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The Big Jewcy: The Lady Aye – Sword Swallowing Sweetheart Of The Sideshow

The Lady Aye, the Sweetheart of the Sideshow is one of a kind.  She’s a fire-eater, an escapist, pain-proof gal, a sword swallower, and a dear friend. How exactly did a nice Jewish girl from NYC become the Lady Aye?

The Lady Aye. Where did you come up with that name?

The name actually comes from two places. My real name is “Ilise,” which no  one seems to be able to pronounce.  Years ago it was just a nickname. It was “The Lady,” initial “I.” And my first act was the Pyrate Sisters All Girl Side Show, and I thought “Oh, I’ll change it to the nautical. But now everyone pronounces it like “Lady A.” So I can’t win (laughs). But it also sort of comes from one of my favorite movies — a Preston Sturges film, The Lady Eve. So I just kind of took it from there.

Tell me about the Pyrate Sisters All Girls Side Show.

It was a leaning experience. It was me, and a fantastic artist and performer who is now known as A.V. Phibes. She really is the one who taught me most of my skills, and she’s one of my best, dearest friends in the whole wide world.   And Molly Crabapple, as a matter of fact, was in that act. And I was just starting out, and I really had no training as a performer. But I wanted to learn these things. We had dates before we actually had the act together. Molly was already working as a burlesque performer. Some people were bigger on rehearsing than others. Initially I was a really nervous performer; I was a really crappy performer. So it took a lot of work getting it together. There was a real learning curve involved.  It all came together eventually.

How old were you when you got started? You’re an escapist; you’re a fire-eater; you’re a sword swallower. Which skill came first?

I was 32 when I started performing. It will be 6 years in September since what I count as my debut. Before that I really had no intention of becoming a performer. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to college and grad school to be a director. I finished grad school, but, by that point, I was burned out on the film industry. They weren’t buying stuff from women. They weren’t interested in the stuff I was doing. The stuff that was selling at that point was stuff like “Swingers.” I had been nominated for a Sundance screenwriting award, and I couldn’t parlay that into an agent because I was told “Oh, there are too many woman in your scripts, and no one is buying anything about women.” And I wasn’t writing chick flicks, and they weren’t feminist scripts. I thought they were smart, edgy comedies. I was very into Preston Sturges, but I wanted to do something with a John Waters edge to it. In the meantime I was making my living working as a financial editor at one of the wire services, and I was working in the World Trade Center. So THAT happened. That really kicked me… sideways. It took me a year or two just to get my head screwed on again. From there I started promoting rockabilly shows and mixing in burlesque. I did a breast cancer fundraiser—“Burlesque Against Breast Cancer,” and the woman (A.V. Phibes) who did my graphics for it—I had been a fan of her artwork before hand. And she and I just started chatting one day, and I told her “Ya know I really want to go to Coney Island’s Sideshow School, but it’s really expensive. And I can’t afford it.” And she said “Oh, don’t be a sucker. I’m a retired fire-eater. I’ll teach you!” So I learned to eat fire in her apartment in Williamsburg. She had high ceilings—mercifully.

She (A.V.) taught me human blockhead, which is hammering nails into your nose, and the straightjacket… We bought a straightjacket, and she would just lash me into it and leave me on the living room floor and be like “Ok, figure it out!” And that’s how you have to learn that one. And there’s bed of nails—there’s no training for bed of nails. It’s just a bed of nails. And there’s eating a light bulb, which I don’t do anymore.  And there’s eating fire. The basics are very, very simple, but the subtleties take a lot of work.  But sword swallowing—I always compare it to doing a split cause your body has to be set up for it.  If your body isn’t set up for it, there’s just no learning it. There’s no faking it. It’s not a magic trick.

Learning it was actually pretty cool. I went to a town near Tampa, Florida called Gibsonton, which is where all the carnies live and retire. They have a retirement community there. There are llamas in people’s front yards, you can see these folded up Ferris wheels that just sit on people’s lawns off-seasons.  So I went down and visited this gentleman named Ward Hall, King Of the Sideshows. He’s an amazing man, an incredible charmer, and I talked with him for a few hours. And his partner, CM Chris, is a sword swallower, and he’s been doing it since the 50’s. And there are a couple of misconceptions that old-timers have. One of the reasons that there are not a lot of woman that do it is there was a misconception about height. He looked at me and said “Stand up! Turn around! How tall are you!?” I’m 5’2”. He said “You’re too short! You’re gonna kill yourself, but I’ll teach you any ways.” And it actually took me a couple of months to even work up the nerve to even try it. You start out with things to desensitize… you have 3 gag reflexes. You have one in the back of your throat, you have one that’s next to your heat, and you have one that’s at the opening of your stomach.  You have to desensitize all of them… And that’s the story how I became a sword swallower.

You got into this in your 30’s… how did you arrive at this persona that is part of you, that is you?

I am writing a book on that actually—Pain Proof: Becoming the Lady Aye. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I feel like I spent most of my life… ya know at 10, 11, or 12 years old someone said “It’s an awkward phase. You’ll grow out of it.”  And then you’re a grown up, and you’re still… you know…. I used to have a panic attack if I gave a toast at a wedding. The thing about sideshow is I took a lot of things that used to plague me; like my body issues, I had some on and off again trouble as a bulimic, I had a fear of being to be seen in public. I thought, “I’m not smart enough. I’m not pretty enough.” And at the same time I was thinking, “I reject you! I am so punk rock. I reject your social norms.” (Laughs). Being the Lady Aye let me marry a lot of those things in a positive way. In the case of purging… the fact that a recovering bulimic would become a sword swallower is sort of a strange form of therapy. Being an emcee—being up there, holding the mic, and thinking “I am in control of this room, and you are all looking at me, and you will go in the direction that I am telling you to go in,” and wearing the stuff that I wear on stage… you know it’s very empowering. I recently had a women come up to me last weekend, and, God love her, but eh way it came out was “Thank you for being fat.” (Laughs). She was drunk. But what she meant was, ya know you very seldom see women who are not a size two with any kind of power, and with any kind of sex appeal. And it’s a very hard thing. People talk about how full Jessica Simpson is, and she must be tipping the scales at a size 6.  So you know, it is empowering. It is for me. I think it is for female audiences, and for all audiences to see so many different things up there on stage. I spent so much of life apologizing and being sorry and embarrassed for being smart, and funny. And people were like “Well you’ll always be single! Cause you’re smart and funny,” and you know, not a Victoria Secret model. I kind of want to marry all of those things. There is a lot of power in that. I don’t want that taken away from women. Just becoming the Lady Aye has been very healing for me.

So what’s next?

Well I’ve got the book going. I got to get that sold.  The book is the next big thing. I am hoping that will sort of make… ya know… Sell the book! Tour the book! Make it a career, and then go to Hollywood and sell out (laughs).

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