Show me a bearded lady, a knife thrower, and a pain-proof tattooed man, and I'll show you a college professor, a minister who's performed hundreds of weddings, and a prospective law student who relaxes on a bed of nails.
Many sideshow stars don't mind being called "freak," at least when they're working. But make no mistake; they'd like you to know that they choose to be freaks -- to hammer nails up their nose, to eat light bulbs, to let facial hair grow to lengths no facial hair should grow.
After thumbing through Marc Hartzman's new book, "American Sideshow" (Penguin Group), I just had to contact some of today's curiously strange performers and talk about their remarkably normal offstage lives. One thing is clear: Just as countless Americans eagerly transform themselves into bug-eating reality TV stars, today's sideshow performers are proving anything's possible when it comes to second careers.
Bearded woman Jennifer Miller is a 45-year-old adjunct professor at New York University. She has taught dance and theater to students of all ages, including actress Claire Danes (when Danes was a third-grader), and she doesn't bother with waxing, shaving or electrolysis.
"I would never hide who I am," Miller says. She was in her early 20s and already working as a professional dancer when an endocrine disorder left her with a thick set of whiskers.
Miller was soon working at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore as "Zenobia," putting a feminist spin on the traditional bearded woman act. She posed nude in acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz's book, "Women."
These days, in addition to teaching, she's ringmaster of Circus Amok, a politically charged big top where clowns have been known to break into Hula-Hoop routines to decry tax loopholes for the rich.
"The kids get over the beard much faster than the adults," she says. "The adults should know that many women have some facial hair."
The Great Throwdini, a modern knife-throwing legend, is not only a man of steel, he's also a man of the cloth. Otherwise known as the Rev. David Adamovich, he studied theology at the Unity in Christ Christian Fellowship Ministry and has performed more than 3,000 weddings.
At 59, Throwdini practices what he calls "The Impalement Arts," and this year he set a world record by throwing 75 knives around a human target in less than a minute. His female assistant -- Ula, the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl -- was unharmed. But what's more amazing is that Throwdini had never thrown a knife until after his 50th birthday.
"I heard this calling late in life," says the reverend, who practiced for five years on mannequins, perfecting the art of coming within an inch of the doll's clothing and hitting his mark blindfolded.
"I was taught to value life," he says, "so it was scary at first. But I had a natural talent for it that I couldn't ignore."
Indeed, Adamovich is a man of many talents. He also holds a doctorate in exercise physiology from Teacher's College at Columbia University, and he's taught at the university level for 14 years.
But knife-throwing led to work at Coney Island, then an off-Broadway show called "Maximum Risk," and now, international tours. He spoke with The Wolf Files while preparing to leave for a tour of Brazil.