Chiang Mai’s expat community is one that never fails to surprise in its depth and diversity. Jim Rose is one of the latest editions to this vibrant pocket of global nomads. When we were first told that Jim Rose lived here, a quick Google search offered up dozens of links to pages with Jim Rose hanging out, doing gigs, walking the carpet and being profiled with rock stars, talk show hosts and Hollywood actors.
In the early 1990s Rose became famous for his circus-come-freak-show-come-comedy-show; The Jim Rose Circus. What Rolling Stone magazine called ‘the absolute must-see act’ was a modern-day version of the traditional circus sideshow. Jim Rose toured the world and garnered a cult following and fan base which included huge entertainment industry names. For years, his was the top ticket of the Melbourne, New Zealand and Edinburgh Fringe and Comedy Festivals.
Rose is the father of the now common-place brand of extremist exhibitionism which has become popular in reality TV shows, such as the American prankster series Jackass – whose members acknowledge Rose as the source of their inspiration – or the likes of a multitude of programmes where contestants are pushed to perform mind-boggling, gore rising and hair graying feats.
Rose is a circus man. He was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the same place as Alice Cooper with whom Rose recently completed a UK Halloween tour. Rose grew up next to state fair grounds, where from an early age he would work, fetching soft drinks and cigarettes for the different freak show performers and collecting tickets in the tent.
“At first I learnt how to do motorcycle stunts. That was my real dream. I wanted to be Evel Knievel,” says Rose. “I attempted to jump 27 cows once. I cleared the cows, but must have landed on some spent cud, it was wobbly and that’s why when you interview me today I have the posture of a jumbo shrimp,” he explains with relish. After a painful cow-pat-splat landing Rose decided it might be better, and safer, to start doing tricks that required less mobility.
We met with Rose in his apartment complex here in Chiang Mai, where he and his wife have been resident for a month. They plan on retiring here. He tells of his adventures with a wry wit and while peppering his stories with names one generally associates with the cover of the Rolling Stones, he comes across as humble and, similar to so many expatriates, looking for a simpler and quieter life in the tropics.
Rose has a long history of theatrical performance. Long before the epic cow clearing, Rose wrote a play when he was 11 years old which was so good he was allowed to take two years off school and tour the play, which he cast with his class mates, to schools across the country. The play was inspired by 1960s television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, and contained many one liners.
Rose’s career continued on an unorthodox path as it veered into politics after graduating with a Political Science degree at the University of Arizona. Working on presidential campaigns took him to Washington DC, but he soon grew bored and returned to performance art and standup comedy.
“One day, I met a girl who thought everything I did was funny,” he reminisces. “She was the only person in the audience who was laughing…when I say audience there were probably five people there. Bebe was French and was my first and only love,” says Rose. The couple married and have stayed together for over 25 years.
Bebe comes from a circus family, and suggested Rose do some stunts in between jokes. The pair travelled to France and Rose began performing with her family, who had been touring Europe for generations. Bebe’s family had invented the widespread ‘getting hit over the head with a frying pan’ trick. “I learned a lot of crazy stuff, like the human dart board,” said Rose.
The couple returned to the US to live in Seattle. Rose performed his first show at Ali Baba’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant. “I put 50 posters up all around the city…I performed the tricks I had learnt in France and added my jokes in between the belly dancers…I put my face in glass and let people step on my head. But they were tricks. I am not a super human guy.” The show sold out. And the restaurant booked Rose for weeks ahead.
By the nineties, freak shows had become a thing of the past. The new generation had never experienced such a thing, and Rose wanted to update and make contemporary the classic American freak show. “I didn’t have a waxed mustache; I used the F word liberally, I did everything very quickly just how MTV edits its shows. That’s what those kids wanted,” he describes.
Rose’s shows; grotesque, risqu and punctuated with comedy of the darkest type were born at a time when filth was fertile. “This was the time right before grunge happened. It was two months before Nirvana became popular, before Pearl Jam, it was a very wild time and place,” Rose explains. “Seattle isn’t that big and when the grunge phase hit it went crazy. Word of mouth went nuts. For hundreds of miles, like minded monsters would sit up in their cribs and come to audition, so I started adding people to the show,” he continues.
Rose was soon going on tours with record labels and musicians such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction. After headlining seven world tours in 1993, The Jim Rose Circus toured with Nine Inch Nails and a then-unknown Marilyn Manson, and later with KoRn and Godsmack. “I didn’t know Nirvana or any of them, I liked Neil Diamond. But they ended up becoming good friends.”
In 1998 Rose and entourage went on a world tour featuring women sumo, Mexican transvestite wrestling and chain saw football. Rose told Citylife that one of the group lost their little toe whilst playing American football with a chain saw. But that was not quite as horrific as an incident when the circus troupe were piled in a shopping trolley for a photo shoot, the trolley was attached by a chain to a man’s penis. He slipped. Rose reassuringly told us that the reattachment went well.
Rose’s shows were original in that they combined comedy with stunts and performed in rock ‘n’ roll clubs and theatres, rather than traditional fairground tents. “I concentrate on humour to make the atrocities more palatable,” he explains. Constantly looking for something new, Rose came up with the razor blades eating trick – some Thai women in Patong and Patpong have him to thank. The 1998 tour reportedly netted over 4 million dollars.
The show was not without controversy and Rose and the crew landed in jail as well as being expelled from New Zealand.
Rose’s unique career has led him to write two bestselling books, star in the X-Files and The Simpsons, be featured in a Play Station game, appear on the front cover of The Wall Street Journal, be a consultant for multinational companies, work in politics and PR as well as become a professional poker player. “I was able to tell when I was being lied to and that’s invaluable,” Rose talks of his seven years on the Las Vegas gambling scene.
After living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for a number of years, his hard living with drugs and alcohol took its toll and Rose took time out to live on a salmon river, getting away from the world. Today he doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs and is focused on his career and finding a way to give back. After volunteering to teach circus tricks and magic to underprivileged children in South Africa, he hopes to continue his charitable work in Thailand. He has high hopes for Chiang Mai becoming the circus epicentre of Thailand, and plans on volunteering as a performance teacher, contributing to other people’s future with his body of knowledge and experience. Rose was attracted to Chiang Mai after visiting Thailand since the late 1980s. “I was tired of the US, it just seems to get worse and more republican. I’ve always been in tune with Buddhist culture. I’ve got friends here and I love it. It’s a nicer, friendlier country.”