5 Star Performers Who Never Let a Lack of Talent Stop Them
Standard procedure says to start this article with a quote attributed to H.L. Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." But "underestimating" is too big a word for the American public, so let me tell you about five performing artists who beat the odds and achieved their dreams ... however weird those dreams turned out to be.
Opera's Greatest Failure Outlasts Her Critics
Some are born to greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some pry greatness' jaws open to stick their tongue down its mewling throat. Florence Foster Jenkins was one of the last group. It's a good thing her chosen path was opera, because if she'd picked politics, we'd probably still be toiling under statues of her that blot out the sun.
Despite making her name in the cavernous opera halls of America, Flo-Fo* never showed an aptitude for music in her youth or adolescence or adulthood or ... crikey, Florence, will you pack it in already?
No. She never did pack it in.
The problem was that Florence Foster Jenkins was a TERRIBLE singer. If the world of opera were the city of Springfield, Ms. Jenkins would be Ralph Wiggum with his head stuck in a bucket. She was the only woman in the performing arts whose voice could strip paint. She made Yoko Ono stubbing her toe sound like Regina Spektor having an orgasm. But don't take my brilliant words for it; listen for yourself:
Even though her parents forbade this child of luxury to pursue her creative calling (which you might recognize as both the plot of Frozen and the life story of every theater nut obsessed with Frozen), she never quit her dream, no matter how horrifying it was to see her practice it (again -- Frozen). She bucked their condemnations when she got engaged to a much older doctor -- which they also condemned -- and there her musical journey pauses, but does not end.
Fate was apparently an opera fan and did all it could to keep her off the stage. Florence divorced Dr. Jenkins, but not before he gave her syphilis. She took a mercury "cure" that left her bald. But giving up is for lesser souls, like the Denver Broncos. You kick Flo-Fo when she's down, she'll only rise up taller and further off-key. Life gave her syphilis, and she made syphil-opera-ade.
Like many successful socialites (Bruce Wayne, Cinderella, the Walton family), the deaths of her parents were her launchpad to success. And just like those examples, she believed with all her heart she was destined for something greater than the rest of us.
For 32 years, the Rebecca Black of opera refused to believe she didn't have what it takes, and gave it to music regardless. She was so bad that being injured in a car crash actually improved her voice.
Truly she was the anti-D.O.C.
But if that wasn't embarrassing enough, she made her own (crappy) costumes, was mocked by her pianist while she performed, and tossed flowers to the crowd during her acts and then took them back for the next show.
"We're not laughing at you. Really. Just everything about you."
Why She's a Success:
Everybody knows that the only watchable episode of American Idol is the first one of the season. Therein all the self-delusional idiots fly off the handle when the judges tell them what their hearts already whisper: You are terribly ordinary. That was three whole decades of her life. She was basically the William Hung of her time, but instead of a chipper attitude you had to admire, she pioneered new trails in denial.
The world isn't short of people who think anyone scoffing at them is a jealous hater, but very few continue to pursue a career in it for 32 years with the entire field begging her to listen to reason. And only Foster Jenkins shot the moon on public opinion. She went from freak show to beloved entertainer as crowds of people forgot they came there to laugh at her.
She did to opera criticism what opera singers normally do to wineglasses.
And if you've ever been to an opera (presumably with my dad, because that's the only way anybody under 50 attends the opera), you know that the audience is the worst kind of fans. Depending on the performance, they either leap from their seats to prove who can clap the most demonstratively or else fling the stinkiest, most self-righteous disdain.
Florence Foster Jenkins understood that risk back when opera was mainstream, and she did it anyway. Maybe her singing was weak because the atmosphere was much heavier than Earth's on the colossal ovaries it took her to brave that stage.
She did what she loved and didn't let anyone tell her to leave. She even patronized a sculptor to make a bust for the Verdi Club, an Italian-American social club (which in 1916 might as well have been the same thing as an operatic society). How many statues have you commissioned for your passion?
If you really want to sum up why Flo-Fo deserved her acclaim, let the reason be in her own words: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."
Frenchman Farts in King's General Direction
You probably think the 19th century was a time of prim manners that makes Downton Abbey look like Woodstock. And you'd think right, except it was also a big ol' whore rodeo full of men pissing on the sidewalk and orphans getting themselves crushed to death by carthorses at the rate of two a day. So in that context, you may understand the success of Le Petomane, Joseph Pujol.
This was a man whose entire career was based on his ability to inhale air through his sphincter and let it out in whatever fashion he so desired. He was sort of like your friend who can burp the alphabet, if she were doing a handstand.
