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'Freak Show' At Champlain Valley Fair Prompts Push For Restrictions In Vermont

Four sixth-graders stand in a row looking at the camera
Peter Hirschfeld
From left: Shelburne Community School sixth-graders Fiona Wuertz, Lindley Pickard, Zoe Richardson and Ariel Toohey are asking state lawmakers to impose new restrictions on so-called "freak shows."

A controversial exhibit at the Champlain Valley Fair has lawmakers contemplating new restrictions on “the display of individuals for money.”

For most people, the term "freak show" recalls a bygone era, when gawking at people with unusual bodies was still considered acceptable behavior. But as recently as last summer, Champlain Valley fairgoers could pay money to spend a few minutes staring at someone billed as “The World’s Smallest Woman.”

You can find video of the World’s Smallest Woman on Youtube, uploaded in 2011 by a man with a camera phone who paid 50 cents to see her at the New Jersey State Fair. A carnival barker’s voice declares she’s so small, you can “carry her in your arms, like you would a small child.” 

For the unidentified man who shot the footage, the sight of this woman, sitting almost motionless in front of an oscillating fan, made for a good laugh.

But for Meagan Downey and the four girls she accompanied to the Champlain Valley Fair last summer, there was nothing funny about it.

“We actually thought it was a joke,” Downey said recently. “We did not think in 2018 that there could actually be a human being stuffed into a tiny box during a hot day.”

Downey, her daughter and her daughter’s three friends paid admission to see the exhibit, thinking they’d see a hologram or a mannequin. Twelve-year-old Zoe Richardson, one of Downey’s daughter’s friends, said the experience was jarring. 

“Like, personally, my brother’s disabled. And so I thought that was just like a really terrible thing to do, to just show somebody with differences, and just make them, ‘Oh look at this person. They’re different,'” Richardson said.

So Downey and the girls, all residents of Shelburne, decided to do something about it.


"They're relying on unwitting children to pay to perpetuate a culture of discrimination." — Shelburne resident Megan Downey

Last month, two Shelburne lawmakers introduced legislation on behalf of their constituents that would prohibit so-called freak shows in Vermont.

It wouldn’t be the first law of its kind. Michigan has a state statute that bans the public display of a person who is “disabled or disfigured.”

These sorts of laws, however, are sometimes greeted with suspicion from people in the disability rights movement.

“The way to liberate and protect people is not to legislate what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” said Michael Chemers, a professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz who wrote a book on the history of freak shows, called Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show.

Chemers said he appreciates the good intentions behind the Vermont bill, “but we tend to go about this by trying to replace those exploitative systems with restrictions that also strive to contain and control the bodies that we are trying to liberate," he said.

As research for his book, Chemers interviewed many of the country’s few remaining freak show performers, and he said many view themselves as subversive performance artists — artists who use the audience’s gaze to reframe perceptions of what it means to have an unusual body.

“If we are trying to provide agency to people with disabilities, then they, at least the performers themselves, ought to have a voice in this conversation,” Chemers said.

Meagan Downey said she agrees. She said the law would safeguard the rights of any performer who willingly subjects themselves to public viewing for money. What Downey objects to, she said, is the exploitation of people with disabilities and the companies that profit from it.

VPR was unable to reach the woman that has spawned the conversation in Vermont. Lindsey Constantine, the owner of Four C Productions, which owns “The World’s Smallest Woman” exhibit, did not return a call for comment.

But in an interview with Seven Days last month, Constantine told a reporter that the woman in question “makes a very good living.” Constantine also told Seven Days that her company has had multiple “World’s Smallest Women,” and said they all came from Haiti or Jamaica.

VPR was able to reach the owner of Strates Shows, the company the Champlain Valley Expo hires to put on the weeklong Essex Junction fair every year. Jack Strates said consumer appetite for “grind shows,” as they are known in the industry, varies by region.

“Like in Georgia, we have two fairs in Georgia that specifically say ... ‘Can you bring in some freak shows?’” Strates said.

And, Strates said the woman in question is a more-than-willing participant in what might appear like a public humiliation.

“You know, I’ve spoken with her, I’ve seen her, and she’s very pleasant. … There’s no slave-trading going on, or human, whatever they call it — human trafficking,” Strates said.

For disability rights advocates in Vermont, the legislation is complicated. Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said her organization hasn’t taken an official position on the proposed legislation.

“If somebody wants to be working in this field and they’re not being exploited and, you know, they want to do that for a living, then we feel like that’s an important piece,” Launderville said.

"If somebody wants to be working in this field and they're not being exploited and, you know, they want to do that for a living, then we feel like that's an important piece." — Sarah Launderville, Vermont Center for Independent Living

Other advocacy groups have come out in support of the bill, including Little People of America, which tries to advance rights and opportunities for people with dwarfism.

Michelle Kraus, advocacy director for Little People of America, said exhibits like “The World’s Smallest Woman” are especially pernicious.

“It’s not their skill that is being highlighted. It’s just the way that they look,” Kraus said.

Whether lawmakers move forward with the bill or not, "The World’s Smallest Woman" won’t be coming back to the Champlain Valley Fair next year. Tim Shea, the head of the Champlain Valley Expo, said he’s asked Strates to leave the exhibit behind from now on.

Shea also said the state’s largest fair association is also considering a new policy that would prevent freak show exhibits at any fair in the state.

Shelburne Rep. Jessica Brumsted, lead sponsor of the legislation that would put new restrictions on freak shows, said if the Vermont Agricultural Fairs Association ends up adopting that policy, then in some ways the bill would have already had its intended effect.

“And then there would be no need for legislation, right? And isn’t that the ultimate process,” Brumsted said.

Downey, however, said she thinks lawmakers should proceed with the legislation whether fairs impose a blanket ban on freak shows or not.

“And I think that this is something that can’t be policed on a case-by-case basis,” Downey said. “They’re relying on unwitting children to pay to perpetuate a culture of discrimination.”

Update 5:37 p.m. This post was edited to correct misspellings of Zoe Richardson's and Fiona Wuertz's names.

Update 8:10 p.m. This post was edited to correct misspellings of Ariel Toohey's, Meagan Downey's and Lindley Pickard's names.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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