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Freak Prodigy
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Making a spectacle of himself

He'll walk on broken glass (and breathe fire, and put nails up his nose) to be the world's biggest sideshow star

MARK KEMP
Special to the Observer

Brett Loudermilk looks a little out of place among the other suburban teens hanging out at Shoppes at Highland Creek.

He's sitting with his legs crossed at a small table inside Dilworth Coffeehouse, wearing designer jeans, sleek brown Aldo boots and a hip, brown jacket over a red Communist Party T-shirt emblazoned with images of Stalin, Lenin, Castro, Mao and Marx.

He's certainly not your typical high school sports star. Nor is he your typical high school rocker dude. This big-talking 18-year-old who just graduated from North Mecklenburg High is not typical in any way. He spends his extracurricular hours hammering nails up his nose, breathing fire, walking on broken glass and climbing ladders made of swords.

Brett Loudermilk is a sideshow freak -- "the youngest professional sideshow performer in the world," he claims -- who performs in clubs and galleries under the name Freak Prodigy. Since he was 10, he's had only one ambition -- to be a major star of the sideshow underworld. In fact, he'd like to bring that underworld into mainstream popular culture.

"I want to do for sideshows what Criss Angel and David Blaine have done for magic," says Loudermilk, referring to two young illusionists who took the art of magic out of cheesy, old-school Vegas revues and onto prime-time MTV.

His dark, shoulder-length hair and small chin give Loudermilk a slight resemblance to a younger Brian Warner (aka shock rocker Marilyn Manson), but with more delicate features.

He does share Manson's aesthetic for artistic self-destructiveness. While Loudermilk has never seriously injured himself when performing his stunts, he's occasionally cut his mouth and singed his nose hairs. "It's a dangerous business," he cracks. "I like to say it's a hard way to make an easy living."

A taste for theatrics

Loudermilk might be the perfect guy to bring sideshows from dusty carnival sites into the electronic age. He was born in West Virginia, the grandson of a Pentecostal preacher."From the time I was born until I was about five, I went to Pentecostal services," he says. "I remember the loudness, the energy. It was insane. The theatrics just totally inspired me."

When he was five, his mother and stepfather moved to Winston-Salem. A couple of years later, his stepfather took him to the Dixie Classic Fair, where he was drawn to a tent show called Reynold's Believe It You're Nuts. For a dollar, he was able to see wax figures of old circus freaks, a stuffed gorilla and an attraction labeled Chupacabra road kill.

"I felt completely ripped off," he says. "I was expecting Ripley's Believe It Or Not and I got that."

The experience whetted his appetite for sideshow freaks, and young Brett began consuming books and Web sites on the topic.

He talks with authority about all the sideshow greats, such as original human blockhead Melvin Burkhart, who hammers nails in his nose, and the freaks of P.T. Barnum's sideshows of the 1800s. When Loudermilk's family moved to Charlotte in the late '90s, he landed a job at the Renaissance Festival as a stagehand for tightrope walker and sideshow performer Dexter Tripp.

"Being an annoying 10-year-old," he says, "I bugged him into teaching me how to hammer a nail up my nose."

Loudermilk was 14 when he performed his first solo show at an art opening in Charleston called "Alive on the Inside: The Lure and Lore of the Sideshow." After the audience applauded, he was hooked. "I've been a carny junkie ever since," he says.

What do his parents think?

Erin and Paul Redman weren't so excited about their son's obsession. They live a fairly normal suburban life in a cul-de-sac development in the University area. Erin is a homemaker -- or, as Loudermilk likes to put it, "she's a domestic goddess." Paul, an avid sports fan, works in the home improvement business. Brett has two younger siblings, Jackson, 6, and Kylie, 2.

"At first, it was very hard for my mother to accept that I was going to be in the carny," says Loudermilk. "But she doesn't hate it anymore. Now she thinks of me as a performer and that makes her feel better about it. And she sees that I'm good at what I do."

She does worry, though.

"I'm his mother, he's my baby. Of course I worry," she says. "What he's doing is something that I don't know anything about. But he's wanted to do this for a really long time. And he's incredibly brave. I mean, what 18-year-old kid does the things he does? He's not at all afraid in front of a crowd."

