I Am a Freak
In 1968 Andy Warhol, at an art show in Stockholm, Sweden, said, “In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol, of course, was the pop-art guru who inspired the baby-boom generation to create youth-centred mass art. Today baby boomers may be retiring, yet their subsequent generations are still grasping for a piece of that fifteen minutes of fame. With the advent of the internet, and in particular social media, it’s much easier for people to be known for inane reasons. People go on Twitter and Facebook to talk about any number of things, from updating their followers on their laundry day or what they’re making for lunch. Donald Trump, the current American president, may be as famous for his tweets as for his dramatic policies.
Fame for inane, odd, or unsavoury reasons started long before Andy Warhol, and it’s ongoing. By the end of this article, I will reveal an odd tidbit about myself in my pitch for fame. But first, some background.
The Freak Show
From the mid-nineteenth to well into the twentieth century, the freak show was a popular form of entertainment. In the United States, PT Barnum, for whom the recently defunct circus was named, perhaps single-handedly popularized the show. Barnum employed people with unusual physical conditions — among others, bearded women, and Siamese twins — and charged people admission to look at his “freaks.” Perhaps Barnum’s most famous freak was Tom Thumb, a small person whom Barnum adopted at the age of five.
Barnum taught Thumb how to dance and sing and do impressions of people; audiences delighted in watching a person who never grew much more than a metre tall do precocious acts. Barnum went to great pains to create exotic back stories for his freaks, including his fraudulent mermaid, actually the head of a monkey sewn to a fish’s tail; he claimed it had been caught in the Fiji islands.
Reality Shows Are the New Freak Show
And that brings me to present-day tv. I haven’t watched cable for years; I cancelled it for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I resented paying a considerable amount of money for what amounted to trash tv. Among the worst are the “reality shows” (I hate the term, as it implies that it’s a new genre that was born with Survivor in the 2000s. It wasn’t. Just watch old episodes of Candid Camera). Although they claim to be unscripted, they are, in fact, highly planned and craftily edited dramas that accent melodrama and participants’ pain for entertainment. And Barnum would be proud at the freakish and desperate measures to which people will seek fame.
Don’t believe me? Watch TLC. Their early shows, such as Jon and Kate Plus 8, were seemingly tame, but when Jon and Kate’s marriage imploded in front of the cameras, the station upped the ante. Shows like My Husband’s Not Gay, featuring women marrying men who covet other men, allowed people to display odd and socially taboo subjects on (supposedly) unscripted tv . Perhaps sadder is TLC’s My 600-lb Life, which follows morbidly obese people as they attempt to qualify for bypass surgery.
We see them eat the frozen pizzas they bought at the grocery store, where they struggled to stand from their scooters to pay the cashier. The show offers no advice on how to live a healthy lifestyle, nor does it show how to lose weight. The show is clearly a morality tale, allowing normal-sized people to gawk and judge with the same level of judgement that nineteenth-century audiences once gave the Bearded Lady and the Elephant Man — hence each My 600-lb Life episode’s gratuitous shot of a morbidly obese person getting out of the shower.
Who can forget TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which followed a trailer-trash family whose 5-year-old daughter competed in beauty pageants? Never mind the bizarre episodes, including one featuring mother June and father Mike eating roadkill at a cafeteria for their anniversary. But their actual lives outside the show became a larger freak show when it was revealed that June left Mike and moved in with a convicted pedophile.
A&E is another network that airs similarly themed garbage, having transitioned years ago from airing unlimited reruns of Law & Order. Intervention follows people with addiction issues, recording with glee as they helplessly destroy their lives. (The show does deserve credit for demonstrating how to host an effective intervention.) But let’s not forget Hoarders, in which cameras go into hoarders’ homes to demonstrate their destructive behaviours.
I once saw an episode featuring a woman who stored her feces and urine in the fridge because she couldn’t get to her toilet to do her business (her washroom was storing her collection of newspapers). Her adult children, who hadn’t been to her house in years, cried when confronted with their mother’s bizarre and unsanitary life. Later in the episode, they fought with their mother, who had panic attacks as the psychotherapist asked her to throw out her hundreds of cans of preserved tomatoes. Clearly the tv audience is being invited to see these people — who are clearly suffering from severe, albeit strange, mental illnesses — as freaks. However, although the people in these two shows are obtusely using the show to seek help, they are making a pact with the devil. If there is an afterlife, P. T. Barnum is beaming a large smile.
