Jim Rose Circus
Jim Rose in a promotional shoot which strives to distill all the craziness of his show into a single imageFacebook/Jim Rose Circus

Ask any cultural historian - or indeed the producers of TV show American Horror Story - and they are likely to tell you the freak show died out some time during the 1950s. They might attribute this demise to Hitler's warped attempt to rid Europe of deformity, or the post-war rise of drugs and free love, which encouraged compassion and tolerance across the Western world. Yet, in the end, they will all tell you the freak show is as relevant today as eugenics or the British Empire.

But the freak show is not dead, not by a long chalk. Jennifer Miller, a modern-day bearded lady, has been touring America with her troupe, Circus Amok, for the past 20 years. If you want more evidence, a quick rummage through Google will soon bring up websites for human tripods, penguin boys and even a modern-day elephant man. The performers might ply their trade under slightly less exploitative conditions these days but the art form they purvey continues to flourish.

"I'm the Beatles of Freak Shows"

That the freak show has survived the cultural explosion of the late 20th century, which atomised so many of its contemporary attractions, is down to one man. A man who took it out of the turbid creepiness of the circus sideshows and became an international celebrity who counts Bono and David Bowie as friends. And a man who certainly does not believe in hiding his light under a bushel.

"I'm the Beatles of Freak Shows," Jim Rose tells me when we sit down for our interview. "The reason American Horror Story is on right now is because I made freak shows mainstream pop culture, after they had disappeared back in the 1950s.

"I've played festivals on a jumbotron with 70,000 people, 200 times in my life. I just played to 60,000 with Guns N' Roses. We were the top ticket at the Edinburgh Fringe throughout the 1990s. My name has been brought up in a lot of the American Horror Story reviews, they're just saying it's nothing we haven't seen before in the Jim Rose circus.

"I describe myself as the godfather of this business, because there weren't really any freak shows until I brought them back."

Rose launched his circus in Seattle, the home of grunge, and insists he has always strived to create a modern circus for the MTV generation, one that plays bars and stadiums rather than the jerry-built caravans of the early 20th century. Yet, at the same time, his act retains the spit and sawdust of the old days. He even freely admits to hiring what he calls "born freaks", even though this is about as politically correct as a golliwog in an SS uniform.

Through this zany combination of old-school practice and modern marketing, Rose has managed to stay ahead of the curve for 25 years. And, with freak shows now being beamed into our living rooms on a weekly basis, his business seems set for many more years of rude health.

American horror story Freak show
'The Reason American Horror Story is on now is because I made freak shows mainstream', says JimFX

"I can go through the head of a 1970s tennis racquet"

When I ask if there is anything distinctive about Rose's appearance, or his anatomy, he hesitates before replying: "Well, I got corrective surgery for my eyes once." Yet this is a man who has never let his lack of physical disadvantage hold him back from his chosen career.

Rose worked at the Arizona state fairground as a child in the 1970s. "We lived next door and I jumped the fence," he recalls. "I learned the human blockhead, learned to put my face through broken glass, let people stomp on the back of my head.

"I can do contortion, only because I started off at about eight years old, and worked with a contortionist. I can put my leg over my head, be placed in very small glass encasements, I can go through the head of a 1970s tennis racquet - as a matter of fact I was the first to do that. I can flip my body up so my legs are hanging in front of my shoulders and walk on my hands."

Any dreams of a performing career stalled when Rose got into motorcycles but he was forced to return to the circus after he injured himself trying to jump 27 cows, which seems an awfully arbitrary number. He recalls: "I went back into the freak show because it required less mobility."

He initially began performing solo as Jimmy the Geek, a rubber man, on Venice Beach in California; he tells me he was pulling in $17,000 (£10,600) a month from tourists on their way to catch the surf or stare at the steroid-addled muscle-heads pumping iron in the sun. Using the coins and notes that rained down on the sidewalks, Rose decided to set up his own eponymous troupe.

In his quest "to make a dead art form relevant again", Rose recalls: "I took it out of its natural habitat at state fairgrounds and circuses, and into rock'n'roll clubs.

"I knocked on doors until one would let me in. I can't tell you how many people looked at me as if I'd killed the Lindbergh kid, but finally I got the Crocodile Café [in Seattle] to go for it. I did my marketing, it sold out."

Word soon spread. Rose was invited to play the iconic American rock festival Lollapalooza in 1992 and headlined seven world tours the following year. The content of the show wasn't always popular; one reporter accused him of "running the gamut of grotesque". Yet it became a cult event feeding off the energy of the grunge era, its speed and subversion perfectly tailored to the xeitgeist.

"Next thing I know Nirvana and Pearl Jam started coming out to my shows," Rose says. "I was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and USA Today." Although the show's fame peaked in those first couple of years, its popularity, and profitability, never sank below profitable levels.

Timely injections of publicity were administered by the writers of The X-Files, who cast Rose in an episode about a circus sideshow in 1995, while the creators of the Simpsons had an episode in 1996 in which Homer joined the Jim Rose jamboree.

Jim Rose David Duchovny
Jim with X-Files star David Duchovny during the filming of an episode called Humbug, in which he played Dr Blockheadbebethecircusqueen.blogspot.co.uk

"It's hard to find flipper boys, you don't have so many deformities any more"

Over time, Rose's gang came to comprise a blend of performers with unusual talents and those of distinctive appearance. He says: "I've had bearded ladies. People are allowed to tug in the beard and peek in the pants - 'be gentle she is a lady,' we said in the show.

