Raising hell – and a daughter – in the sideshow world

Strong woman: Simi Capelli will be performing at the World Sideshow Festival in Ballarat.

Strong woman: Simi Capelli will be performing at the World Sideshow Festival in Ballarat.

Juggling is part of circus life – but how do you juggle family life with the wild world of the sideshow circuit?

For Simi Capelli, raising a six-year-old daughter while simultaneously raising hell at the World Sideshow Festival is just a part of everyday life.

In her shows she has lifted washing machines and microwave ovens using nothing but her hair.

The aerialist, escapologist and strong woman is one of the five Wild Women of Sideshow appearing at the festival this week, and she spoke to The Courier about life on the road.

How did you get started in the sideshow life?

I was a trained trapeze artist; I started with a trapeze master on the Gold Coast.

That’s a pretty scary place to start. I interviewed the trapeze artist from Silvers Circus; she’d been knocked unconscious performing more than once. Has that happened to you?

I’ve never been knocked unconscious. There’s always the risk of the bar coming back and hitting you in the face, that’s scary.

I have more long-term injuries, mainly from climbing up and down ropes. I spent a year in a traditional circus that left my body with long-term injuries – ligaments, my back went out, I have a bit of nerve damage in my arm.

Is there a lifespan then, for trapeze artists?

To be honest I don’t see an endpoint; I still incorporate aerials into my act that I’ve just completed for the Fringe Festival in Adelaide. I think if you keep it up, you can have a really long life with it.

What possessed you to start? Were you young?

I wasn’t as young as you would think. I was travelling around Australia and I met another circus performer. We started playing and doing a few bits and pieces together. She introduced me to her trainer, and I had a bit of an epiphany. 

I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can't believe I haven’t been doing this all my life! What a tragedy!’ 

And then I threw myself into it, literally. It’s all I’ve done for the last 20 years.

Aside from that, in the Sideshow Festival you tear phonebooks in half and do all sorts of things?

Yeah! I’m billed as ‘Australia’s strongest woman’. Sideshow is like the twisted cousin of circus; you might like to go out drinking with it, but not introduce it to your parents.

So I’m a strong woman; I do escapology, escaping from cable ties. But the act I’m going to do for the Sideshow Festival is that I’m on roller skates and I tear a phone book in half.

Without giving any secrets away, how do you tear a phone book in half? I don't imagine many people can do that.

No they can’t. There is a little bit of a knack to tearing a book in half, but it does take brute strength and practise. Everything is practise, and seeing the trick through.

I wanted to put in a few more dynamic roller skate tricks into the act, and I’m so bruised, blistered and very sore. Not sorry, but sore. You just keep hammering away at it until you get it.

What’s touring life like?

I absolutely love touring. Sadly I’ve had to move away from it a little since we’ve put our daughter into school. But we tour together sand do shows together as a family and that's my favourite thing in the world.

There’s a tradition in sideshow and vaudeville of families travelling and performing together, isn’t there?

It’s a great way of life and it’s a great education for my daughter. They learn these acts they can use later on. Although I am grooming my daughter to be a doctor. It doesn’t hurt to have a knife-throwing act and be a doctor.

Snake charmer: Flavella L’Amour is Australia’s foremost snake charmer and serpent dancer, and is performing in Ballarat.

Snake charmer: Flavella L’Amour is Australia’s foremost snake charmer and serpent dancer, and is performing in Ballarat.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

One of the great honours was being invited to work in the Spiegeltent, doing shows there. It was great touring for a year with the traditional circus, because they are fast fading from the earth. I’ve travelled overseas a lot and worked in the big festivals in England and in Edinburgh. I’ve toured Israel; that was one of my highlights.

What was that like? 

They were incredibly enthusiastic audiences, so it was great. It was a stationary circus just north of Tel Aviv, and people would come from everywhere to see the show.

What can the audiences here in Ballarat look forward to from the World Sideshow Festival?

I think it brings a real vibrancy and colour and ambience to Ballarat. The people of Ballarat are really up for it. They really look forward to it. We had such enthusiasm, such good feedback from everybody last time, and everybody just loves to dress up in the flavour and vibe of sideshows. Everybody came in elaborate outfits; they were so enthusiastic and excited.

I want to say at the end it’s not old-school sideshow, but an amalgamation of circus and sideshow. You’ll still see unusual strange curiosities, little circus twists. It’s all circus and it’s all rock and roll.

The World Sideshow Festival is in Ballarat from May 11 to 13 at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute. Tickets via www.worldsideshowfestival.com