I’d tried bungee jumping, motorcycle riding, and stunt driving. I’d learned how to hammer a nail into my nose. But it was fire-eating that turned me into a fearless badass.

Confessions of a Professional Fire-Eater

illustration by Goopymart

I don’t remember why I decided to try fire-eating as opposed to say, swallowing razor blades or some other dangerous geek stunt. I think it was to impress a guy.

I was in a traveling variety arts show that I had written with my friend Lyra, which included improv comedy, low-cut shirts, bawdy drinking songs, and a daring straightjacket escape which left me nearly naked on stage. We were playing a renaissance fair when I met an escape artist named Brian who would change my life.

Brian’s acerbic nature made my knees wobbly and my head spin. One night, while Brian was plying me with wine in an attempt to get me fully naked, he made an offhand remark that the show was “girly.”

“Girly?” I asked with an eyebrow raised. “Why?”

Brian grabbed the back of my chair and pulled me in. With his mouth about a millimeter away from mine he said, “It lacks danger.”

Lyra was skeptical about adding fire-eating to our show, but I told her I would do all the dangerous stuff. I found diagrams of how to build torches online and bought fuel (basic Coleman’s naphtha used in camp stoves and lamps), it took me a while to work up the nerve to stick a lit torch in my face.

I remember standing on stage, Lyra nearby with a bucket of water and a blanket in case I set myself aflame, holding the torch above my open mouth. I looked at the flame, burning low and blue, trying to will myself to put it in my mouth.

I paced the balcony of my motel room in Hammond, Louisiana, waiting for my mom to pick up the phone at home in Ohio. She sounded happy to hear from me. “How’s the tour?”

“Good,” I said, biting my lip.

“Are you going to get a chance to go to New Orleans?”

“Yup, we just booked a gig at a club on Bourbon Street,” I said, knowing what was coming next.

“Oh, Kate!” She sounded so genuinely happy. “That’s so great! When did that happen?”

“Last week,” I said taking a deep breath, “A club owner saw the show the day we added fire-eating and asked us for our card. We went down to the city to meet with him–”

“Katie, did you just say fire-eating?”

“Yes, we went to New Orleans and booked a full fire-eating show to run at the end of December and all of January.”

“Fire-eating?” I could hear the shock in her voice. I’d done a lot of wacky things in the past, but this was different. “Like sticking a flaming object in your face?”

“Yeah, Mom.” I began my rehearsed speech. “It’s no more dangerous than drinking a cup of really hot coffee.”

“Well that’s just…” I could hear my usually supportive mother struggling. “Here, talk to your father.”

She put down the phone and I could hear her say to my dad, “Jesus, she’s eating fire now, Gary!”

“So fire-eating, huh?” Dad said. “That’s pretty cool, Katie!”

When performing stunts, I’m always very cautious. As harmless as I’ve professed fire-eating to be, it’s still fire, and it still burns if you fuck up.

That fall I’d met a magician named Kevin who’d suffered third-degree burns all over his chest because of a blow-back (when a “spit” fireball blows back at you).

My friends Todd and Allyson (a married partner act) had told me all about the fire-eating accident that left Allyson with very bad scars all over her neck and chest.

And they were the lucky ones. I heard about performers who’d died after inhaling a flame, burning themselves from the inside out. I also read about the effects of ingesting naphtha over the long term, naphtha being a known carcinogen.

I did it anyhow.

It was a blazingly hot day in the desert at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and we were on show number three. I hadn’t had a chance to drink water or eat bread, so I was starting to feel “fuel drunk.”

I paused for a moment as I held the torch about three inches from my mouth – the suspense being that which adds that extra “oomph” to the experience for the audience – I regarded the hypnotic curl of black smoke and flicker of the orange-blue flame on the torch, and inhaled the scent of the burning naphtha – a scent which I had grown over the past year to find as alluring as men’s cologne.

All of a sudden, I felt someone push me to the ground and a wet towel being thrown over my face.

