Todd Ray is a collector of both unusual animals and unusual friends -- and he's turned that into an even more unusual career.
Ray owns the Venice Beach Freakshow, and it's not just one of America's most celebrated, never-end sideshows. It's a family business. His daughter, Asia, is the youngest female sword swallower in the world.
Some of those people include 7-foot-8 George Bell, the second tallest man in America; Amazing Ali, a 3-feet, 5-inch woman; and Larry "Wolf Boy" Gomez, an entertainer who's face is carpeted with bushy hair, much like a mythical werewolf.
Now, Ray and his band of self-proclaimed freaks are hoping to be invited into other homes in America via "Freakshow," a reality show debuting Feb. 14 on AMC that focuses on the day-to-day life of him, his family, his friends and pets like Pancho and Lefty, his two-headed, six-legged bearded dragon, and Pinky, a two-legged chihuahua he rescued before she was euthanized.
He sees the show as part of a greater mission: To eradicate the conformity that he believes is killing individuality.
"We need this more than ever," he told The Huffington Post while waiting for a plane in Chicago. "There's been a cultural shift. People are more the same than ever and something is trying to group us together. But none of us are the same and we just celebrate it.
Ray's love of the unusual started at a young age, when he attended a circus sideshow and met a sideshow performer named Otis Jordan, who was known as the "Human Cigarette Factory."
"He had ossified limbs that were like stone, but he was able to make perfect cigarettes from a can of Prince Albert without using limbs, just his shoulders, lips and tongue," Ray told HuffPost in December. "I saw him at a sideshow when I was a kid when I was trying to be a magician and told him I didn't think I'd ever become as dextrous as him.
"He looked at me and said, 'Look at what I did with no arms. Now look at you. You should be able to do anything."
CAST OF 'FREAKSHOW' (Story continues below)
The Cast Of 'Freakshow'
'Freakshow,' which airs Thursdays on AMC, follows the lives of Todd Ray, who runs the Venice Beach Freakshow in Los Angeles and the members of their extended family, who include sword swallowers, little people, and really tall guys.
Todd Ray is the mastermind behind The Venice Beach Freakshow, a classically-inspired circus sideshow with an attached museum of oddities. Before starting the Freakshow seven years ago, he was a Grammy-winning producer with acts like the Beastie Boys, Nas, Mick Jagger, Santana and Ozomatli.
Asia Ray is the youngest female sword swallower in the world.
Marcus The Creature
Marcus "The Creature" is one of the world’s most tattooed and pierced individuals, and adds some sort of new modification every day.
Morgue is a "shock artist" whose act includes putting things like hooks, power tools, needles and billiard balls into different areas of his face and body.
George Bell stands 7 feet, 8 inches tall and is the second tallest man in the country. A former Harlem Globetrotter, he has been a law enforcement officer for 12 years.
"Amazing Ali" Chapman
"Amazing Ali" Chapman stands three feet, 5 inches tall and is the warm and friendly face of the Freakshow, greeting customers as they enter and snapping pictures inside. She hosts the live show, introducing the performers and chatting with the audience between acts.
Phoenix Ray is Todd and Danielle's 17-year-old son. He's the co-owner of the Venice Beach Freakshow, and is responsible for collecting admission charges from the Freakshow attendees.
Murrugun the Mystic
Murrugun "The Mystic" is a veteran sideshow star who is known for his spectacular, and spectacularly dangerous, sword-swallowing and human pincushion acts. He is the only person in the world to have a swallowed a rocket-powered sword – which he designed and built himself.
Danielle Ray is Todd’s wife, who maintains the front desk inside the Freakshow while holding the family’s five-legged dog, Rocky. A down-to-earth Italian-American born and raised in New York City, Danielle is very much the mother hen of the operation and is also known as "Freakshow Mama."
Brianna Belladonna, "The Indestructible Woman," incorporates a range of specialties in her act: sword-swallowing, fire-eating/breathing, light bulb-eating and more. She is the first woman in the world ever to swallow a sword while being suspended from hooks, and holds the current record for the most swords swallowed while suspended.
Ray has passed that belief on to his son, Phoenix, and daughter, Asia, who, despite being accepted to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, has decided to pursue a career path that includes fire eating, sword swallowing and sitting on a bed of nails at the Freakshow.
"I worked hard in high school to get into a good college, but I've fallen in love with performing," she told HuffPost. "It inspires me. I can't not do it. I'm pushing myself to go further."
In one of the episodes, Asia learns how to swallow a coat hanger from close family friend, Morgue, who tells her to stop when she feels it touch a certain muscle. "It's basically your a**hole," he explained.
Proud as she is of being an accomplished sword swallower before she is able to drink legally in a bar makes Asia Ray proud, but not as much as her fire eating.
"There's a lot of breath control and learning to being comfortable with the flames," she said. "You mostly just have to have the guts."
Helping people have "the guts" to be themselves is one reason why Morgue is excited about "Freakshow."
His act includes sticking hooks, power tools, needles and billiard balls through different areas of his face and body, but believes the most challenging thing he -- and the other cast members have faced -- is having the guts to be their true selves.
"I grew up in Montana and people weren't exposed to stuff like this," he told HuffPost. "People need to have their minds opened and then they will feel more comfortable with themselves."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Asia Ray was the youngest female sword swallower in America. She is actually the youngest female sword swallower in the world.
Venice Beach Freakshow
For seven years, the Venice Beach Freakshow has been the home to all sorts of bizarre sites, both human and animal.
Say No To Normal
Ray (center) is spearheading a campaign to eradicate the word "normal" from the English language.
Pinky The Two Legged Chihuahua
Pinky is a two-legged chihuahua recently adopted by Todd and Danielle Ray. She was born without front legs but has learned to walk on the back two.
The Venice Beach Freakshow is filled with all sorts of bizarre creatures. Some are living and some are dead.
Say No To Normal
On Dec. 15, 2012, people of all different types of differences will rally at the Venice Beach Boardwalk to "Say No To Normal," a word that Ray said is "an illusion," since there is no such thing.
Morgue is an entertainer who sticks needles in his body.
Asia the Rubber Girl
Ray's daughter, Asia, is an accomplished sword swallower, contortionist and fire eater and is still in her teens.
Larry Gomez is an entertainer from Mexico who has a genetic condition that causes hair growth on his face.
Marcus Boykin: The Creature
Marcus Boykin, aka The Creature is a well known tattoo and piercing artist.
Two-headed baby Skull
Ray believes that all creatures are created with a purpose, even two-headed children.
This lizard has quite a story: It has two tails.