"I've had flipper boys who have stumps instead of arms, these types of people can be named all kinds of things, but they're harder and harder to find because you don't have so many deformed child births any more. People that had feet backwards, pop-eyes who can pop their eyes out, one can pop their eye all the way out – you can do that but I wouldn't recommend it."

However, alongside those performers whose "appeal" lies solely in their appearance, Rose's circus has embraced clowns, magicians and all manner of unconventional talents.

"We've had regurgitators," he says, "and we've had completely tattooed people, several of those. I made my first million dollars on a completely tattooed people; now they're your next-door neighbour.

"Then there's Torture Kings, where they stick things through their body, and of course the pierced weightlifters [performers who drag obscenely heavy weights with various pierced parts of their anatomy]."

Jim Rose tattooed man
The Enigma, one of Jim Rose's army of heavily tattooed peoplewww.philzone.org

Has it been hard to recruit these peformers? "No. They come to me. They're reaching out to me, they've already processed the idea of life as a freak," Rose says.

"Well, actually, sometimes it's the other way round. When I used to do women's sumo wrestling back in the 1990s I had to go find them, because it is not in a girl's nature to think of themselves as sumo wrestlers.

"I put an ad in the paper for women over 200lbs, and I got all these responses. It was hard, man. Every girl thinks they're heavier than they are, I'd get these spindly waifs - no way! I'd have to ask them to gain a few pounds, which totally disarmed them, and they became very easy to recruit them. I'm telling a 300/400lb girl to gain a few pounds, so you have to dance with words."

Today, Rose's troupe numbers 12 performers. He says: "I take them round the world, and then I have to find something newer and better. I put them in between other stuff, like chainsaw football for example, then it's a case of 'and now, here's a freak'. And I tell jokes. It's all very fast, you don't have time to ask your friend how long the show is."

'We stay in five-star hotels and take the rock'n'roll bus'

When asked how he treats his talent, Rose insists he is a far cry from the knavish proprietors of circus lore.

"I pay real well," he says, proudly. "My guys and gals make a couple of thousand dollars a week, they're put in a five-star hotel. We fly all over the world, we have the rock'n'roll buses. It's not what the perception is, not in my troupe anyway."

Jim Rose Circus
Jim and his troupe. The female sumo wrestlers don't appear too shy in this shot.Jim Rose

That is not to say there have not been mishaps along the way. When pressed to recall the worst thing he has seen in his 25 years in the trade, Jim leaps to the memory of a pierced weightlifter who ripping off his genitalia while attempting to lift more weight than a man's member is designed to bear.

"We were doing a photoshoot," Rose says. "We were all in a shopping cart, he was pulling us with it and he tripped, it was attached to a chain. Next thing you know, there's his best friend on the ground.

"We were drinking Coca-Cola in a McDonald's nearby, we threw the thing in the ice cup, put him in the hospital, and they took skin from elsewhere on his body and grafted it back on. It's never looked the same.

"Then there was the guy we used to superglue to a cross and raise to the ceiling. He fell off the cross... that wasn't good. I had a guy that lost his little toe playing chainsaw football. Try and walk around after something like that, it's hard.

"And of course I got a lot of publicity when I ate too many lightblubs [he doesn't specify how many constitutes too many]. All the broadsheets were on that and the tabloids of course."

The controversy arising from these incidents has undoubtedly fanned the flames of publicity, as did an infamous court appearance in 1997 when two transvestite wrestlers were ordered before a judge on charges stemming from a simulated sex act on stage. Rose and his troupe were thrown in jail in Lubbock, Texas; today, he claims that tour was one of the most profitable he has ever done.

But Rose insists the success of his vision is down to hard work, allied with the fact that he is as even more adept at marketing than he is at putting his head through a tennis racket.

He says: "None of these freak shows will make it if the person owning it isn't savvy it in marketing. I had that gift.

"I was the first live theatre show to understand a new editing style on TV, that MTV edit where everything was quick, quick, quick, for people who have no attention span.

"I changed the presentation and the venues. And I was current; I didn't do an old voice [cue his impression of an old-style circus ringmaster]. I dropped the F-bomb every five seconds."

So how much has that marketing genius brought him in hard cash? Well Rose says he's a millionaire, whereas most of his competitors "are just picking up table scraps". He lives a peripatetic life, never staying in a country more than two years.

No end to racquet smashing and chainsaw football

He is currently in France, living with his wife, a child of a French circus family whom he married before launching the Jim Rose Circus. Previously he was based in Thailand, "trying to get the long-necked giraffe women out of the country. The government wouldn't let me do it."

So why does he still put himself through it, through all the weird stares and innuendo, all the racquet-smashing and chainsaw football? "Well what else am I going to do?" he replies. "I do it because I like it."

Many of the cultural icons who shot to prominence alongside Rose are now long forgotten. Kurt Cobain, who came to his early shows, has been dead for 20 years. And yet Rose's show rolls merrily on. He was recently invited to Bono's Grammy's part, and the circus is still touring. As if that was not enough, he is involved in a Facebook magazine called Meme Daily and a not-for-profit website which aims to protect underground performers from con artists.

Ultimately, your view on whether Rose's continued success is a good or a bad thing probably depends on your view of freak shows generally. But surely no one can deny the commercial skill of a man who has dragged a dead art form from the gutter and kept it current for so long.

After peddling an idea for 25 years, most people would be drained of creativity. Yet one suspects Rose has plenty more tricks up his sleeve.

To find out more about the Jim Rose circus, go to the Facebook page or visit the Jim Rose website.