Since I had been less than diligent in shaking the excess fuel off of my torch – since I was fuel-drunk – I didn’t notice when lit naphtha dribbled down onto my face, causing it to burst into one blue flash of flame.

Lyra and our stage manager pounced on me in an instant. Even if they hadn’t, it is doubtful that I would have been seriously injured from the flame, as naphtha evaporates quickly and I would have had to been soaked from head to toe in the stuff before it would have caught my skin on fire. The more immanent risk was of the fuel having dripped onto my costume or into my hair. That could have been deadly.

Once the flame was out and Lyra helped me to my feet, whispering in my ear what had happened, I went right on with the show. I was told later after the hullabaloo subsided that it was a very impressive sight, my face on fire. I had singed my eyelashes and eyebrows, giving me a weird look of constant surprise. People thought it was done on purpose.

I think we gained a lot of fans that day.

I was standing on stage at the Krazy Korner bar on Bourbon Street. In one hand was an unlit torch and in the other was a drunken tourist boy. I was attempting to perform the warm-up to my solo act, in which I light an audience volunteer’s hand on fire for a brief moment.

Under the best of circumstances, this stunt was risky, and one which most fire-eaters wouldn’t perform. You know the saying, “don’t work with animals and children”? Fire-eaters add “rubes” to that statement. As a rule, most do not work with the non-geek. But I was a fearless badass.

The rube in hand wasn’t my problem at the moment, though: his friend at a table in the front row was the one giving me a hard time. I wasn’t just dealing with the average stupid drunk heckler – this time I was dealing with a physical heckler drunk on sugary Hurricanes from his trip up Bourbon St.

He kept grabbing at my foot, leaning forward to try and grab me and my attention. The laughter of his buddies – including the one on stage with me – egged him on.

My usual tactic when dealing with hecklers of any kind was to ignore them – after a few well crafted heckler shoot-downs thrown at the offender – because paying attention to them only feeds their desire to act idiotic. But this guy just kept at it.

The final straw was when he, annoyed that I wouldn’t pay attention to him, drunkenly wobbled on stage, coming to over to me and putting his arm around my shoulders as I lit another torch for my final stunt. I looked with panic off to the side at guitarist Big Willie, who slid off his stool to get a bouncer to remove the rube who was now trying to reach around my cleavage (which is ample) to grab my lit torch.

I grabbed his outstretched hand and twisted it behind him, pulling up just enough to bring him to his knees. While holding him down, I extinguished the torch in my mouth and leaned forward into our stage microphone to say to him: “Buddy, I am going to guess you leave Bourbon Street tonight having learned at least one lesson,” I paused and looked out at the audience, “Don’t ever fuck with a girl who has a lit torch in her hand.”

As the crowd erupted in laughter, I let his arm go and he tumbled forward into the arms of the bouncer waiting to escort him and his buddies out onto the street.

Looking back at this time in my life, I don’t think that my 34-year-old self would have ever let my 25-year-old self attempt something as stupid as fire-eating. It’s dangerous in ways that you can’t even imagine, beyond poisoning and burning. I’ve been asked countless times by friends to teach them how to perform fire stunts, and I’ve said no every time. I had to teach myself how to do it, and the information is readily available online. But the truth is, there’s not much to teach. You just have to be brave enough to tilt your head back and stick it in.

I will happily talk shop and swap stories of my heyday with those who are foolish enough to actually pursue fire-eating. I point out to all of them that the reason I’m around to swap stories, amusing them with tales of bawdiness and bravery, is because I got out of the trade before I got sick or hurt myself badly.

Fire-eating definitely changed the direction of my life, but I was burning and poisoning myself for the entertainment of the crowd every time I put a torch in my mouth. That’s why, eventually, I stopped.

Still, I love being able to say with a straight face, “I used to be a fire-eating badass.”

Kate Kotler is a writer and a geek because in her younger days she got paid to stick fire in her face. bitchbuzz.com

Goopymart is really artist Will Guy in San Francisco and is a geek for holographic crayons because holographic children need art too. goopymart.com