right? [Laughs.]
PP: That being said, whether there's one person or 100 people, you still have to put on the same performance.
LZH: Oh yeah. I'd rather have 30 people who are really into what we're doing than a crowd of 700 who didn't even know we were on the bill.
CP: So Piso was a member. Who else?
LZH: There have been so many people over the years, but he's one of the original core members. All the core members have tattoos, and he was one of the ones who was in on that. We've had Sutura, who has been with us from the very beginning. She's our prop girl, our sober driver and our furniture.
PP: She makes a great coat rack. [Laughs.]
LZH: She's done merch and photography for us. Recently, she was singing, and we were sewing her lips together.
CP: Like honest to god sewing them together? With thread?
PP: She does an a capela number where I come out on stage and am mad because she's out there, so I hogtie her and sew her lips together so she'll shut up, because Pinkie is mean. [Laughs.]
CP: Not at all like you, of course.
PP: [Laughs.] We haven't hung out that much.
LZH: It's strange because she is the most meek and timid person, and she volunteered to have her lips sewn together. We were like, “Are you sure, honey? Alright.” But she was a good sport about it. [Laughs.] We've done that act a good four or five times.
PP: We started about two years ago.
LZH: We've only done it at conventions and stuff because it's a brutal act, to be honest. It's exactly what it sound like; her lips are being sewn together.
PP: With an 18-gauge needle.
LZH: It's not an act we can do over and over again. It's not something you can do every day, for sure, so we had to pick and choose where we do it. I'm telling you all the gross and gruesome stuff, which is exactly what we didn't need to do. This is all the old stuff. I can understand why people thought that in the old days, because in the old days, that's all it was: “Let's get on stage and see if we can make somebody puke.”
PP: We still do that without trying.
LZH: We did. We had a girl faint, another girl pee her pants and we had two people vomit in the first year we were together. [At Horrorfest,] we had a guy go into PTSD and charge the stage to take out me and the doctor because he thought we were torturing a poor, helpless, innocent girl on stage.
PP: In all reality, that “poor, helpless, innocent girl” was torturing herself. It was a social commentary we were doing.
LZH: He had just gotten back from Iraq. We just started doing needles under the fingernails and explained where we got that act from, which is that they were considering doing that at Guantanamo Bay. Obama was doing deliberations to determine if it was humane. We decided to do it live and open that discussion and see what people thought. He flipped out, charged the stage and security had to tackle him and take him out. He was going to hurt me. [Laughs.] It wasn't like I was holding her down - she was doing it to herself - it was just what we were saying upset him so much, and he flipped.
That was back when we kept a lot more political and social commentary in our show. Now, we're more about just having fun and not thinking about anything like that when we're on stage. As much as I have my own political standpoints, I like to think that when people come to our shows, the whole rest of the world gets shut off for a little while. Why think about your wife being mad at you or whatever it was you did or your taxes or your car payment? Of course, there's a storm coming, yeah, but don't run away from it; steer the pirate ship into it and go with the flow. I hope while people are there, they forget about all that and are just entertained by what they see. The most important part of what we do is entertainment.
PP: You tend to separate your crowd that way. If someone doesn't agree with what we say or do - religion or otherwise - they might not ever come see us again.
LZH: As much as our religious stuff is tongue-in-cheek and funny, I would rather everyone be entertained than anyone be alienated or ostracized.
PP: We don't like to segregate our crowd like, “Put all the vanillas over here and the cool kids over here.” Let everyone hang out together for a minute.
CP: When you're putting together the show, how much leeway do you give the performers to come up with their own material?
LZH: With certain performers, it's me helping them, but with other ones, they come up with their own stuff. With Andy [comedian The Andy Christ], I'm definitely not telling him what to say on stage. That's all him. Sometimes I wish I did, but that's the point of Andy - he does what he has to do.
Ashley comes up with all her stuff. Of course, we had tips here and there, but she comes up with her own acts. Leroy is one of the few I went to and said, "Hey, you're a wrestler. Wrestling started with the sideshow doing strongman acts. You want to try some of this stuff?" I bought about $100 worth of props and went over to his house one afternoon to see what he could break. [Laughs.]
