Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.
There was that time in Honduras when the locals thought she was a witch. Such is the life of Jenn Neal, aka Jenn O. Cide.
A few years back, the sideshow performer was in Central America, doing a gig at a small bar.
Afterward, the promoter presented her with a bucket of beer — and a security detail to stay outside her hotel room door until she flew out the next day.
“He’s like, ‘Well, a bunch of locals saw you eating fire, breathing fire, putting needles in your skin,’ ” Neal recalls. “You didn’t bleed, you didn’t burn and you didn’t die, so they think you’re an actual devil. These are locals from a few villages over where, a couple of years ago, they actually burnt people at the stake for being witches, so this is no joke.’
“I was like, ‘OK, I guess it’s me and a bucket of Coronas for the night.’ ”
From Germany to Fiji to countless points in between, Jenn O. Cide has shocked and awed her away around the globe — in 2016 alone, she performed in 157 cities.
But while she’s best known as a sideshow headliner — she even has her own DVD — the Vegas native’s background is as varied as her travel itinerary: She emceed for Motley Crue during their first residency at The Joint, has helped design haunted houses and recently launched a screen printing company, to name but a few of her many pursuits.
When we caught up with her on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Neal was in New Orleans, having performed at Jazzfest until 7 that morning. Though she was still shaking the sleep out of her voice, she wasn’t too tired to expound upon the joys of eating glass for a living.
Review-Journal: You’ve got a great job title: professional weirdo. How does one begin living up to that?
Neal: I think we’re all definitely weirdos; I’ve just figured out a way to make money off it. When I try to explain to people, “Well, I eat glass, but I also tour-manage bands, I run a screen printing company, I used to run a freak show talent agency,” how do you convey all of that? It just got to the point where I’m like, “professional weirdo, that sums things up.” If you need something weird done, give me a call.
The connective tissue among it all is that you’re definitely comfortable being different.
When I was a kid, I went from being taunted for being a weirdo, the social misfit, to, “Wait a second, I listen to cool music, I’ve got cool friends, I go to cool concerts, and you guys are just figuring out how to braid your hair. Screw this. I’m not going to waste my time and energy trying to become something that I’ve definitely discerned that I’m not. So I’m just going to go ahead and put all my energy into doing my weirdness at the best level possible.”
You started performing as a teenager. What was your entree into breathing fire and eating glass?
There was a guy named Sal the Human Salamander who performed at Cafe Copioh back in the day. I saw him breathe fire, blow up a water bottle with just the power of his own lungs and pound a nail into his face. I was so mystified by his ability. How did he do that? So I went up to him and just bugged him, “Oh, my God, you have to teach me.” He’s like, “Hey kid, look, if you want to learn this stuff, you’re going to learn it all.” So he taught me how to breathe fire and do all kinds of ridiculous stuff.
How do you get good at those things without hurting yourself?
Someone can show you, “This is how you breathe fire” a bazillion times, “This is how you swallow a sword” a bazillion times, but you kind of have to face yourself and figure it out on your own. “OK, this is how my body is reacting to this.” I’m not going to say I’ve never been burnt. Of course I have. I’m not going to say I’ve never been injured. Of course I have. But I think you learn how to do a dangerous thing the safest way possible.
Is it a matter of going to a different place mentally when you perform? Do you feel pain?
Everyone feels pain. Some of the (performer) titles will be, like, “The Pain-Proof Princess.” Well, that’s not actually true. It’s just someone who’s able to connect with the feelings of pain by, say, eating glass or putting needles through their skin. It’s confronting yourself, confronting your perceived limits, and then blasting those limits out of the stratosphere. The human body and the human mind are capable of so much more than I think we give ourselves credit for. I hear a lot of people go, “Oh, God, I could never do that.” Actually, you could.
Do you get a feeling of exhilaration? How do you feel afterward?
It’s a double-edged sword because as with anything, once you become a professional, you no longer see the puppet, you’re looking at the strings. You have to commodify what you love, which can taint it long term, but still, every single time I do a good show and I get to look out and see people’s faces, the spectrum of shock, awe, disgust and wonderment, it’s such a gratifying feeling.
Is overcoming fear part of the appeal for you?
At this point, it doesn’t really enter the equation. But the initial draw, the initial pull for me, definitely was, “Wait a second, I’m afraid of getting burned, I just put fire in my mouth, and I’m OK now. What other stuff am I afraid of that I can take away its control over me?” Having hung from hooks and breathed fire and learned how to swallow a sword, once you do those things, it makes you go, “What else am I afraid of that’s holding me back?” I’ve definitely become a fear exorcist junkie.
Getting to know: Jenn O. Cide
Place you always take visitors
“Luv-it Frozen Custard. When I was a kid, if I was good, that was my treat. Luv-it, and the Double Down Saloon: I think that kind of covers the full spectrum of the Vegas experience.”
“It’s a toss-up: ‘Beetlejuice,’ ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser II,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ ”
Food you could eat every day
“Anything ridiculously hot. Anything spicy.”
“I’m absolutely terrified of snakes. I’ve tried every different type of therapy I could come up with. If I see a snake, I’m usually half a block away, panicking, when I realize, ‘I just ran from a little garter snake?’ ”
“Alone time with a puppy, a good book and a cup of hot tea.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.