He reminds Erin of her own father, the Pentecostal preacher. "Oh, honey, now he's the showman, a total showman. He doesn't preach anymore, but he's still a showman."

Like his grandfather, Loudermilk hams it up as often as possible. Until now, that's meant entertaining his friends at North Meck High.

"Everybody knows me as the guy who puts nails in his nose," he says. He's even recruited a couple of fellow travelers -- friends Derek Dulaney and Sara Ford -- to help him brainstorm ideas. "I've taught Sara a few stunts, like fire breathing and walking on glass."

Most of his acquaintances don't have a clue how Loudermilk's mind works, though. While they hang out at Starbucks or download the latest tune from Gwen Stefani and Akon, Loudermilk works on his other hobby, glass sculpture, and listens to strange and exotic instruments like the theremin and musical saw.

"I like noise, I like accordions," he says. "I love Tom Waits."

Loudermilk's glass sculpture inspired his signature stunt, an update of the old nail-up-the-nose trick. Instead of using iron nails, he uses nails made of glass. He shines a light in his throat so the audiences can see the tips of the nails glow. It makes him look like a creature from a sci-fi flick.

Pain for art's sake

On a scorching Saturday afternoon in the lounge of Plaza-Midwood art shop Pura Vida, Loudermilk, dressed in a black suit with a white tie and sneakers, warms up his audience of about 20 mostly young people. Behind him is an old-style funhouse poster, with a colorful, folk art-like painting of himself breathing fire, and big, bold words: "The Freak Prodigy," "Brett Loudermilk," "?uestion the impossible" and "Alive."He begins his performance with a couple of magic tricks, such as making a handkerchief disappear. His mom says this is where it all began: "He was six or seven years old and got a little magic kit.

"I thought it was a hobby. But then he just kept buying more and more and reading about it. I guess he was in middle school when he volunteered to work the Renaissance Festival, and after that experience, it just morphed into what he's doing now."

What Loudermilk is doing now is a mix of old-style sideshow swagger and modern irony. He peppers his performance with winks, nods and dark, subtle humor; at one point he "accidentally" shows his audience one of the tricks behind his magic.

Before the performance, he had expressed his admiration of the comedy and magic duo Penn and Teller, who in their routine remind fans that what they and others do is illusion, not really magic. Loudermilk, after explaining how the original blockhead got his name -- he hammered nails into his face, as if it were a block of wood -- warns the audience that what he's going to do next is real.

Anyone with a weak stomach, he says, might consider leaving now. No one does -- yet.

Over the next half-hour, the Freak Prodigy pulls most of his tricks from his black box, walking and jumping up and down on broken glass, lifting two heavy purses from hooks attached to his pierced ears and, of course, hammering a glass nail into his nose.

A couple people eventually do get up and leave during Loudermilk's more stomach-turning tricks. "Where you going?" he asks, a nail in his nose. Some of those who remain seated shut their eyes.

He has a quick wit and a strong persuasiveness. At the end of his act, Loudermilk convinces entirely intelligent members of the crowd to come to the stage and look at what he has in a box he placed on a stool -- "for just one dollar, folks -- it's the strangest thing you'll ever see." Actually, it's a realistic-looking, mummified, mermaid-like creature that appears as if it's been dead for decades. Is it real? That's for you to decide.

This is a business

The world of circus sideshows isn't all fun and games.

It's a business -- one that's gained in popularity since the early '90s. That's when performer Jim Rose took his Jim Rose Circus Sideshow on tour with the Lollapalooza alternative rock festivals alongside bands like Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails.

Since then, popular culture's fascination with body alteration has manifested itself in a surge in demand for tattoos and piercings. But the sideshow performers themselves never made the leap into the mainstream.

Loudermilk aims to change that.

"I'm going to go travel with Ward Hall and Chris M. Christ," he says, referring to two veterans of the sideshow circuit.

His ideas are reminiscent of those of kids from centuries past, who dreamed of running away with the circus.

"I want to get dirt under my fingernails and smell sawdust when I wake up in the mornings," he says, with a sense of poetry that belies his youth. In fact, it's a sense of poetry that makes one wonder if he didn't pick it up from one of his influences, Modern Con Man Todd Robbins, who has a series of how-to DVDs for creating scams.