PP: He's the most expensive act in our show.
LZH: Yeah, it costs us quite a bit to have him on stage for 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, he destroys about $70 worth of props. [Laughs.]
PP: That's why we want the guarantee. [Laughs.]
CP: What's your audition process like? How do you figure out if someone is a good fit for the Cirqus?
LZH: At this point, I do search out performers. Some people do approach us, but that's few and far between. Most of the guys in town who approach us are like, "Hey, can you teach me something?" or are like, “I can stand in the middle of the crowd and people can put their cigarettes out on me.” Not only has that never been an act and never been OK, but …
PP: Now, I'm offended you think I would want to put that in my show.
LZH: I don't necessarily accept stuff like that. At this point, you have to have an act where you've procured and know what you're doing and have a name for yourself or can take the stage and have people say, “Hey, that didn't suck.” [Laughs.] I don't want to take anybody off the street who has never been on stage at all.
We recently have had a couple of novice performers in town who we've taken under our wing, but that's because they're novices, but they're brilliant. Within the next three or four months, with a little practice and direction, they'll be amazing.
For instance, Ashley Hicks had never done burlesque before, but she expressed some interest, and I knew she could sing really well and wanted that in the show. I was like, “Let's see what we can do with that.” Sassy gave her a couple tips here and there. To be honest, she'd never performed but once or twice, and we ended up performing a show with a really big, well-respected burlesque group, and after the show, they came up and said, “Who is that girl? We want her name and her number.”
PP: Guess what? You can't have her.
LZH: Yeah, and at that point, she had only learned one act, but these people flipped over her. That really boosted her confidence. She really stepped her game up and came up with some new stuff. It was funny because at the time it was like, “This is just my friend's girlfriend we put in the show.” [Laughs.] Everybody loved her.
CP: What are some acts you'd love to have?
PP: We'd love some acrobats.
LZH: A sword sallower would be amazing, but at this point, there are 100 in the whole world, and they gain and lose 40 a year.
PP: It's very dangerous.
LZH: Some people retire, and some people permanently retire. [Laughs.] That's one of the reasons I don't do that act. I haven't had my tonsils removed, and they are giant. There are things I can do, but not a sword. It won't happen for me. I'm not shaped that way, and my tonsils are all wrong.
Good for those people who do it. As much as I can ruin my entire body, there's never going to be a point where I'm going to get on stage and stick a sword through my esophagus. It's the most dangerous act in sideshow. People take it for granted. They look at it and think he's faking it. They have no idea how absolutely dangerous that is.
The other one is fire breathing. Fire breathing is so taken for granted. I used to do fire, but I can't do it anymore because I'm allergic to the fuels. She still does it. The only reason we don't do it that often is that people don't realize the toll it takes on your body over the long run. Besides emphysema and cancer and chemical burns, there's a nice little disease called fire breather's lung and yellow nail syndrome and all these other things that can go wrong with your body from inhaling the fumes and keeping the fuel in your body.
Everybody has a buddy whose friends does that at parties or behind the bar with Everclear or something, but they don't realize how dangerous it is. You could blow your lung out, easy. It can turn your lung inside out. It can blow your ear drums out.
PP: The blowback creates such a pressure that it can do horrible things to you.
CP: People look at the things you do and probably think you're a little crazy. Is there any truth to that? How much of what you do IS a little crazy?
LZH: I want them to think I'm crazy. I want them to have their outlet for that through me. If they can live their crazy fantasy through us, then that's even better. Not only do we get a release from what we do that keep us level and sane, but I feel like the crowd is the same way. A lot of them are blood thirsty and are there to see us get hurt, but many of them are there to vicariously live through what we're doing because they know good and well that it's not something they would ever attempt.
CP: Have people ever protested the Cirqus?
LZH: We've had some messages. We get a lot of hate mail, that's for sure, but a whole lot less now than we used to.
PP: People don't like me.
LZH: Believe it or not, as bad as [emcees] Joel and John Michael are, they are nowhere near as the other guy who used to talk for us, which is why we got so much hate mail. He was a jackass on and off stage. [Laughs.] I can't even count how many bar fights we got into because of that dude.
