Photos by Amy Lombard
"If I'm going to die in the next five years, I don't want to be connected to tubes, I don't want to make myself sick, so I'm just going to see what happens with this."
The metal rod is taller than her four foot seven inch frame—much too heavy, one would think, for her to balance on her two fingers. She plants her feet, though, shifts in her patchwork dress, and twirls the flaming staff in the air, ducking and dancing around the fire as PJ Harvey moans "I can hardly wait" from crackling speakers. The audience gasps and claps.
Earlier, she lay on a bed of nails as if it were a pillow-top mattress, pulling a sunburnt tourist from the audience to stand on her torso as she reclined, and wriggled out of a straitjacket while reciting a monologue from The Glass Menagerie. It's this fire dance, though—an oddly graceful and definitely dangerous execution—that first hushes an audience filled with sun and beer-drunk spectators and then sends them to their feet, cheering, as the song winds down and the fires go out.
"I like you watching me watching you," she tells them, flirty, mischievous, like an un-Disney Tinkerbell, as she tosses her short brown hair over her shoulder. Then, she releases her audience into the briny, Nathan's hotdog-scented afternoon, where they chatter about the performance they just witnessed at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow: the amazing Nati, Patchwork Girl.
Still, they've only witnessed half the wonder that is Nati Amos. While some sideshow performers are essentially "lifers," the gig, for Amos, is only a side hustle—a way for her to fund her ultimate goal of becoming a doctor.
To most of us, sideshows are shadowy things,outdated remnants that we may have only experienced through American Horror Story: Freak Show or that one episode of The X-Files. For Amos, however, the sideshow has been a home of varying degrees for several years—a place where she's met friends, healed old wounds, subverted expectations, and worked like hell to make her dreams come true.
Amos, 31, was born with what is called amniotic band syndrome, which occurs when the fetus is tangled in string-like bands in the womb and its development is affected—limbs can be amputated in-utero and babies can be born with cleft palates and other deformities. According to The Fetal Treatment Center at the University of California, San Francisco, amniotic band syndrome is neither genetic nor hereditary and is relatively rare. "When I was born I had significant damage to the point where the doctors told my parents, 'Well, she's probably not going to make it very long,'" Amos says. "Obviously, they were wrong." They would continue to be wrong for years; her projected lifespan grew and grew.
Amos spent her childhood shuttled between her parents—her father, who taught people how to get their real estate licenses in New York, and her mother, who was an aerobics instructor in California. Her father used to bring her saltwater taffy from a tiny shop forgotten by time in Coney Island, a kind of harbinger of what was to come. She whiled away most of her time, however, at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, which didn't wholly shield her from the horror-show that is high school. "I was a geek in high school, I was into punk rock and also really into school, and given my appearance I was the obvious attraction for teenage cruelty," she says, adding that she took solace in fictional characters like Cyrano de Bergerac. ("He's got a big nose, but he's got big balls.")
Between the hospital and school, she fell in love with science. "I wanted to be a doctor, because who knows more than I do how to handle science and the human beings attached to it?" she says. "I wanted to show people that being or looking different isn't a death sentence." Bolstered by caring teachers, she took her advanced placement chemistry exam in the playroom of the children's hospital.
Her second love? The sideshow. And although becoming a doctor and running away to join the circus seem to be diametrically opposed career paths, both passions undoubtedly fed into each other. To explain how, we're going to have to travel back to 2007, when Amos first became acquainted with the bizarre world that is the sideshow.
It's winter, and a twenty-something Amos is attending a party at the first iteration of Brooklyn performance venue, The House of Yes, which, at the time, is a kind of hippie squat refuge for aerialists, clowns and performers of all ilks—all of whom are performing tonight in a kind of marathon of a show that stretches into the sun-up hours of morning.
In the midst of the masks and colors and acrobats, Amos spots Jelly Boy The Clown, a dashing 6-foot-tall figure in striped pants, suspenders and complicated facial hair that makes him look like an evil cartoon cat. In his hand, he clutches a rubber chicken. Amos has heard about Jelly—a sword-swallowing, fire-breathing wonder—from some mutual friends, and decides she has to meet him. When she taps him on the shoulder, however, he stares at her incredulously.
High as a kite, Jelly thinks Amos is a figment of his imagination, and casts his eyes around the room, wondering if anyone else can see this pint-sized wonder.
"Yeah, man, I totally don't exist," Amos tells him, face serious.
"Who are you? What are you?" he asks, the chicken hanging from his hand.
When Jelly sobers up a bit and realizes that Amos is, indeed, a real person, he tells her: "You belong here. You belong with us in the circus."
And so it began.
