20 – Cracking the Whip

Allison Williams had a long career as a fire-eating, whip-cracking trapeze artist. She talks about what it’s like to put fuel in your mouth and to use a whip to crack food out of someone’s mouth.

(Photo is from a festival in Budva, Montenegro. Credit: Dragan)


Original McSweeney’s interview here.

Contact Allison!
@guerillamemoir on twitter and instagram, idowords.net

Show Notes

2:00 A rough beginning:


2:49 Allison was a full-time professional fire eater and circus performer.

4:30 Allison started eating fire because someone told her she couldn’t.

6:38 She did the same show more than 3-4000 times over 22 years. She tweaked the show over time.

7:26 At 15 she started playing a washing well wench at the local Renaissance Fair.

9:03 She eventually created a fire-eating-bed-of-nails show with her husband that they did for 10 years.

10:04 She wrote a book about improv for renaissance festival participants. (85 photocopied sheets that got passed around)

11:28 She met her husband, who worked his way through college as a royal jester at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. He was a fire-eating mime.

11:57 When she started eating fire it did not go so well. But when she went to an audition she just did it, no choice. Got her a job in a Chicago night club.

13:15 What do you use to eat fire? You can use mop string or lamp wicking, but she likes Kevlar wick.

15:22 She did not have health insurance while eating fire. But she lives in Dubai now, where it is illegal to not have health insurance, and your employer provides it. She is very excited to have dental coverage.

16:45 Her last performance was at a mall in Kuwait about a year and a half ago.

18:13 She’s in an all-women cast of MacBeth now, playing MacBeth.

20:54 She’s done corporate events, where they want her to fall out of the ceiling and hand Rolex watches to the best salespeople, or to dress in the company’s corporate colors.

25:00 She is part of a female company and people have been decently nice to them. Covent Garden in London is a hard pitch to work.

26:34 The roughest performance of her career was on America’s Got Talent. Howard Stern led the audience in booing her personally. Polite and professional is not good TV though, and that’s how she responded, leading her humiliation to be relegated to a brief montage.

28:45 More detail about America’s Got Talent behind the scenes.

30:13 She started learning how to use a bullwhip when she was 15 and had a crush on a guy who taught her. She can now whip a piece of celery from between a man’s legs.

In this photo from Covent Garden, she just finished cracking the whip and chopping the celery out of this guy’s mouth–you can see it flying in the air. (Photo credit: Fehmi Comert)

Allison Williams whip cracking

34:22 The whip can come back and crack her. But most of the time nothing goes wrong. The dangers of jamming the photocopy machine are discussed.

34:45 The different types of camping fuel you can use to do fire-eating. Burping fuel is not super pleasant.

37:18 Since retirement, she hosts a podcast for the Brevity literary magazine. She has written a young adult novel and is starting a new one. She’s written “Get Published in Literary Magazines” and “Self-Edit Like a Pro.”

40:52 A bit about what it’s like to live in Dubai. It says “housewife” on her visa. It’s trust and fear. We trust that they fear.

46:21 Can women wear half-shirts and shorty-shorts? You’re supposed to cover your knees and your shoulders but it’s not necessarily enforced.

49:24 Advice for anyone who wants to be a fire-eater whip-cracker: Don’t wait for permission.

And you have to be willing to get 100 Nos before you get a Yes.