CP: You guys have said some things during this interview that suggest that, as much as your show is about doing things that hurt, you ultimately have safety protocols in place. Tell me about that.
PP: When it comes to fire, I take that very seriously.
LZH: That's true of all our stuff. We've worked with crews who do blood acts.
PP: Pincushion acts. Needles. Suspension, even. I work in a tattoo shop, so my number one thing is sterilization - make sure you're wearing gloves, and if you touch someone else's blood, don't touch anything else after. There's a whole process to that.
LZH: We don't even throw away bloody stuff at the venue. We take it home in a storage container and biohazard bags. We remove it from the venue immediately. I've seen out-of-towner who get suspension hooks in them and then walk around bleeding everywhere, walking through the crowd with hooks in them.
PP: That's dangerous for everyone.
LZH: That's not how we roll in the slightest. We like to say "Safety third" on stage because it's funny, but really, in all honesty, it's absolutely safety first. One of the members we had to get rid of was because he refused to take a blood test. You have to show me where you got tested, because that's not something I want to deal with. That's way scarier than anything we do on stage.
CP: Did it surprise you to find that there were so many people out there with these kind of eccentric talents?
LZH: There wasn't at first. The reason we got so many bookings the first two years was because there was literally almost no one in the tri-state area.
PP: From Georgia to Kentucky, there really wasn't anything going on.
LZH: There were three of us, and that was it. It was our troupe and a guy in Nashville and a guy in Atlanta, and that was it. That's one of the reasons we just kept sticking to it.
PP: Now the market is saturated.
LZH: Yeah, now there are all kinds of troupes. Once again, we find them, search them, see their show, and we're like, “Oh, you guys don't do anything like what we do, but you're getting booked like you do.”
CP: How do you find people with these talents? There's not a Yellow Pages section for carneys, is there?
PP: There's a performer database.
LZH: There are Yahoo groups for all of it. There's Sideshowworld.com, which is an incredible website run by a Utah showman. It's literally everybody who has been anybody putting in their journal entries. It goes back to the 1800s of people performing. It is THE definitive database of the history of sideshow.
PP: You spend a lot of time Facebook trolling.
LZH: Ever since Facebook happened, it's been easy to locate people. Now, I've found that there are quite a few secret forums that are out there that people aren't aware of. Usually, the sideshow stuff is deeply hidden in magician forums. Many magicians use some of these acts. Many of the guys who are out on stage are doing magic tricks, and that's not what we do. Everything in our show up to this point has been 100 percent real, and we're trying to keep it that way. There are some acts I've seen that are absolutely incredible, but they're illusions, and that's not what I'm about.
CP: That begs the question, though: If you could get the same effect, achieve the same reaction from the crowd, without actually risking injury, why not take that route?
PP: I wouldn't do that. That's cheating.
LZH: Me and this magician guy who I'm kind of friends with in town asks, “Lazarus, why would you do it for real when you can fake it?” I say, “Randy …”
PP: Why would you fake it when you can do it for real? It's the easy way out.
LZH: You're definitely cutting your costs down doing it our way. When he comes out and sticks a needle through his arm, it costs him a good $20 to pull it off. When she does it, it costs a little bit of pain, and that's it.
CP: So it does hurt?
PP: Every now and again. Most of it now, though, I'm just so used to doing it that I go through it, and by the end of the show, I'm just like, "Oh cool, I did all that. Alright, We're done now." My brain doesn't really register until after the fact. I usually wake up sore the next day.
LZH: There are definitely things we do that I don't think a normal person could process properly. If you were to stick your hand in my coyote trap, not only would it break three bones in your hand, you would probably be in excruciating pain and wouldn't be able to deal with it. The first time I did it, though, I looked her dead in the face and said, “What do you think they'll do at the hospital, if we go?” and she said, “You broke your hand, didn't you?” and I said, “Yep.” [Laughs.]
I absolutely snapped two bones in my hand doing that act the first time. Luckily for me, I have this nice thing my body does. [Pulls up his pants to reveal a lump under the skin just below his left knee cap.] When I break stuff, I get calcium deposits.
PP: It makes it that much stronger.
