Throughout my life I have endured various lengths of time in many different establishments — domestic violence shelters, mental health institutions, women’s homes, and inpatient treatment facilities, but none have helped me discover who I am more than the tent of the World of Wonders sideshow.
I felt burnt out. I felt the “not enoughs” — not slim enough, not young enough, not funny enough, not sideshowy enough. I was ready to give up on performing for a while, switch mediums to visual art, more specifically to focus on my newly attained tattooing apprenticeship at Bayou Queen Body Art, where I was receptionist and personal assistant to one of the most inspiring lady bosses ever, Kai Kita.
But then it happened, I got the message from management at the sideshow: “Do you still want to go on tour with World of Wonders?” I was floored, and the universe clearly had other plans in mind for me. Over the next few months, I made arrangements with my family, my partner, my employer, and my production partners. I expected my mother to not be supportive at all, and to my surprise she laughed and said, “About time!” My last few shows were collaborations with some of my favorite NOLA producers — I was sideshow art in May Hemmer’s new show “Artlesque”; sideshow working act for Slow Burn Burlesque; I got to reprise one of my favorite roles, my first with what became NOLA’s premier nerdlesque troupe, Xena Zeitgeist’s Society of Sin, as a double sword-swallowing Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot in the revamped “Arkham Assylum” — where I even auctioned off my umbrella sword (first sword I got down following my accident and was pulled out of me by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman at DragonCon) to purchase my bus ticket to Gibtown, Fla.; and did a hook-suspension, glass-walking sideshow fusion act in my own production, “Covington Cabaret.”
I told my loved ones I would “See them down the road,” and set out.
I made it to Gibsontown, Fla., one hot April day and met up with the rest of the World of Wonders crew. I had briefly met Tommy, Dyz and Trixie Turvy a few weeks before at the Sideshow Hootenanny. Tommy is probably one of the best bosses I’ll ever work with, Dyz is an incredibly talented knife thrower from Washington, D.C., and Trixie is one of the most talented hoopers I have ever met. There was Lolly Gagger, another sword-swallowing friend who moved to New Orleans three years ago, our working man Will, who likes “Squidbillies” almost as much as me, and legendary sword swallower Red Stuart, who began singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” after I nervously introduced myself. I was briefed on what all we would be doing and that we would be jumping to the first fair the next day.
When I say I have never worked this hard in my life, I mean I haven’t worked as physically and mentally hard since my time in Odyssey House. There, it was 6 a.m. “feet on the floor,” go until lights out at 10 p.m., assignment after assignment after assignment. Here at the sideshow, it is less brutal, but building an actual midway entails elbow grease, endurance and prayers that you don’t break anything, including yourself. There are stakes to go into the ground, heavy poles to install, tents and stages to build. This fair took us about two days to set up. Slowly but surely each piece became home. We built the “Illusions,” a stage for fire performance, a stage for the blade box, Red’s stage, ladder of swords, an escape act, the bannerline, and while watching and absorbing everything while it came together, we had the sideshow — the sideshow that has run for 70 years, the World of Wonders.
Sideshow performer Lydia Treats of Covington Cabaret.
Step right up, folks, and catch the daring Lydia Treats this weekend! Watch her eat fire! Watch her swallow swords! Watch her pound nails up her nose! All before she pulls a disappearing act and fulfills a childhood dream.
The performer will host her regular “Covington Cabaret” show Friday (April 15) at the Green Room in downtown Covington and then perform at the weekly “Talk to Nerdy to Me” show with The Society of Sin on Saturday (April 16) at the Dragon’s Den, and then she’s off to join the carnival.
“I was always the weirdo,” she recalled, adding that she was “even surrounded by other weirdos.” This was when, as a young woman, she’d hang out in Fat City at Cypress Hall or later in Metairie at Zeppelins. By the time she’d graduated at NOCCA back in 2000, New Orleans was becoming a popular tour stop for sideshow performers such as Jim Rose, Blockhead, Eric Odditorium and other performers.
“All of the old sideshow working acts fascinated me,” she said. “In fact, the ones that freaked me out the most were the ones I had to learn and pick apart and perform. Blockhead used to make me want to hork. Sword swallowing terrified me. It still does.
“I had a dream a few years ago where I performed it, and it was the same as dreaming of having a fountain Coke. I had to have it. The ‘fountain Coke’ thing happens to me a lot.”
It also happened with booze. Not long after graduating from NOCCA, as a growing desire to perform kicked in, she found herself pregnant, and working a dreary job at a corporate medical company while trying to be, in her mind, someone else’s version of herself. “I crawled into a bottle every night,” she recalled, and quickly graduated from beer to liquor, going into and out of treatment. This was in 2012.
