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Bearded Ladies and Fire-Eaters: Inside the Venice Beach Freakshow

A photo tour of a bizarre and colorful world where, as ringmaster Todd Ray says, “Normal is dead”

Venice Beach Freak Show

Jessa the Bearded Lady not-so-gently coaxes passerbys to enter the Venice Beach Freakshow.

Brian L. Frank

When Grammy-winning producer Todd Ray came home from work one day and told his wife, Danielle, that he was planning to leave his job in the music business, giving up a seven-figure salary, to open a freakshow, she thought he was out of his mind and she told him so. But Ray is a persuasive and steadfast guy — not only did he do as he said he would, opening the Venice Beach Freakshow in 2006, but he also convinced Danielle to work there with him. She greets visitors as they enter the circus sideshow and museum of oddities to this day, and she isn't the only family member to be part of the production. Ray's son, Phoenix, is a co-owner and up-and-coming ringmaster following in dad's footsteps, and his daughter, Asia, is one of the show's marquee performers, eating fire, swallowing swords, sitting in electric chairs and contorting her body as "The Rubber Girl."

This unusual family business is the subject of the AMC reality series Freakshow, which follows the lives of the Ray clan, as well as those of three-foot-five-inch-tall "Amazing Ali" Chapman, shock artist Morgue, Jessa the Bearded Lady and more of the uniquely shaped, sized and talented individuals that Todd has brought together. (The series' two seasons are currently available for streaming on Netflix.) We recently sent photographer Brian L. Frank to meet some of the fascinating characters behind the Venice Beach Freakshow and to capture all the wild action.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Todd Ray outside The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Todd Ray

The founder and ringmaster sits outside the Venice Beach Freakshow. Ray fell in love with sideshow culture as a kid when he saw a performer, Otis Jordan, who had ossified limbs and was known as the Human Cigarette Factory because of how he could use his shoulders, chin and tongue to roll a cigarette.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Todd Ray gets guests to his show pumped up before they enter The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

A Crowd Gathers

Ray gets guests pumped up before they enter the Freakshow.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Before entering the show, passers by are allowed to pet a 2-headed turtle held by Todd Ray at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Shell Game

Ray gets passerbys to stop by offering them the chance to pet his two-headed pet turtle. 

Venice Beach Freak Show

Brian L. Frank

Double Take

Ray's pet turtle is just one of the unusual creatures in his collection of two-headed animals, which ranks as the world's largest.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Wolf Boy, Larry Gomez and Gabriel Pimentel, along with "Jessa The Bearded Lady" at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA.

Brian L. Frank

Three’s Company

Jessa the Bearded Lady, Wolf Boy (A.K.A. Larry Gomez) and two-foot-six-inch-tall Gabriel Pimentel hang out outside the Venice Beach Freakshow.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Ali Chapman McCarthy and her husband "Wee-Matt" at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Big Love

Ali Chapman McCarthy and her husband Wee Matt — the "Littlest Married Couple" — sit at the Freakshow's stage area.

Venice Beach Freak Show

"The Smallest Man in America," Gabriel Pimentel outside The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

The Smallest Man in America

Gabriel Pimentel strikes a pose outside the Venice Beach Freakshow.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Ali Chapman McCarthy greets guests to The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Kid at Heart

Ali Chapman McCarthy greets guests, including children not much smaller — or in some cases, actually taller — than she is.

Venice Beach Freak Show

"Wee-Matt" gets the audience pumped up at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Raise the Roof

Wee Matt works the crowd inside the Freakshow.

Venice Beach Freak Show

The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

The Bubble Boy

Bob Heslip has a genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis, which disturbs cell growth in the nervous system, causing tumors to form on nerve tissue.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Audience members react in shock during the performance of Asia Ray at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Stage Fright

Audience members react in shock during a performance by Todd's daughter Asia.

Venice Beach Freak Show

"Jessa the Bearded Lady" at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Jessa the Bearded Lady

She owns the Guinness World Record for the longest beard on a woman in history.

Venice Beach Freak Show

One of many 2-headed creatures at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Twice as Nice

One of the many two-headed creatures at the Venice Beach Freakshow.

Venice Beach Freak Show

"Morgue" shocks the audience by placing a large hook through his nose and out through his mouth at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Fishing for Compliments

Shock artist Morgue amazes and horrifies the audience by placing a large hook through his nose and out through his mouth during a performance.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Brian L. Frank

Rock the Volt

Miss Sunshine, the Electric lady, has so much power coursing through her body from sitting in an electric chair that she lights up a bulb when it touches her.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Asia Ray thrills the crowd with her fire eating routine at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Some Like It Hot

Asia Ray thrills the crowd with her fire-eating routine.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Miss Sunshine at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Taking a Breather

Miss Sunshine — who does a fire-eating routine, as well as an electric chair act, at the Freakshow — takes a break.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Audience reaction at The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Child’s Play

The intense performances at the Venice Beach Freakshow can be a little too much for younger members of the audience at times.

Venice Beach Freak Show

Asia Ray, "Morgue", "Jessa the Bearded Lady," Larry Gomez and Miss Sunshine pose for a portrait outside The Venice Beach Freakshow in Venice Beach, CA

Brian L. Frank

Freaks and Family

Asia Ray, Morgue, Jessa the Bearded Lady, Larry Gomez and Miss Sunshine pose outside the Venice Beach Freakshow.

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