LZH: That's when I separated my knee doing football when I was a kid. I've separated it once more since then, which made it a little bigger. When I snapped my hand, these two bones fused together, so now, I can do that act over and over again, and it doesn't break. The pain I feel on stage is not a normal pain. It's more like pressure and cold as opposed to when I'm not in that zone.
PP: If I stub my toes, I'm going to cry like a baby. But if I'm doing these things to myself, I'm in control of the situation, and it doesn't hurt.
CP: Have there been any people who have tried out and you've been like, “No. That's too weird/dangerous/etc. to put in the show?”
LZH: Yeah, and mostly that's just self-mutilators who don't understand what we're trying to do. They think it's a gross-out, freak-out fest. It's not that. What we're doing is a serious tradition that has been around for thousands of years. The first sideshows are credited in 1893, but these acts were all pulling from things happening way before that, from African indigenous tribes to the kind of entertainment royalty would get from a court jester. That was something I recently found out.
CP: What's the sense of community like within the group? These kinds of talents seem like they could be misunderstood or go unappreciated by some people, is there a sense of camaraderie in performing together?
LZH: I would say yes. The dynamic of how our troupe works is that Pinkie and I are sideshow performers, and I came to the rest of these people and said, "Hey, you can do this, you can do that and we can do this. Why don't we all do it together and make a show?” Many of them didn't come from a sideshow background.
PP: Or even a theater background.
LZH: Yeah, I got Joel and John Michael because they were already comedians, they were friends of mine, they were funny and, frankly, they were egotistical maniacs, which is what you need on stage as far as a talker.
PP: So you can set the crowd straight if you need to.
LZH: We seriously need that. Leroy's background was in wrestling, and wrestling got started on the sideshow midway. I came to him and said, “Let's try this,” and he was able to do it. We've had many burlesque girls over the years, and none of them really stay; it's a revolving door thing, which is OK.
At this point, with the show we have, I offer this spot. I'm like, “Hey, you've got a weird, unusual act, and you don't know where to put it, I've got stage time for you. Come see me, and we'll find a place for you.” I've been trying to do that for Chattanooga for the last two years. Anybody and everybody, if you have an act, if you're unusual, if you're strange and don't know where you fit in, you can probably fit in with us. Nobody else would give them the time of day, but that's what we're here for.
CP: What about outside your group? Is there a wider sideshow community? Do you support each other?
PP: The sideshow world is cut throat. Many of them will help you out, if you're up and coming and have earned the respect of people with seniority in the industry, but most of the time, if you ask a performer about an act, they'll blow you off. It's like what I'm doing. I'm the only one who does it, so why would I explain it to you so you can steal my act?
LZH: There's definitely a hierarchy. Sometimes, if we go into an area, we have to search out who the local is and make sure they know we're coming and that we're not stealing money from them. That's the way it was in the old days: “Sure, I'll teach you to do this, but don't stand next to me and do it.”
There's one last sideshow touring with carnivals and the rest of us are trying to do the bar scene thing and the convention circuit. We're actually the only sideshow that has been hitting the convention hard in the Southeast.
CP: So it's a lost art? A dying one?
LZH: I absolutely think it's a lost art. What sideshow used to be and what we're trying to do with it are so far from each other it's almost not the same thing anymore. You used to pay a dime and go inside a tent to see these types of things, and it wasn't the type of show like we're doing. It wasn't this rock'n'roll, neo-Vaudeville explosion kind of thing.
PP: It was disturbing.
LZH: Yeah, it was, “Pay a dime and go hear this guy who has this affliction tell you about how horrible his life is.” It wasn't until vaudeville started where they took these acts, put them on stage and tried to make a real show out of it.
Our show now, what we're doing, is more like what they did in vaudeville with anybody who has a variety act coming together to make one big show for one night. As much as I relate to the sideshow history, vaudeville is what needed to happen.
TV ruined anything that was good about sideshow. Why would you go pay money to see something in a tent when you could see it on TV or pick up your iPhone and see it in the palm of your hand? It's really becoming a lost art because of technology. I feel like 10 years from now, people will be watching guys like us on the Internet, and why would they ever need to go see it? It's right there.