Before she met Jelly, Amos had had some experience with the circus—as a stagehand, mostly—but her first entrée into the world of performance was via the clown. He taught her everything he knew about playing with fire and helped her get some of her first gigs. And when, a few years later, Coney Island Sideshow founder Dick D. Zigun called Jelly and asked him if he could recommend anyone to perform in their sideshow and at events like Superfreak Weekend, the clown recommended his friend. She set her dress on fire during her audition, but she got the job. "What she does is astonishing," Zigun says. "The way audiences react to her—there's a certain, perhaps, shock of sympathy for her when she reveals herself on stage. But then you watch the transition on the audience's faces as they listen to her and hear the humor and the intelligence and [they] turn around and not only accept her, but end up loving her."
At first, Amos was cautious about performing at such events as Superfreak Weekend, which focuses on "natural born" sideshow performers. Natural borns, according to her, are like the Beyoncés of the sideshow—people born with physical anomalies that, in the traveling sideshows of yesteryear, rendered them curious spectacles. Mat Fraser, a fellow Coney Island performer who also appeared as the Illustrated Seal Boy on American Horror Story: Freak Show, is one of Amos' personal heroes.
"My dad was initially worried about me being in the circus," she says. "He would say, 'They're not going to put you in cage, right? 'They're not going to display you?' He's seventy-seven, so he remembers what the carnival was like when he was the kid. He saw The Elephant Man. I saw The Elephant Man, too, so I was also worried, at first, about performing—because I didn't want to be exploited, either."
Soon, however, she found the opposite to be true, at least for the most part. Performing in the sideshow was a kind of therapy. After years of being sick and in and out of the hospital, Amos started getting reckless with herself—in a constructive way. She learned to dance with fire. She learned to extract herself from a straitjacket—gifted to her by a magician who bought it from a now defunct asylum. She even got into suspension, which involves hanging from the ceiling by hooks. Amos is allergic to local anesthetics and opiates, which is unfortunate since she's had several surgeries over the years due to her condition. Still, that perceived weakness made her strong when it came to working with fire and sharp metal hooks: She was already deft at putting mind over to ignore pain.
After an apartment fire put Jelly Boy in the hospital (and in a coma), Amos performed a suspension act at a benefit in his honor. She hung from the ceiling, hooks in her back and legs, and sprinkled flower petals on the audience below. "She was just showering everybody with love and flower petals," a now-healed Jelly recalls, his voice dreamy and full of fondness. Luckily, he was out of the hospital in time to see her performance. "When she first started performing, she would focus on being loving and open—on winning over the audience instantly," he says. "She's still doing that, but now she's also challenging people's perception of how strong she is."
Being strong hasn't always been easy for Amos. Often, she would get frustrated—angry, even—about her lot in life. "Something was always happening, I got sick or derailed, and when I'd be coming up for air, something else would happen," she says. "So it was like, 'If what they're telling me is true, if I'm going to die in the next five years, I don't want to be connected to tubes, I don't want to make myself sick, so I'm just going to see what happens with this.'"
"It was dangerous," she adds. "Especially in my situation, it was extremely dangerous. So doctors who have worked on me would probably pound their fists and be like, 'What are you doing? We have spent millions of dollars building you and you're hanging from hooks and you're playing with fire? This is not the recipe for success, my dear!'"
In a sense, though, it was. Amos saved all the money she made during those summers at Coney Island and from other circus gigs and put it towards studying biochemistry in Chicago.
Now, as a working scientist, she dons a lab coat custom-made to fit her frame with her name stitched on the front. She's worked with kids from underprivileged communities, teaching them about science like a self-proclaimed "crazy, female, circus-y Bill Nye." Currently, she works the night shift at a lab in a Queens, New York dairy, jamming out to her beloved PJ Harvey while making sure that the milk we drink is safe to consume. Ultimately, she dreams of curing ALS ("It's ambitious and perhaps a bit narcissistic. But I think I have a shot," she says).
And, yes, Amos still works Coney Island on occasion—she probably always will. Zigun, for one, would love to see her develop her act and her skills while honing her skills as a scientist. Still, one recent performance in which she mounted a wholly different kind of stage stands tall in her mind...
Dressed in a dapper vest, tie and pocket square, Amos strides onto the TEDx stage to deliver a talk she has titled "The Misnomer of Disability in the Workplace." She swallows any nervousness that had cropped up earlier, when she learned that the teleprompter was on the fritz, summoning up the composure that she's honed over years of daring performances.
The room bereft of drunken, sunburnt tourists and cotton candy-sticky kids—but there's still a sense of anticipation in the air, a quiet one. One that is listening.
"I am told that I am brave," she says, pointing at the audience, a small, wry smile on her face. "And that's not true. I'm audacious. I'm not brave. I inflict myself onto the world like a virus, hoping to infect everyone I come into contact with."
Her smile grows until it fills her whole face. She may not be spinning fire, but she's spinning words, and she's drawing people in. Telling her story. "I have seen the best and suffered the worst of folks that see me as a blight," she says. "And I love people for all that they are, but more for what they could be. And I live for that moment—for that door not to shut, but just to crack open long enough so that maybe, maybe... you could see that I have all my parts."
And then... applause.
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