Then, suddenly, something clicked. Even though she’d left Odyssey House due to a relapse, she started to focus on her recovery, and sought treatment at Townsend in Metairie. Within a month, she got up onstage, serving as a stage kitten for the Rev. Spooky LeStrange’s Billion Dollar Baby Dolls’ annual “Banned Books” burlesque show.
Around this same time, she recalls, she started taking classes at Bella Blue’s New Orleans School of Burlesque, and met performer Remy Dee at a club, which led to the “Banned Books” gig.
Getting into performing at any club became instantly problematic for a recovering alcoholic, as she learned soon after offering to help out on the Baby Dolls’ next show, “The Night Circus Burlesque Show” at Siberia. Glancing at all the beer taps and the bar against the wall, she panicked.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am in a bar! What do I do?!” she recalled saying to herself. “Because the institutionalized side of me instantly went to ‘If you hang out in a barber shop long enough, you’re bound to get a haircut.’ So I freaked out and texted my sponsor. ‘I’m in a bar.’ ‘Are you drinking?’ ‘No. I am drinking a Monster (energy drink). At a bar!’ ‘Ok, just don’t pick up (a drink).’
“It was a simple program for complicated people,” she explained. “That’s when I learned it isn’t that guy or that girl or that non-binary person’s disease, much less the entire city of New Orleans. It it is my disease, and that if I refrain from picking up, I don’t get loaded.”
Soon after, Lydia Treats the sideshow performer evolved, especially after befriending local performer Sideshow Matt, who helped introduce her to classic sideshow acts including fire eating and sword swallowing — the latter of which, obviously, required intense concentration. Now more than ever, booze was out of the question, and after having been sober for several months, she felt ready to give it a try.
It didn’t “take” at first — it rarely does, she noted, given the often painstaking process of getting over a gag reflex.
“I’d started a couple years ago and was making no progress,” she said. “It wasn’t until after I moved to the Northshore that I found my coat hanger and said, ‘What the hell?’ and started trying again. It went down! Past my throat! For the first time ever! I think I made a little more progress each month — top of chest, cardiac sphincter, solar plexus, into stomach.” As late as last year, though, she still suffered the same potential pitfall of every performer when she had to visit the emergency room after suffering a perforated esophagus.
Her well-received debut sword-swallowing performance in The Society of Sin’s “Pulp Science Fiction” show, in front of 400 people, in 2015 further confirmed she was on the right track with her career. The itch to perform onstage that had emerged at NOCCA finally was getting just the right scratch for the weirdo, who along the way had her tongue split and often wears kooky contact lens for an added weirdo effect.
She can’t put a finger on one particular reason for the thrill of these performances — whether it’s the simple ability to do it, the ability to shock the audience, or simply for audience approval.
Lydia Treats performs. (Photo by Bob Moose Kustra)
Over the years she’s performed regularly in nerdlesque shows with The Society of Sin (including “Talk Nerdy to Me”) and with Remy Dee (“Nightmare Before Christmas Burlesque”) along with performances at BUKU Music + Art Project and House of Shock.
She’s cultivated her own act but also as that of a producer by starting up the “Covington Cabaret” show in 2015, which she says has played to standing-room-only crowds thirsty for something different on the Northshore. She’s invited several of her New Orleans burlesque friends to come perform, including Bella Blue, as well as Xena Zeit-Geist bringing the “Vice Is Right” burlesque game show to the Green Room.
“The Covington show has been going amazingly, much better than I anticipated before getting it started,” she said. “It has a great support network and a lot of locals in the community have become regulars, I’ve gone on the radio over there twice with a sort of open invitation to go over and do the radio spot whenever I wanted because it’s been fun.”
Friday’s show will feature comedian (and regular) Corey Mack, Lolly Gagger, Ri Dickulous and Tsarina Hellfire.
The 34-year-old has done all this while raising two children — a daughter, 14, and a son, 11 — both of whom have shown the kid of creative spirit their mom hopes to cultivate.
Performing alongside the World of Wonders sideshow artists will not only give her a chance to showcase her work with other peers, but will fulfill a childhood fantasy stoked early on by peeping at those early Edith Clifford videos.
“I have wanted to run away and join the carnival since I was a little kid,” she confessed. “This was a dream come true to be hired by them — to work with living legends of the sideshow, to actually travel, build the banner lines, the tents, sleep in the bunkhouse.”
After all these years, Lydia Treats feels comfortable in her own skin — onstage, as a weirdo, offering a little shock and awe to her audiences. Beats office work.