When Ilise S. Carter was 12 years old, she witnessed a sideshow performer eat fire.
As someone who’d never really fit in, feeling like “a square peg,” she was instantly drawn to the subculture of the sideshow.
For years, she was just a spectator. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, she was working in the World Trade Center in New York City… and everything changed.
That’s when she started her journey to become one of the world’s few female sword swallowers, earning upwards of $150 per hour.
Here’s her story.
How She Became a Sword Swallower
Although Carter had long wanted to be a performer, like many of us, she had myriad excuses for putting her dreams on hold.
“There’s always that sense of, ‘I’ll do it when I get my stuff together, I’ll do it when I make more money, I’ll do it when I’m 10 pounds thinner,’” she explains. “There’s always a reason to put stuff off.”
But seeing the twin towers fall, Carter says, “gave me the sense there’s no time like the present so you might as well do it now.”
She wanted to go to the Coney Island Sideshow School, but as a freelance writer, it wasn’t in her budget.
Luckily, retired fire eater A.V. Phibes — an acquaintance who’s since become one of her best friends — offered to teach her some tricks of the trade for free.
Carter says she learned “the basics” from Phibes: eating fire, walking on glass, escaping from a straitjacket and hammering nails into her nose (aka “human blockhead”).
Then, she moved on to sword swallowing.
Although Carter wouldn’t say how she learned the art, she did say it took four months of practicing twice a day, “and then another month to get it on stage.”
She’s now been performing for 11 years under the stage name “The Lady Aye.”
How This Sharp Side Gig Earns Her Money
As The Lady Aye, Carter’s performed everywhere from burlesque shows to Sweet 16 birthday parties to product launches and store openings.
“I’m all over the place,” she says.
She performs a variety of acts, including fire eating and the human blockhead, but because of its uniqueness, sword swallowing is in highest demand. By Carter’s estimate, there are only 36 female sword swallowers in the world.
Carter used to perform at burlesque shows, calling them the place to “really hone your skills,” but due to low pay (around $75 per show), she now does them much less frequently.
These days, her most lucrative gigs are private parties, where she’s booked as an “ambient performer” — equivalent to being “part of the furniture,” she says.
During a two-hour gig, she typically does three sword-swallowing sets of about 10 minutes each. Because the performances are physically taxing, that’s her max — unless she wants to risk “sword throat” (what the performers call a sore throat).
For these gigs, her rate starts at $150 per hour, with a two-hour minimum. The rate increases depending on the equipment and travel required.
Still, Carter says working full time as a sword swallower wouldn’t be sustainable for her. In the past, she made her living as both a freelance writer and performer and “just barely got by,” she says.
So she performs as The Lady Aye on the side of her full-time job as a copywriter and part-time work as a freelancer.
“This month, I performed every weekend except for one,” she says. “Sometimes I go two months without performing, sometimes I perform several times a week. It really depends.”
So, does she swallow swords for the money, or because she truly loves it?
“The answer is yes to both,” she explains. “I’m a professional. I get paid for professional work and for the rarity of my work and for the skill of my work. I also love it.”
A Hard Way to Make an Easy Living
Unlike many professions, sword swallowing isn’t a career that’s accessible to everyone.
“I always describe it as learning to do a split,” Carter says. “There are people who will never learn to do it even if they want it… The body just has to be set up for it.”
And it can hurt, admits Carter.
“Practicing is certainly uncomfortable,” she says. “You have three gag reflexes and they’re really strong. Everybody knows the one at the back of the throat from the dentist, but there are actually two below that and the bottom one is no joke. That one hurts.”
The only way to learn, she says, is at one of two schools: the aforementioned Coney Island Sideshow School or Harley Newman’s Oddity U.
And being physically able to swallow swords is still a far cry from earning money with your art.
Using a common and applicable sideshow expression, Carter explains, “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”
“Even the people who are at the top don’t make an enormous amount of money and they work very hard for that,” she says. “It’s constant travel; it’s constant hustling.”
In addition, Carter warns, the sideshow industry is “not very warm and fuzzy.”
“They want you to know your history,” she explains. “They want you to start at the bottom and work your way up. There’s some hazing. It’s not easy and it’s not always entirely supportive.”
Carter, for one, has paid her dues and worked her way up the sideshow ranks. She’s even performed for people like Usher and Amy Sedaris, and been directed by Rob Zombie.
But most important to her is the fact that, several decades later, this square peg has finally found a place she belongs.
“There are just nights where I look around the room and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is my life. This is amazing.’
“If I could go back and tell high-school me that I’d be sitting in a room with strippers, drag queens and weirdos, I would have been so much happier,” Carter says.
Your Turn: Would you ever consider a side gig as a sword swallower?
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.