Circus of Horrors XI
Garry Stretch, the man with the world's most elastic skin.
Here's the interview I wrote for Naked - Magazine of the Weird and Wonderful.
Roll up, roll up! See the monsters of the midway! Thrill at the strangest show on Earth! Witness the most incredible, the most unbelievable freak of this or any other century! See Garry Stretch, the world’s most elastic man performing mind-boggling acts of physical distortion. Gasps as he pulls the flesh from his very bones, covering his face with his own incredible skin. Witness with awe and mystery as he attaches blood-bursting bulldog clips to his entire body to perform the amazing “Batman.” No trickery is involved ladies and gentlemen, Garry Stretch is indeed a one hundred percent bona fide freak. We dare you to purchase a ticket to the most bizarre experience of your entire life! Yes my friends, today is your once-in-a-life opportunity to feast your eyes upon the world’s strangest living creature...
Well who could resist such an offer? Certainly not the Naked Magazine team. So, when the Circus Of Horrors came to town, we took a trip to the big top. Quietly tucked behind the scenes we found the trailer of Gary “Stretch” Turner and talked to him about life as the world’s stretchiest man. Lincolnshire-born Garry, holder of two incredible Guinness world records (World’s Stretchiest Skin and Number of Clothes Pegs on Face), spoke frankly about his unusual medical condition and revealed a surprisingly positive view about the strange phenomena of the physical freak….
NAKED: Garry, did your parents know from your birth that you had this unusual physical condition?
GARRY: Well no, not from birth. I guess it was from when I was about five or six years old. The other children in the classroom would take hold of me and go “whoah your skin’s strange,” and I’d stretch it about and that. I think doctor’s said that he’s got very soft skin and that, but they didn’t know my condition was EDS (Ehlers–Danlos Syndrome) until I was about thirteen. I used to go for tests in Sheffield. They’d take bits of skin from me and grow them in laboratories all around the world. A lot of the research you see done on EDS is based on the research on myself, which was probably twenty years ago now. In my particular condition it only effects one in five hundred and ninety-three million people, so there’s probably about ten of us in the world and there’s only two of us performing. EDS covers any condition effecting the connective tissue. So a lot of people have Ehlers–Danlos. People who are double jointed say. The way it effects me is a lack of collagen. If you looked under a microscope at your skin cells they’d be nicely rounded and locked together in many places. Mine are more jagged, more squared, so it gives me elasticity. It’s as simple as that.
NAKED: Did you find that you were particularly teased at school? Was it a burden having such a condition as EDS?
GARRY: No. Once people knew I was stretchy and had seen it 2 or 3 times, it was not an issue anymore. I probably didn’t do it for years. When I started comprehensive school I remember making quite a lot of money with my first day at school charging 10p a pull and 20p to do-it-yourself! I probably made about £10 every year going around the first year students. They’d all be intrigued to know, so I’d go around and pose and take tens and twenty pences for a bit of a show.
NAKED: You had the idea of making it into a career quite early on?
GARRY: Yeah, and I left school when I was 15. I went to London with my father and learnt the scaffolding trade and got into construction. After about ten years of that I was a plasterer for five years, and I actually started entertaining about four years ago now. I did some snaps for The Daily Sport - I think I was in that every day for nearly a week or so doing a different stretch, a different story. It was hilarious. And I think about two weeks later, Channel 4 rung me up wanting to do a little show for Fortean TV. So I did that and within two months, Hollywood was on the phone, and that was when I went to set the record.
NAKED: You have a world record for pegs too.
GARRY: Yeah. Well obviously because I was in the book I was skimming through one day, and I saw this Swedish guy wearing 88 pegs on his face and I thought “bloody idiot!” I was sun bathing in the garden at the time and I looked up at the washing line and there were a couple of pegs hanging there so I reached up and put them on. I thought, “that’s not too bad, I could put loads on.” So I went to the local shop and bought them out of pegs and decided to do one side of the face and thought, “yeah here’s another record.” And I think I did over a hundred. Because the photos got in the papers it got a load of other people doing it! There’s a guy in Stoke, a couple of Scandinavians, an American and then it became a craze in Ibiza and Tenerife. They all get pissed on Tequila and fire the pegs on! So I started something!
NAKED: What happened to you after setting these records?
GARRY: Without trying to find work in the entertainment game it was all coming to me. It was making a whole lot more money than the plastering so I soon put the trowel down. There wasn’t much thinking really; I had to do this. I must admit that at first I did feel quite ridiculed having loads and loads of people watching me. But I think that after having the chance of working the stage and realising that I could make people laugh without stretching as soon as I start my act, I got such a good feeling. By making people laugh at the same time, I just fell in love with entertaining. Four years ago I would never ever be an entertainer, not in my living life. No way would I be an entertainer. So it crept up on me and sucked me in.
NAKED: Does it cause you any physical pain?
GARRY: No, no pain at all. It’s quite natural to do it. The most pain I go through is putting brand new pegs on at the end of the night. When you get a new set of pegs they really do nip in! When you’re wearing about a hundred and fifty and they’ve all been there fifteen minutes they can bring tears to your eyes.
NAKED: Is there any kind of support organisation for EDS or your particular condition?