Loudermilk was in New York recently to talk with Robbins about television possibilities for the Freak Prodigy. "TV is the only way," says the ambitious Loudermilk. "I think I could have an HBO special. But I'd rather have my own series."

`Doing what he wants to do'

As for his billing himself as "the youngest professional sideshow performer in the world," Loudermilk admits he couldn't possibly know whether another 18-year-old freak prodigy exists somewhere else on the planet. But hyperbole is the name of the game in the sideshow business."Hey," he says with a wink and crooked smile. "I'm a carny at heart." (Translation: "I'm a con man.")

One person he'll never con is his mom. "You know, I've always had the same dream any mom has about her child -- that he'll one day be a doctor or a lawyer or something where he has the chance to change the world," she says. "I know he's doing what he wants to do right now. But I still have that same dream and I always will."

BRETT'S FAVORITES

INTERESTS: Welding, glass sculpture.

BOOK: "Circus of the Scars: The True Inside Odyssey of a Modern Circus Sideshow," by Jan T. Gregor.

MAGAZINE: Shocked & Amazed! (an illustrated journal of sideshow weirdness). WEB: http://www.YTMND.com (acronym for "You're The Man Now, Dog!").

RESTAURANT: Bojangles'.

TV SHOW: "I Love New York," on VH1.

FLAVOR: Orange sherbet or pistachio, depending on my mood.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY

I was hanging out one afternoon and saw this guywho looked like a younger Marilyn Manson. I knew he must have a good story, so I struck up a conversation with him. -- Mark Kemp
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http://www.bloudermilk.blogspot.com
_________________________________________
E-mail:
BrettELoudermilk@gmail.com
DonDriver
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Great stuff Brett...keep it up.

Don
T-RAY
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GREAT PRESS!!!!!!! Brett, you doing BIG THANGS my young Brother......keep up the good work!!!!!
rossmacrae
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My podcast is getting closer to a start, and of course you're on the "gotta interview list" ... and now you've done all my homework for me!
Freak Prodigy
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Great...thanks guys.


I hit the road today. So long clean, nice smelling Brett. Hello dirty carny.



Brett.
Blog:
http://www.bloudermilk.blogspot.com
_________________________________________
E-mail:
BrettELoudermilk@gmail.com
rossmacrae
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Shall we start a poll?

Brett will come back from the road with how many teeth? How many warrants?

Attaboy, Brett!
Doug Higley
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THAT was a good piece of press. Nice work trooper!
About smelling the sawdust...you'll be smelling more than that around that bunch...maybe if you keep the glass nails IN your nose it will help.

By the way, I like how my Mer was portrayed...this is why it's al;ways good to get to know the reporter and make friends.

'communist' t-shirt? What happened to the Higley shirt? Smile
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SeasideShowman
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" Loudermilk was 14 when he performed his first solo show at an art opening in Charleston called "Alive on the Inside: The Lure and Lore of the Sideshow." After the audience applauded, he was hooked. "I've been a carny junkie ever since," he says. "

We, The Fettucini Brothers, were the MC's for that show and were proud to be part of Brett's intro into The Biz!! Congrats on the great press, Brett. You're well on your way to making all your dreams come true. Keep it up, Brother.

Alfresco Fettucini
aka Cap'n Mike
aka Seaside Showman
=============================
"I didn't care if they were laughing at me or laughing with me ... as long as they were laughing" - Unknown
www.MagicAtTheBeach.org
"I'm with it"
Freak Prodigy
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Thank you Mike and everyone else!

I'm glad I'm appreciated somewhere.

God, I've got to get off the road.



Brett.
Blog:
http://www.bloudermilk.blogspot.com
_________________________________________
E-mail:
BrettELoudermilk@gmail.com
handa
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Hang in there, dude! If nothing else, it is a chapter in your autobiography.

Chris
Doug Higley
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He'll have enough chapters me thinks. Considering the puny pay and lack of sanitary conditions and 'other' elements we wont mention as well as missing out on REAL job opportunities because of that news article (great press coverage he got), I wouldn't blame Brett a bit if he found his way off that 'tour'. Sure the experience is interesting but how much do you need if you learn the 'rope' in the 1st week. If the kid has standards, I feel he needs to honor those as well.
Which ever way the cookie crumbles is the good way as long as it's his decision.

Speaking as his adopted dad of course. Smile
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