I Am the Weakest Link
By revealing an odd tidbit about myself in a public forum, will I make a fool of myself? Will people gossip me like they do the contestants on The Bachelor? Will they disdain me as they do the family on Sister Wives? Or worse yet, will they see me as a true freak directly out of Barnum’s freak show? Or perhaps they will feel a connection with me, a realization that they too have secrets that they are afraid others would find out? Or more likely, I fear they will see me as a hoarder.
There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to start revealing.
The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain
In the fall of 2016, I travelled to Barcelona, Spain, for an eight-day trip. It was my first trip to Europe and my first air flight across an ocean. I had chosen Spain for a multiple of reasons — my love of Spanish wine, Spain’s long history, and Barcelona’s apparent beauty. As a teen, I remembered watching the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and was astounded during the diving competitions: the tv cameras captured the stadium on top of the hill, and as the divers dove, you could see the mountains in the background. To me, it looked breathtaking.
And Barcelona was indeed much different from my hometown, not only in its geography (it’s nested by mountains on two sides and a sea on another) but also in its aesthetics and vibe.
Barcelona is a dense, compact city, and people live there in condos and apartments (although some houses do exist in the affluent area). I was blown away but its museums, including the Picasso Museum, which holds many of the renowned artist’s early works in several interconnected centuries-old buildings; the Museum of Catalonia, housed in an old palace on top of a cliff, complete with a majestic view of the city; and the Design Museum of Barcelona, where I explored, among other things, the history of women’s clothes. I swam nude in the Mediterranean, crashed a newlywed couple’s wedding at a majestic church, and attended a wine tour at a winery outside of the city.
And of course, there was my triumphant last night, when I attended a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the Olympic Stadium.
All Good Things Come to an End
Eventually I had to come home. I returned on a Monday, and I felt both glad and bizarre to be home. Glad, because being in a foreign country, especially where you don’t speak the language, is a daunting experience. And bizarre to think that in 10 hours I had crossed the ocean when two centuries ago it would have taken a few weeks. The next day I was back to work, modelling for an art class at a university, standing naked in front of 20 sets of piercing eyes. It felt odd, considering where I had been a little over 24 hours ago.
Postcards from the Edge
Are you ready? Here is the weird disclosure.
Everybody brings momentums home from their trips, and I’m no exception. Among the things I brought home are two posters I bought from museums I visited — I have since framed them — and dozens of pictures and videos I took that are among my most cherished items memories. But I’ve also kept other things. I kept my boarding passes. I kept the magazine I bought at Pearson Airport in Toronto to read on the way there (I still haven’t finished it).
But here’s the killer: I kept the very first purchase I made in Spain. I arrived in Barcelona at 10AM Spanish time, and by the time I got to my hotel, where I realized that in my room they had given me a toothbrush but not toothpaste, it was 11AM, so I went to the grocery store next door and bought lunch and toothpaste. By the end of my trip, I hadn’t finished the toothpaste, so I brought it — and the toothbrush — home with me. It took me another month or so to finish it, and here I am 3 months later, and I still haven’t thrown out my empty Spanish toothpaste and used toothbrush. It’s sitting in my toothbrush cup in my bathroom, alongside my new toothpaste and toothbrush. My apartment is otherwise uncluttered and clean.
Should I Be on Hoarders?
I know I’m nowhere close to being a clinical hoarder. I clean my apartment regularly and I live a hygienic, healthy lifestyle. So nobody is knocking on my door to put me on tv to display my odd Spanish momentum. Am I any better than the hoarders displayed on tv? Who am I to judge the clinically obese, who clearly suffer from eating disorders? Or the trailer trash or sexually confused who put themselves on national tv? Clearly I’m not any better. Just a degree separated. If I were on tv, what wacky things about me would people find out? Would I qualify as a freak? And why aren’t reality-show producers knocking on my door?
Andy Warhol, I’m ready for my fifteen minutes of fame.