GARRY: There is the EDS Support Group. But when I started doing TV appearances they complained heavily saying “you shouldn’t be putting yourself on TV ridiculing yourself and ridiculing the disease.” I said, “excuse me, but its people like myself that have done the research for the condition.” For example, its like the Elephant Man, a freak giving themselves to science. That’s why they have all the information they have now. I did a show for ITV and that’s when all the fussed kicked off. Basically it went to a law court but thankfully they said that I was entitled to do whatever I wanted with my body.
NAKED: Really? It went that far?
GARRY: They tried to stop performing on TV! Because I wanted to find out more information about the disorder, my partner Jane joined the support group – they wouldn’t let me join. We sent a donation but they just ignored it. Would you believe that? Here I am with the stretchiest skin in the world – a classic case of EDS!
NAKED: An amazing double standard. So do you find people prejudice to the more obvious physical freaks?
GARRY: I think that the opinions are just split all over the place. “Jesus Christ that is appaling!” to “Oh my God, that is funny.” The reactions are right across the board. You do that first stretch at the beginning of the show and you hear all the different reactions going off at the same time. It amazes people in different ways. Some people really don’t like it. When we get the girls up to pull my skin from the audience – they’re just normal members of the public – and I would say one in ten doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to pull my skin which is ridiculing her, and its getting the audience laughing ‘cus she doesn’t want to do it which makes it good fun as well. But there is one or two that really don’t want to do – but they have too! (both laugh). I do think there was prejudice years ago but people’s thoughts have changed I think. And the freak shows are becoming more acceptable again and slowly but surely they are coming back. You see freaks on the magazine shelves. They’re in everything now. Which is fair enough I think. In the Victorian times people like John Merrick spoke out against the freak shows and the bad conditions. But when the freaks lived and toured together they earned a hell of a lot of money. They were very wealthy people. It was much better for them. The other option was to be in an institution or for the doctors to pull and prod at them. In today’s money, I the top earner was in comparison on more money than David Beckham (laughs). She was on $5000 a week in thirties! Yes, they were very wealthy people and those that didn’t earn as much money, still earned a lot of money in comparison to the average guy. They’d earn a few hundred dollars a week, when the average wage at that time was only about twenty dollars.
NAKED: Do you think despite the benefits you talk about - such as wealth - that it can be hard for a freak who cannot disguise their physical condition? Often freaks become alcoholics or commit suicide.
GARRY: I certainly don’t feel like that. But, I’d rather be how I am than be a dwarf. It doesn’t get me down in any way. No problems.
NAKED: Do you think that looking normal, yet at the same time being a classic example of ‘the freak’ has given you a unique perspective?
GARRY: I would certainly class myself as a freak, though to look at me you wouldn’t know that. I’m only a freak when I want to be, which is ideal. The way I see it anyway. It’s a great party piece. I just get it out when I want. It’s like a costume I’m permanently wearing that doesn’t bother me. I have some good fun with it.
NAKED: Have you been asked to take part in a “classic” freak show?
GARRY: I’ve been invited to Coney Island. A friend of mine Matt Fraser, who is a “thalidomide” and has flippers, did a documentary a couple of years ago about the old freak show artists at Coney Island. And he actually did the routine that they would have done. He re-performed Sealo the Sea Lion Boy’s act, the seal boy who performed in the thirties. He did his old act where he would have to bark and show himself off for fourteen times a day for about half an hour at a time. And I thought, “shit that’s hard work!” It doesn’t bother me, but when I am doing it all day for like photo shoots and then I do two shows it does start to get sore at the end of the night. But I consider it to be part of the job.
NAKED: Has the condition caused any problems?
GARRY: The worst thing that has happened to me was about five years ago now. I was getting the traditional birthday bumps, when they throw you up and down by the arms and legs. I felt something strange happening, a sharp pain in my arm. I didn’t think anything of it for a few minutes. I took my coat and shirt off and there was literally no skin on my arm, it had all come down and folded up around my wrists. You could see all the inside of my arm and it looked pretty gruesome really. My skin can tear a lot easier than the average Jack. I think that with me being the way I am you learn to live with it. Sometimes when Jane and I are in bed, she’ll roll over and she’ll be led on my skin, she’ll trap me in (laughs).
NAKED: Do you think you’ll be doing stretching for the rest of your life?
GARRY: I’ll probably be doing this until the day I die. The specialist’s have told me that during old age I will get even stretchier. One of the tricks I do is where I have a half-size basketball and I throw it up in the air with a bit of backspin on it. I pull my belly out and catch it. So hopefully by the time I’m fifty I’ll be using a proper basketball! Maybe I’ll be able to pull my skin over my entire head too! I wouldn’t swap this life for anything else, there’s never a dull moment. I’ve realised that you learn a new thing every night, another reaction to work the crowd. And its such a good feeling when you can work that crowd. It’s a nice feeling to make people happy, make people laugh. People come up to you at the end of the night and say, “that was amazing! Great show!” It makes you feel good about yourself sending people home feeling that way. It’s very rewarding and great fun!
First appeared in Naked - Magazine of the Weird and Wonderful
(Photo and Words Copyright - Mark Berry)