When Tonya Kay performs her “fire pasties” routine this Wednesday at TRiP in Santa Monica, Calif., as part of the bar’s weekly burlesque show (doors open at 8pm, $10 cover), she’s almost positive that her breasts won’t blow up this time.
It took a few performances to get it right. The first time she tried it, she says, she used 70% rubbing alcohol, and her pasties burned out “as soon as I started shaking.” She had to re-light her breasts several times during the act, which the audience enjoyed but she found “cheesy.” The second time she used something a little stronger; lighter fluid. “The difference between 70% rubbing alcohol and lighter fluid is massive,” Kay says. “I had flames coming off my tits that were so huge, everyone in the first few rows had to duck.” She ended up with a blister burn on her stomach that left a scar, a permanent reminder of just how perilous her profession really is.
She eventually learned that the best way to set your boobs on fire is with 100% rubbing alcohol. “They light well and they stay lit without engulfing the whole stage in flames,” she says. Even so, if you’re in Los Angeles this week and decide to check out her show, you might want to watch from the back.
Fiery breasts aren’t the only risky spectacle in Kay’s performance repertoire. She’s also a whip cracker, a knife throwing target, a stilt dancer, a balloon swallower (she’s able to stuff an entire animal ballon down her throat) and a grinder girl, which involves making sparks on a metal bikini with an angle grinder. Her highly specialized field is so niche that she had to invent a name for it. She calls it “Danger Arts.” And that’s not self-aggrandizement. It’s truth in advertising.
Take stilt dancing, which she performed most recently on last week’s NBC music contest The Voice. “You could break your knees pretty easily,” Kay says. “And if you fell or slipped, it’s very possible that you could break your neck and die.” But the stunt most likely to “screw up my future,” she says, is the grinder girl act. The blades on an angle grinder are designed to cut through metal, and although the deadly blades only make contact with her metal bikini during the act, they come frighteningly close to unprotected skin. “There’s major arteries all through the inner thigh,” she says. “One slip and you could grind through flesh and bone pretty easily and quickly.” She knows at least two former grinder girls who did just that and ended up being taken away in ambulances.
Which explains why she rarely has to audition anymore. There’s just not much competition out there. “When some choreographer or producer decides that they need a grinder girl act, they’ll call the agents,” she says. “And the agents will put out a casting call, ‘We need grinder girls.’ And two of us will show up.” She’s essentially cornered the market on putting her life in mortal danger for entertainment. And business has been good. Over the past decade, she’s performed everywhere from TV shows like America’s Got Talent and the History Channel’s More Extreme Marksmen to touring the country for three years with STOMP, the percussion and dance troupe. She’s been used for knife target practice on the Tonight Show and cracked a bullwhip on fire during a special post-Super Bowl episode of Glee.
She’s learned two important lessons during her decade-long career in the danger arts. Number one, never imbibe before the final curtain. “Free drinks is one of the perks of performing at bars,” she says. “But that’s how you end up in the emergency room.” And two, show the audience your fear, even if you’re not afraid. “An audience doesn’t want to see an effortless, safe production,” she says. “They want to believe there’s a chance that somebody could get hurt.”
Which isn’t a difficult emotion to convey, because it turns out there really is a chance that somebody could get hurt. Even when all precautions are taken to make her act as safe as possible, you just never know when one of Kay’s breasts is going to burst into flames.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)