CP: How do you fight that?
PP: We don't put up too much of our act. I don't put up full videos online.
LZH: I don't like to give it away for free.
PP: Instead, we show tiny clips that leave you asking, "What happened after that?"
LZH: You can't fight it at all. You have to find new ways to get to people. That's where our show comes in. We combine all of it and bring it into the new era. It's hard to keep the tradition and make a show that people will enjoy.
The show we created with Subterranean Cirqus is an instant-gratification show. It's the type of vaudeville/circus act show that can get to people in the Internet age because these guys are ADD. They're just there to drink and have fun. They're not there to sit and pay attention or watch a play.
PP: They don't want to dedicate their time to anything.
LZH: They want blood, they want skin and they want flesh. That's what they want.
PP: They're animals.
LZH: I've said this more than once. The thing about our show is noticing how the crowd is. These people are supposed to be normal, and they're not. These people are bloodthirsty. They want to see something weird; they want to see somebody get hurt; they want to see somebody exploit themselves.
PP: It makes you realize how bad society is at this point.
LZH: But you know what, those are my people. [Laughs.]
CP: If it's a bad thing, why cater to it?
PP: I love it, but most people from on things like that. They'll frown on it, and then they'll come see it and support it and then return to their normal, every day lives acting like it never happened or that it's not good.
CP: Do you think audiences find your show cathartic?
LZH: That's a large possibility. [Laughs.]I really think that's what a lot of these guys are doing. I've said this more than once, that we're bringing back the Coliseum in a different way. Back then, people showed up not really caring who was going to get hurt, just wanting to see some blood.
Our show does tap into that. We have the sex with the dirty jokes and the flesh, we have the amazing acts you can't do and the pain acts that will make you cringe and cover your eyes.
We try not to be depressing. We try to be tongue and cheek and make you laugh at what we're doing. When she gets up there and does her act, it's serious for her, of course.
PP: My stuff is really dark. That's why we always put me at the end of the show, because my acts are more brutal than most everyone else's.
LZH: It's like, if you made it through the rest of the show, then you should stick around. [Laughs.] If you stuck her up front, nobody would stay. People would be like, “Oh crap. I'm out. I'm really concerned about what's about to happen.” [Laughs.]
PP: It's been a high energy level and happy fun time, and then we bring it down a notch. Even the music changes. It becomes darker and more worrisome. I don't really speak on stager. I don't speak for myself because many of my acts involve my mouth and things going through it or in it. A lot of that I can't talk through. I think it makes my character seem a little more menacing if I don't speak. It's like, “Wow, there's this girl up there busting through these acts without any words.” I don't think you need words for that.
CP: How do you feel after a show is over?
PP: Wired, like I just drank eight Red Bulls. I need to do something; I don't know what.
LZH: The amount of chemicals that have been released in my brain during a show - I'm a pretty happy guy.
PP: Adrenaline is a hell of a drug.
LZH: It really is. [Laughs.]
CP: How do you realize you have a talent for withstanding pain? Do you just accidentally drive a nail through your face one day and think, “Huh. That wasn't so bad?”
LZH: When I was a baby, I had four teeth that just came in, and I fell in the bathtub and broke them all off at the root and didn't cry. My parents took me to the hospital, and the doctors scanned my brain to make sure I didn't have brain damage. This isn't a schtick for the show. This is something my mom told me. I broke my teeth off, and they were like, "Why isn't this kid crying? He hasn't cried since he came out, and we thought that was weird enough, but now this is really weird.”
PP: You've injured yourself a lot.
LZH: To be honest, I'm a really strange guy, and I grew up in the South, so there has been a lot of really bad picking on and bullying and fights that happened to me when I was a kid. Eventually, you suck it up and stick up for yourself.
That kind of falls into the same category with the sideshow stuff. It's like, "I'm weird, but I'm here. I can hold my own." You learn to shut certain things off, and sometimes pain is one of them, if it's something you deal with a lot.
