Extremely Modified People - The Great Omi
Horace Ridler was a professional freak and sideshow performer known as The Great Omi, or The Zebra Man. He was one of the great showmen of his time with zebra like striped tattoos covering his body. Shortly before his death in 1969 Horace insisted, "underneath it all, I'm just an ordinary man."
Horrace was born in Surrey, England to an upper class family in which he lead a relatively privileged life. He served twice in the British Army during World War I and after demobilization he left the military.
What motivates a person who has come from a privileged childhood filled with private schooling, travel, and comfort to becoming a sideshow performer once leaving the army? Horace left the army with a small pension, but very few prospects and was in need of a job. He was looking for something that would allow his to stand out a bit more after being a member of the rank and file in the military. He was willing to take chances so show business was the most promising prospect.
In 1922 Horace got his first tattoos which weren't zebra patterns, but just a few pictorial tattoos. He began working in small sideshows, but it wasn't bringing in big profits like he had hoped. In order to earn more, he had to offer more to the audience so in 1927 he visited the famed tattoo artist George Burchett. George helped design and create a whole body look which would cover Horace's previous tattoos. The thick black zebra patterned stripes were created after 150 hours under the needle.
The physical transformation wasn't enough though. Horace needed a character, and so The Great Omi was born. He started touring France and England, but he needed even more than just tattoos to sustain and entertain audiences. He then added piercings and started stretching his ears with large jewelry. Still wanting to further entertain his audiences Horace's character evolved even further, and he created an elaborate story to go along with the tattoo's and piercings. He said he had been captured and tortured in New Guinea by some natives. Horace's wife, Gladys who changed her name to Omette used to introduce The Great Omi to audiences and describe his African ordeal.
Horace claimed to have spent $10,000 to have all the work done, however George Burchett said that the total cost was only $3,000 and that he was never actually paid the full amount.
In 1939 The Great Omi performed in the sideshow at the World's Fair in New York. From there Robert Ripley hired Horace as the headliner act for Ripley's Odditorium Theater. He performed there for 6 months before the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus hired him for one season where he performed under the name Omi the Zebra Man. He then traveled down under and toured New Zealand and Australia in 1941 and 1942. Before returning to England he worked at the World Fair Freaks show in Vancouver and several other traveling shows.
Horace tried to re join the army during World War II, but he was rejected due to his appearance. Instead he used his fame to sell war bonds, and he gave free performances to soldiers and charitable organizations.
A movie based on Horace Ridler's life called The Zebra Man was released in 1992.
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