The best kind of documentaries are the ones that encourage you to stare. If you tried this in the street you’d get a smack in the mouth, and deserve it. People who wear veils, who have disabilities or who look different in some way usually have enough shit to deal with without you staring and making them feel uncomfortable. But if you can’t ask questions or take a good look at someone how will you ever get to know them and learn to accept them?
Adam Pearson is an actor and tv presenter. He has a rare condition called neurofibromatosis which causes tumours to grow on his face. He’s had this condition since he was little and has suffered with abuse and hurtful nicknames on the school playground. The one he really hated was ‘freak’.
He’s invited to a modern freak show in the USA and takes up this offer to discover if these acts are exploitative like the Victorian era shows, or is there something more to it these days? Basically does he need to get over it? To come out of the closet as a freak and, as he says, stop being so PC about it.
I’m a freak, hidden in a fairly average-looking body. I like being weird, thinking differently, showing off and making people laugh. I was bullied because of how I looked at school too, but with the help of good friends and inspirational role models I’m able to say most days I’m comfortable being myself. But letting my freak flag fly is a personal choice. If the word had been used as abuse when I was a child I’m sure I’d feel differently.
Watching Adam shave was a bit of a revelation. The effect of manipulating his face to make the job easier made him look less strange and his face less mask-like. His down-to-earth attitude and slightly sarcastic Englishman abroad style made me realise I was going to like this guy.
What followed was his personal coming to terms with Joseph Merrick, a world-famous freak who may have had the same condition as Adam. Merrick was famously The Elephant Man, a freak show exhibit and someone who has cast a long shadow over Adam’s early life.
The performers in the 999 Eyes freak show were lovely, just the sort of people you’d want in your corner. They understand that “Mother Nature is a mad scientist” and “If it wasn’t for the word freak I wouldn’t be on stage”. Bethany just wants to educate people and show the beauty in difference. What a fantastic way of looking at the world.
Adam (looking dapper in a hat that finally fits) rocks up in Las Vegas aka “the glittery asshole of the States” for Halloween and meets manager and performer Jake who tells him the hard truth – being on stage means “you have to be comfortable with people staring at you”. Simply put, yes you do have to get over it. Jake encourages Adam to accept and market being a freak. Adam earns $18 in 30 minutes from people who want to take a photo with him on the Strip. Adam’s eyes light up but at the same time he says it feels like “very dirty money”.
Adam’s awkwardness all but disappears when he meets Chuy in Mexico, a retired freak show performer who was known as Wolf Boy. He was exploited and says he didn’t earn anything from his time in the freak shows. He’s happier to stay at home and work on a rubbish tip. Sitting around a table with Chuy and his cousin (who also has hypertrichosis) Adam’s defences are chipped away. The Mexicans tell him that he is beautiful and magnificent, and that there may not be another Elephant Man for another 150 years. This resonates with Adam and he learns that he can compare himself to Merrick and follow in his footsteps with pride.
This sense of pride in belonging and owning the word freak continues when Adam meets the Hamils, a family with dwarfism who have their own show on TLC called Our Little Family. Dan Hamil says “sometimes you have to own it and be the freak show”. Adam looks to have a great time with the Hamil children who are largely uninterested in how he looks and just want to play ball in the street with him.
TV and the internet means you don’t have to up sticks and work in a circus tent to be a freak show performer. Adam meets the very sexy disabled porn star Cindy who has a defiantly optimistic attitude to life and work and her disability. She’s 100% “Yay me!” and you can’t imagine any name calling would ever get her down.
Adam leaves the States with a complicated outlook on freak shows. He knows he can’t be dismissive of them any longer. When he meets Mat Fraser, British star of American Horror Story: Freak Show the interview is stopped while Mat poses for photos and chats to (chats up?) his fans, showing that curiosity really can bring stardom. Mat gives him tips on a stand-up comedy set and, back in London, Adam boosts his growing confidence with some stage training.
Adam finished on stage in front of a staring crowd with the words ‘Elephant Man’ emblazoned across his chest, playing with and laughing at all the things that have made him feel alienated and frightened. It’s such a heart-warming transformation. He says “I got what everyone said about it being empowering”. Good for you Adam. I’m really happy you feel more at ease with yourself now. Long may it last. Thanks for sharing your story in such an insightful and cheerful way.