That's right: Your gross friend's a lady. EQUALITY!
As a child, Pujol went swimming, only to discover he had the special ability to inhale through his rectum. And while you're sitting there saying that's scientifically impossible, the ghost of Joseph Pujol is suctioning a grape out of a jar of carpenter's glue and spitting it 10 feet to the tune of "La Marseillaise." And even if ghosts aren't real and the grape thing never happened, isn't the deeper truth that it did happen in our hearts, where Santa Claus is also real but hopefully does not have the butt-song ability?
Yes, Joseph Pujol was a born fartiste whose impressive anal prowess enabled him to emit ass-music so dexterously that he convinced the customers at his bakery that he was playing musical instruments behind the counter. That means he also holds the distinction of owning history's only bakery where shopgoers held their noses.
His talents came to light in the army when he demonstrated his talent to his fellow soldiers. If the odds are your guts will be shot out later that day, odorless farts are the least mortifying air that's going to pass through them.
Everyone loves a fart joke, so our hollow-hinded baker was able to parlay his talents into a full performing career. He even starred in a silent film, which ... defeats the entire point. Shoot, anyone can claim to be a fartsmith on mere video. Look, I'll do it right now:
This is exactly what Vintagio was made for.
Why He's a Success:
His was no mere carnival act. Pujol played for royalty, meaning at some point a high-ranking courtier had to gently approach the throne and inquire "if his majesty would be so pleased as to witness a man of iron colon, who could expel, in great force, from his mighty buttocks, a gust of air so as to resemble to the ear the works of Handel."
As Geoffrey Chaucer proved and Pujol confirmed, nobody appreciates a fart joke more than kings ... probably because they spend their entire life surrounded by people holding in their farts.
He was featured in Le Moulin Rouge, which would make -- you guys -- the BEST sequel in the history of movies. The female lead wouldn't even have to die of tuberculosis. She could asphyxiate, contract cholera, or get her eye shot out by an errant fart ... the possibilities are numerous.
Four. The number of possibilities is four.
Sadly, World War I ended Pujol's career. (So thanks for that, Gavrilo Princip, you fucking pile of moist dicks.) Since it was the most horrifying war in human history, Pujol quite rightly discerned that it was not a time for precision farting. Gone were the gassy, compressed days of youth, when halcyon clouds of common air belched forth into the hungry world at standard temperature and pressure to again join their brother molecules. No! This was a world at war, and it had no need for any more pressurized explosions, thank you.
Pujol retired and opened a biscuit factory. Upon his death, his family declined monetary offers to study his body. He went out with way more dignity and respect than you'd ever expect of a man who farted for a living. His legacy amounts to one man, Mr. Methane.
But we can dream, can't we? Of a world where the performing farts flourished and prospered? Where terms like "flatuliste," "farteur," "fartmancer," and "gasophonic" are part of the common parlance? Oh, friends! Think upon't with me! For what are men, if they do not (g)aspire to greatness?
Flesh-Sock Puppets Delight the Populace
Here are a few general facts about a man and his relationship to his penis.
1) It is probably big enough
2) This won't stop him from worrying it's not
3) It looks like a rabbit
If that third one is new to you, then you've obviously never masturbated by flashlight. Or sat through an awkward dinner at my house.
It's awkward because I have a booth in the dining room.
You've also never seen the international stage show Puppetry of the Penis. I wasn't sure I should include this one, because creator Simon Morley knows exactly what you think of his art. Just check out his kickass website (turn your speakers up), which is replete with power chords, a prawn, a ram, a pineapple, and folk hero Ned Kelly. Personally, I will be very impressed if he can twist his penis into an accurate likeness of Ned Kelly (although both do have helmets).
Penile puppetry is much like playing bass or dating an alcoholic. It takes a week to become an expert, but several years to become a grandmaster. The question is why anyone would choose to in the first place when you could use those skills to get laid faster in different circumstances. There are only two ways manipulating your penis for a crowd becomes an idea.
The first involves a pretty good party, and the other is born of desperation when masturbation becomes boring. That said, these guys are Australian, and that country considers a headbutt fine art. By Australia's manly but upside-down standards, turning your donger into sculpture is an application for a federal arts grant.
Although in Australia, federal grants are plump koalas, which may be utilized as meat, fur, or personal assistants.
But it turns out the origin of this craft was Morley's younger brother trying to gross him out. It should be noted that this happened as kids, when it was more acceptable for him to do, though less acceptable for me to talk about. Anyway, the two developed a whole repertoire of "genital origami," although I'm guessing they quit when they got old enough to branch out into the much more rewarding field of gently manipulating vaginas.