I've had a 200-pound garage door fall on the back of my head and slam my face into an indestructible garbage can, break pretty much everything on one side of my face and didn't cry. I've separated my knee twice. I've been through some serious medical pain and walked if off, basically. The stuff that I do in my show is definitely nowhere near as brutal as any of that stuff. Dealing with that kind of pain and learning to block it out is easy compared to having a separated knee and convincing your boss you don't need crutches to work because he'll fire you.
PP: I blame my mother. I started piercing myself at a very young age because she wouldn't take me to a shop so I could get my piercings done. [Laughs.] That's really how I found out. I was like, “If she won't let me. I'll do it myself.” That's how became a piercer; I realized I was really good at it.
LZH: When we first started doing this, I didn't think Pinkie had the pain threshold she does. That was news to me. We'd been together for four years at that point, and I hadn't seen any of that. When we started putting together the real show and she started telling me her ideas for acts she was interested in learning and willing to do, I was absolutely amazed because it was all stuff I wouldn't want to do myself ever. [Laughs.]
CP: Between the two of you, who has the higher threshold for pain?
LZH: Her, for sure. [Laughs.] There's no doubt about that. I hate burns. I absolutely hate them. That's the worst feeling in the world. You could run a razor blade over most of my body, and I would be fine, but if you stuck a cigarette out on me, I'd be angry. She brands herself for fun. I'd never put a blowtorch out on my face. That's … uh uh. [Laughs.]
PP: Basically, I just want to know what everything feels like.
LZH: You're your own little science project.
PP: I'm like all those science projects I failed in middle school.
LZH: Many of these things were acts I'd studied for years and seen other people do and read about in books. I just didn't really think, “Hey, we could assemble a team of people and do this.” It was just information chilling in my brain doing nothing.
Once we started doing the videos, it was like, "Actually, yeah, let's see what we can do and can't do and what would work.” We learned really quick that with my knowledge of sideshow and her tolerance for pain, we had a solid hour show.
PP: At this point, I could do an hour by myself, if I did every single act I've ever done.
LZH: Our normal stage show is an hour to an hour and a half with ten of us. Between the two of us, we could knock out almost two hours.
CP: Have you ever actually injured yourself on stage? What happens/would happen if you did?
LZH: Most of the injuries that we've had have been from practicing the acts. Injuries on stage are few and far between. Injuries from practicing something at home before putting it on stage - that's another story.
PP: I have burned my face on stage with the blow torch and the whole venue smelled like burning flesh. It wasn't even that bad. It takes just a split second to singe your face. You just have to keep going, really. You can't stop in the middle of an act, if you think it's going wrong. I don't want the crowd to think anything of it. I just want to go ahead and do it.
LZH: The worst injury I've ever had on stage was about six years ago when we were first starting. I was walking on glass, and we were in a bad venue with a very unlevel floor. I don't know what happened. I was walking on glass, and all the sudden, there was a horrible pain. I thought, “Oh, I've got a piece of glass in my foot. No big deal.”
I stepped off stage, and it sounded like when you get a thumbtack in your show and you sound like you're tap dancing. I thought, “That's not good.”
I sat down and tried to pull the piece of glass out of my foot, just raked at it, and it didn't come out. I grabbed a hold of it and pulled it out, and it ended up being a chunk of glass all the way up my heel and down to the bone. There was blood everywhere.
PP: It was very hot and sweaty, so you were slipping around on glass. That's why we don't do a lot of things when it's hot. If I do a bed of nails when I'm hot and sweating, it will grind into your back.
LZH: It was a bad injury. I should have gotten stitches, but I stopped the bleeding, got the glass out and was fine. That's the thing. We're both trained and know how to take care of our own bodies.
If need be, I could suture myself, if I had to. So far, we haven't had anything so bad that we've had to go to the hospital. There's a whole regiment of things you have to do to do these acts to be able to live.
PP: To be able to eat glass, you need to eat food.
LZH: He refused to do it. When we go on stage, I might have a beer before I go on stage, but that's it. That's not for the acts. That's for the crowd.
PP: A lot of people ask that, they say, "Do you have to get wasted before you go on stage or take a lot of painkillers?" No, that takes way half the fun.
