At the beginning of the documentary Carisa Hendrix: Girl on Fire, the magician and fire-eater tells a frightening tale about a stunt that went disastrously wrong a few years back.
The Calgary performer, who broke the Guinness World Record for “longest duration fire-torch teething” in 2012, was trying something new involving a fuel-soaked cotton ball that was to be lit ablaze and popped into her mouth “like popcorn.” Unfortunately, when she rehearsed the bit, she wasn’t wearing stage makeup. On stage, she was. So when she lit the cotton ball on fire, flames leapt into her face. Back stage, she surveyed the damage, eventually putting her fingers on the burned areas.
“All of the skin came off and wrinkled to one side like a layer of wet tissue paper,” she calmly tells the camera. “I was flipping out. I said, ‘You need to drive me to the emergency room. I think my skin is falling off.’”
It’s a fairly compelling opening for Buddy Day’s new documentary, even if it suggests the director may have been a little too on-the-nose with his choice of title. But the further we get into the film, the more apparent it becomes that Hendrix’s fire-eating abilities are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes her fascinating.
“The fire-eating kind of falls away really quickly,” says Day. “You don’t want to lose it because it is very interesting. Although, ironically, the fire-eating is one of the least interesting things about her.”
The novelty of her job, and the world record she broke in Italy at the age of 25, was what first drew Day to Hendrix as a subject for the documentary. He was looking for a followup to his 2015 efforts The Salvation of Todd Bentley, about a Pentecostal preacher who claims he can heal the sick and raise the dead; and Goalie: Life and Death in the Crease, about troubled NHL player Clint Malarchuk. He had heard of Hendrix’s varying talents, which include not only fire-eating but also barefoot walking on glass, stilt-walking, sleight-of-hand and variations of the “human blockhead” spectacle that can involve, among many other things, sticking scissors up her nose.
But not long after the film opens, Girl on Fire delves into Hendrix’s personal life and backstory. Through interviews with the fiery-haired magician and her friends, family and lovers, the film traces her life from a troubled and bullied girl growing up in Calgary, to her discovery of magic and sideshow performance and her embrace of a polyamorous lifestyle that finds her involved in seven or eight romantic and sexual relationships at once, with partners of both genders.
“She was really open about everything,” says Day. “I wouldn’t say anything was really (off limits). She never said, ‘Oh, you have to get this in there, or get that in there.’ She was an open book.”
Which doesn’t mean that Hendrix didn’t have reservations. She met with Day and his crew and was enthusiastic about doing a documentary, although was initially skeptical that it would come together. When it became clear it was becoming a reality, she admits to having a flash of panic.
“I kind of had a teeny-tiny breakdown of, ‘Oh no, everyone is going to see who I really am and that’s it, I’m done, I’m going to have no friends and no family,'” she said. “But then I hung with my dad and we talked about it and a few of my partners and I realized that for a long time now I have been living very much out in the open and been very honest about the way I am and the way I’ve been living my life and my past. It just became less scary because I realized that anybody who means anything to me already knows about this stuff.”
The film, which is currently airing on Superchannel, chronicles an upbringing that involved unhappy parents who often fought. Things weren’t any better at school, where kids were cruel to her. But when she reached her teenage years, she seemed to develop a type-A personality and busied herself with volunteer work that garnered her plenty of awards and acclaim. Yet, at home, she admits she was a “big sh–t” with a “big teenage ego” and clashed with her father. She left home at 16, although reconciled with her dad a few years later.
It all makes for an interesting backdrop, but the main storyline of Girl on Fire is based on the somewhat frantic preparations of Hendrix developing an original show to perform on the Las Vegas strip. We watch as the ambitious act, which includes music, magic, fire, comedy and a time-travel storyline, is put together under Hendrix’s exacting standards, which occasionally exasperates set designer Paul Bezaire and director David Parr. To add to the intrigue, both of those men are in romantic relationships with Hendrix.
It certainly adds spice to the classic “show-must-g0-on” story arc, which ends with Hendrix’s debut at the Tommy Wind Theatre in Vegas. While the documentary presents a fascinating character study of Hendrix as a driven, unique artist, she says she hopes it also puts her chosen profession in a better light.
“I think magic got a really bad rap,” she says. “In the height of magic, in the heyday of magic and even into the Copperfield era, there was a huge respect for magic. Now we’re seen as these birthday party clowns and that cheesy image that you see on Arrested Development. Don’t get me wrong, those are magicians that really exist. I know them, they are my friends. But that’s not everyone. Some of us really care about the theatrical value of what we’re putting together and recognize that magic is a vehicle for whimsy that other art forms don’t have access to.”
As for her polyamory, Hendrix says since the film debuted on Super Channel earlier this month she has already received unsolicited commentary from online trolls who disapprove. This wasn’t unexpected. But Hendrix said she hopes the film also broadens people’s understanding of the lifestyle.
“I think a lot of people are already practising a certain level of openness, but don’t have a vocabulary for it,” she says. “They don’t know the words for it, so they don’t look up the literature, so they don’t have the skills and toolbox to do it in a way that’s less harmful or with a little less drama.”
“Hopefully with this documentary, people will see people actually live this way. It’s not crazy, it’s not 24-hour orgies and it’s not ridiculous sex parties. It’s a bunch of people working together in the same way that a group of friends are a bunch of people working together or a one-on-one-relationship are two people working together.”
Carisa Hendrix: Girl on Fire will be screened on Oct. 19 at the Plaza Theatre at 9 p.m. It airs on Super Channel Oct. 15 at 3 and 5 p.m.; Oct. 16 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.; Oct. 21 7:45 and 9:45 a.m.; Oct. 22 4:35 and 6:35 a.m.; Oct. 27 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Oct. 28 at 4:39 and 6:30 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m.