Why They're a Success:
Any man who can get hundreds of women at a time to pay for the privilege of watching him flaunt his junk is some kind of success. But that's secondary to the point. Morley has toured the world with collaborator David Friend, impressing tens of thousands with their "hanging art," and the co-creators now command an international cadre of tricky dicks. He has successfully franchised his dick puppetry.
You can probably go see a show in whatever English-speaking language you have wisely chosen to live in and platonically admire men touching their genitals.
Good luck going to sleep tonight thinking of anything other than evil clown penis puppetry.
So yes, by any measure, Puppetry of the Penis is a smash hit, except one, and no, it's not a ruler. Its inherent failure is that it will never replicate the perfection that is Cheryl Tiegs circa 1982. Say you even figured out a way to arrange your junk in such a tribute: The entire time, you're thinking about the nuances of Cheryl Tiegs. No man can create such a portrait faster than his rising member renders it a failure.
Cheryl, if you're reading this, call me. I can get us tickets to Puppetry of the Penis, whether or not it's playing.
Tiny Tim Gets Famous for Being Weird, Incidentally Talented
A great many of you kids don't know who Tiny Tim was. You have this in common with your grandparents from the '60s, who watched his debut in bafflement. To the people of that era, the 6-foot-1-inch Tim was a pioneer of the American freak show, and all they needed to know was that they could laugh at him and his stupid ukulele. (Takeaway: Your grandparents were dicks.)
With his long hair and falsetto voice, he was the opposite of the Mad Men aesthetic, and thus a perfect fit for Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a show where two classic comedians guided Mr. and Mrs. America through this freaky counterculture, baby. Just watch this video, where he gives a solid performance while host Dick Martin acts as the audience's POV character, goggling at the weirdo.
Tim's height was a direct contrast to his 1930s starlet singing voice. Don't pretend you wouldn't climb an ivy trellis to reach the owner of that voice. And don't front like you'd be upset to discover it was Tiny Tim, real name Herbert Buckingham Khaury, which is the boss name of some kind of berserker alchemist warrior king.
Submitted as proof: a duke kneeling before him.
So while his talent was manifest, he came of age in an era when the people who would have thrown him a pillow party were losing power to the people who thought he was a hoot. The times, they were a changin'.
Why He's a Success:
Because he was more rock star than most of his contemporaries.
Just so we're clear: Tiny Tim was musically talented. The fact that he found fame for a musical expression that didn't square with the mainstream doesn't change that. If anything, it shows the worth of his act. Shoot, he can hit a note better than Sonny Bono when he duets with himself on "I Got You Babe."
But making music is not what made him famous. Tim's national success was because you could either laugh with him or at him. But what a sad world for you if it was the latter, because his act was always supposed to be funny. It was weird, and he owned that weirdness like he paid cash for it and asked for a receipt.
Today he would probably have 2 million Twitter followers and a few minor news blurbs for biting Andy Dick. But back then, in the era of three TV channels? It was amazing that he even made it to the screen.
But he did, and that is why the man is a success. Oh, you think he was just a novelty act? You're entitled to your opinion, and feel free to validate it by impressing the Beatles enough that they request your talents for a Christmas bootleg.
Sure, he was tortured by his sexuality, but that's the era's fault, not his. He lived on a diet "of raw potatoes, beer, and jars of tomato sauce." The only diet more rock star than that is uncut heroin and Madonna's pussy.
Plus, he died like a boss. After suffering a heart attack, doctors told him to stop performing for his cardial integrity. Now, surely playing the uke and singing in the upper register is an activity that even heart attack victims can handle, but dagnabbit if he didn't decide to leave this world in the same high-pitched squeal he entered with. Two months later, he suffered a second heart attack onstage, this one terminal.
He told Death where and when to show up if it thought it was up to the task.
See? Rock star. If Dio had done that, they'd still be burning Swedish churches to the ground in his name.
Empress Theodora Seduces a Goose
I will relate her biography as told by Procopius in The Secret History, but you should only trust it as far as you do any work that claims its subjects were possessed by demons. I'm not saying Theodora definitely didn't fly around as a disembodied head, but in my voluminous experience, prostitutes seldom go on to greater things after decapitation. You have to take Procopius' accounts as the moralizing lectures they are.
But at least we finally get to hear how a powerful old man thinks women should conduct their sexuality.