LZH: We can't be screwed up like that on stage or we'd kill each other. Even something as simple as breaking a cinderblock on a bed of nails, I could miss and hit her face or arm or leg. We're not trying to perform Steven King's "Misery" up on stage. [Laughs.] We're trying to entertain. I'm not trying to hit my fiancée in her internal organs. If she was intoxicated when we do the human dart board, she could shoot a dart into my spine and kill me. Many people might think we're under the influence, but no, we're not under the influence at all.
PP: We're under the influence of fun. [Laughs.]
LZH: I've said this over the year, but sideshow is my anti-drug. It has absolutely leveled me out and makes me a better person to release that on stage. That's how I feel about it.
CP: Are you constantly thinking up new acts to perform? What's your process for developing new ones?
LZH: Absolutely. A lot of it is old school research and seeing what people have done in the past, what's disappeared and trying to bring it back.
PP: Maybe update it a little to make it work for the newer generations.
LZH: Right now, I have three books I'm reading with old interviews of people from the 1800s, scouring them to find an old act someone hasn't resurrected in a long time.
PP: We have a few we've bee thinking of. It's just a matter of building the props.
LZH: There's an act we've wanted to do for years that I don't trust myself to do because it's with her. That was the good thing about having the other guy in the show who was my buddy who I didn't care about like that. We could do stuff, and if I hurt him or he hurt me, whatever.
When it's me and her, I really pick and choose what we do. That's my lady. If I hurt her, I'd never forgive myself. I have to pick and choose what acts we do. There's an act I'd love to bring back that we haven't done in a long time that people said, "I can't believe you're basically abusing your girlfriend on stage." We stick her in a giant bag and take a shop vac and stick it inside the bag and freeze dry her, suck out all the air and leave her in it.
PP: Basically, I have to hold my breath for a minute. With sinus problems, I can't do it. It sucked. [Laughs.] We had hickies on our bodies from the pressure.
CP: How much do you have to practice an act before you feel confident taking it on stage?
PP: It really depends on what kind of act it is. If it's any type of piercing act, I already know what I'm doing. I know enough basic anatomy to put it on stage, no problem. The only act I've ever done without practicing it first was the mandible piercing. I'd done them on people before, so I knew where I needed to be going. I guess I just needed the appreciation to get the nerve up because that's a pretty brutal thing.
With the other acts, we could spend a week or we could spend two months, just depending on what it is. We worked on the vacuum bag for probably two months before we put it on stage, and we still had issues with it. There's a lot of trial and error.
CP: Looking down the road, how would you like the Cirqus to continue evolving?
LZH: Of course, I want to take it out on the road. I want to get this thing out on the road and perform on every inch of this earth. I don't care if it's a back yard or a street corner; I'm down with that. With the show, it needs a real venue, but me personally, that's where I'm at. I'm down for whatever and whenever.
PP: I'd like to see it more as a career instead of a side thing, honestly. I could take my piercing with me on the road, too, in certain places. You take your license, and you take your career with you.
LZH: It's not just getting on stage and performing. We're aware of the media age and the TV and the Internet. Pinky is definitely the person taking our show to the next level. We're working with a production crew to get her reality TV show out there and doing auditions for a national talent show that's televised.
For me, I enjoy what we do, no matter what. As long as we're getting to perform, and I'm not homeless and we're able to eat, I'm happy. That's the most anyone can hope for. Yeah, you can have money in the bank, but are you happy?
I want people to get that out of our show, that you can do whatever you want; it's your decision. You're probably not even aware of what the human body is capable of. There's a whole lot more to what's going on than what you're seeing on stage. We're living what we want to do and how we want to do that. Nothing can change that. I wish more people would understand that's a part of it. You literally can achieve what you want. You don't have to go with the mainstream the way everyone wants you to.
PP: You can be successful without falling in line with everyone else.
LZH: Whether that hate what we do or like what we do, the idea that you form a thought for yourself is exactly what I want you to get out of our show. If that boosts your imagination or makes you realize you're way more weak and timid than you thought you are and don't want to be anywhere near that, that teaches you something about yourself. That's more important to me than anything else.
PP: What is art if it doesn't evoke an emotion?
LZH: Exactly. That's what makes this art. Well, that and a 1,000-year tradition. [Laughs.]
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...