In sixth century Byzantium, the difference between gangs, sports hooligans, and political parties was this: There wasn't one. The two main factions were the Greens and the Blues, so called because of their chariot teams' uniforms. Theodora was born to a Green called Acacius the Bearkeeper. Tame was his name, and tame was his game, but taming bears was not nearly enough practice to raise a daughter like Theodora.
Acacius died in Theodora's youth (from astonishingly non-ursine causes), and mom sent her three beautiful daughters out, first to beg from wealthy men, then to bed them. Theodora rose from the bump-and-run ranks of porne (brothel worker) to the much more enjoyable life of a hetaera (high-class escort). Hetaerae were trained as pleasant companions. Some recited poetry, some played musical instruments, some danced. Theodora's talent was fucking.
She then ordered the entire patrician class to put its olive oil down. Olive oil is for closers.
But sex was not her performing art. She found herself in the company of people even more loathsome than prostitutes: actors. Theodora eventually joined her paramours and/or customers on the stage. She had a natural talent for comedy, since in order to have stage fright, one must be able to blush.
What really made her name was when she got her own act. Leda and the Swan was a dance re-enactment of that time Zeus turned into a bird to impregnate a queen.
Still, laying a couple eggs was probably preferable to passing a 9-pound human.
Now, only a lunatic would try to have sex with a swan onstage. You have to use a trained goose. Or a whole gaggle, really. Theodora had slaves sprinkle barley "into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat."
A calyx is the outermost petals or leaves of a flower, which would mea-
Think how much time she saved on depilatory grooming.
Even though she was one yeast infection away from brewing her own beer, she owned her sometimes freaky-deaky sexuality, and wasn't ashamed of it. Which is admirable, when you're not talking about goose cunnilingus.
Theodora's gaze reminded the audience they were complicit in the act. Even Byzantine Rome took notice of the lady who let geese go down on her, but she stopped performing thereaft- OH MY GOD, THAT WAS HER SWAN SONG!
Why She's a Success:
She parlayed her infamy into a gig as a governor's mistress, then retired from that concubine life to get herself noticed by future emperor Justinian I. He wasn't even crowned before he got his uncle, Emperor Justin, to change the laws against nobility marrying actors and sex workers.
But not until they begged the lord's forgiveness for being actors.
Theodora went from orphan beggar to empress, all because she had the foresight to turn an orgasm into a completely unrelated career. Without doing much else besides being everywhere you look and producing a clothing line, she convinced the most powerful man in the empire that he needed her the way y'all need Jesus.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
What cinches her success is that she was a better ruler in the clutch than Justinian (and he was, by all accounts, a really capable emperor). He was groomed for it his entire life and had plenty of practice by the time he married his 20-years-younger mistress. Theodora wasn't prepped at all. She didn't need to be, because she was born to boss status. After all, her dad trained bears.
She presided over the court craftily, even staging mock arguments with her husband so that both the Blues and the Greens thought they had someone looking out for their interests.
When Justinian got sick, the two parties banded together to revolt and proclaim their own emperor. It was the time of the Nika Riots, and hoo boy! They did not go well. Half the city was destroyed, and Justinian looked to escape by ship. His wife stood the ground for both of them, insisting it was better to die royalty than live as any of the other stuff she'd been. Actual badass quote:
This hourglass doesn't run backward.
Preferring to face an angry mob of thousands over his wife, Justinian dispatched a eunuch named Narses into the middle of the uprising's stronghold, who plied the Blues with gold while reminding them they'd sided with those filthy Greens.
The Blues marched out, imperial forces marched in, and 30,000 dead rioters later, the revolt was over. (But bear in mind Procopius also claims Justinian killed a trillion people in his reign, so those casualty numbers are probably no more reliable than a Pentagon expense report.) They also killed the aspiring new emperor, who swore he never wanted the gig, because Theodora doesn't tolerate any competitors.
The rest of their reign was pretty great. Constantinople flourished while Theodora enacted a pile of great laws protecting women. She died in middle age, and the emperor bawled for her.
Can you blame him? Men, you may think you're in love with a woman. But you're not, really. Not until you're so scared you'll abdicate your throne, but still kill 30,001 men to avoid disappointing her.
I beg you to step away from this madness before it's too late.
Brendan interviewed a real talent and star in the making when he asked singer/songwriter Jillette Johnson out. And he heartily enjoyed the Petomane reference in Jacopo della Quercia's damn fine book, The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy.
Related Reading: Brendan wrote about more royal, demonic, Byzantine forbidden love in 5 Movie Monsters Ripped from the Pages of History Books and will always be there to whisper to Kanye, "Remember, thou art mortal."