Hello everyone, my name is Ava LaBeija!
I’m an Egyptian-Dutch piercer with an academic background in Comparative Gender Studies and Art History, a writer, a restless busy bee and a lover of body modification in every sense of the word.
This year, I was extremely fortunate to be the recipient of the APP and Pupil Hall’s Legacy scholarship, which made it possible to attend Conference in Las Vegas for the first time in my life. In every single way possible, this experience has completely transformed me and my life.
- WHO INSPIRES YOU?
When you grow up in a restless and unsafe home with little to no money or family but pretty unlimited Internet access, I think one of the websites you’ll find sooner or later is BMEzine. Or at least; that’s what happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I had always felt like an outsider (believe it or not: I was the darkest, most exotic looking kid in my village!) and was mesmerized by the unconventional things I’d see on late night television and in the local library, from medical textbooks to BDSM ads. When I found BMEzine at around 8 or 9 years old, I felt two things: like I had found my people, and equal parts disgust and admiration for a good 70% of everything I encountered. If any of you are unfamiliar: BME was the biggest website for piercings and (extreme) body modification – you can imagine my face when I saw a penile split at age 10, very much confused about anatomy in general.
I religiously read every article and believed all of this to be real, including the April Fool’s jokes I was too young to understand. So my initial inspiration comes from those early years spent on the Internet – Shannon Larrat, Fakir Musafar, Bear, Paul King, Ryan Ouellette, Farrah Flawless, Steve Haworth… and it sort of progressed into body modification in a broader sense from there. I started waist training as a teenager, got pierced a lot and pierced and tattooed myself, and then got into the kink scene and started my collection of vintage erotica.
Many of my inspirations have stayed the same over time, with a few notable additions: Fakir Musafar, Ethel Granger, John Willie, Paul King, Mr. Pearl, Michaela Grey, Irving Klaw, Jef Saunders, Charles Guyette, Ryan Ouellette… and I would be remiss not to mention Nahuel Burgos, the person who in one conversation will make you fall in love with piercing and life all over again without you even realizing.
- WHO OR WHAT MOVED YOU TO APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP?
Since I’m chronically ill and can’t work full-time, there is no way I could ever afford to go to Conference by myself. I live just below the poverty line, so my ex-mentor/boss encouraged me to apply and wrote me an inspirational letter of recommendation. Then more people wrote letters of recommendation. Then clients asked if they could write me letters. And then… I did it. I jumped in.
- WHEN YOU HEARD YOU GOT IN, HOW DID YOU FEEL?
I honestly felt nothing. Caitlin, Mama Duck, sent out an email that said something like “we’ll finish up our meeting at this time, which will be around 3AM your time, so if you would prefer to wait and hear our decision the next day please let us know”. And I did. But because I was so anxious, I stayed up and texted Caitlin at 3AM sharp: “hey Caitlin, umm, I’m still up, so if you want to… you can tell me the results”. Fully knowing that I would not get the scholarship. Caitlin called me back a few minutes later, told me they had picked me, I probably shed a few tears and said thanks and then went to bed. I think it took a few days for me to realize what had happened. And when that did, panic set in.
- TELL ME ABOUT THE PRE-CONFERENCE, THE TIME TOWARDS THE CONFERENCE.
“In life, I’m convinced that good things don’t tend to happen to me. They cán most definitely happen, and in most instances I’m a full-blown cheerleader for the people I love and the great things that befall them. I’m just not really built for all of that good stuff myself. So when it came time to tell people I had won the scholarship, I was taking in compliments and seeing the people around me turn into the type of cheerleader I usually am. And when I heard them speak about “the Vegas adventure”, I froze. I counted down the days until my flight, obsessively packing and unpacking my bag, isolating myself from the people around me because I was in high-functioning panic mode. I metaphorically stopped breathing, and planned on holding my breath until it was all over. There was only one thing on my mind: “I need to get through this”. The fear of not being liked, of being an outcast in a group of outcasts, people finding out I’m a fraud who can’t pierce, and perhaps worst of all; having to admit to myself that I ám a fraud who can’t pierce”.
- YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION COMING TO VEGAS / HOTEL.
The airport alone is bizarre, with casinos in between
the gates, American flags as far as the
eye can see and the not-so-soothing background music of the Star-Spangled Banner interspersed with COVID-precautions-announcements. When I stepped outside, it felt like I had just sat in front of an oven with my face pressed up to glass and then opened it. It was totally different from what I had expected: it was dry, beige and other sad shades of brown. Where were the lights and the fountains? Where was the mini Eiffel Tower?
A shuttle bus took me up to the hotel, a gigantic mall/casino/hotel-combo, and I immediately fell in love. I wish you could have seen the room: I felt like royalty, with a gigantic bed, a view of the Vegas strip, my own bathtub and, most importantly, air conditioning. Wandering through the “hotel”, I started to feel like I was in Vegas. Something a little unexpected: you don’t actually go outside unless you GO OUTSIDE. The ceilings are painted to resemble the sky outside, and they pump a weird sort of air into the casino which means there is no sense of time and you barely get tired. It’s wild.
- TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FIRST MEETING AND MEET THE VOLENTEER FAMILY
Remember that little paragraph about me holding my breath until it was all over? As soon as I met my volunteer family, and especially the other scholars, I felt like I could breathe again. And not just any old breath, but a deeper breath than I have taken in years. It was also super special that you, Angie, sent a care package for the group with Dutch goodies and an emotional letter that included Aiko’s and my name.
I haven’t been this happy in years, so surrounded by people who I loved as soon as I met them. It sounds really cheesy and like something out of a movie, but there’s no other way to explain it. When Caitlin (the person who literally IS the conference) told us about this connection beforehand I thought “not this year. We barely know each other”. But there was no need to. There is this unconditional love and admiration for one another that feels unlike any friendship out in the “real world”.
- WORKING WITH AND MEETING PEOPLE YOU LOOK UP TO.
When asked about my favorite people at Conference,
I always mention the Skellies – on my
Besides these two, I wasn’t too starstruck because I was too busy to feel anything but excitement and exhaustion! I got to meet people I really appreciate and admire, and have come to like them in person even more. Some favorites are my angel baby Monica Sabin, Pablo Perelmuter, John Johnson, Ed Chavarria, Gus Diamond, Cozmo Whitest, Cassi Lopez-March… and I could go on and on! I now look up to a whole new host of people because of who they are and what they represent, such as John Robberson, Lani Soleil, Em Brzakala, Shorty, Ken “Captain Face Ring” Seyler, Sosa, Alicia Lowe, Jacob Spjut and many others off the top of my head.
- YOUR EXPERIENCE at THE CONFERENCE.
Conference is kind of like a high school party that lasts days and days, except for the fact that there are no cliques and you spend your entire day telling people they’re “like really really pretty”. At least, that’s what I did. For the scholars, Conference meant early morning shifts to work doors or help out the more experienced volunteers while looking out for each other and getting each other coffees. We took classes, spent time on the expo floor, worked some more, then had dinner together that turned into drinks that turned into time on the steps of the hotel talking about our lives which in turn turned into a group of scholars gathering in someone’s room for an “after party”. Sometimes, it turned into gathering Escort cards on the streets, writing love notes on them and sliding them under someone’s door. Other days, it was crying while staring at the Belaggio fountain and thinking life is pretty fucking magical. Other days, it was grocery runs and hair-holding when one of your fellow scholars was violently ill. And on my very first night in the States ever, John Robberson and I were stopped in a grocery store because 2 evangelical Christians asked us permission to pray for us. We were shopping for tacky shot glasses.
- WHICH CLASSES DID YOU LIKE MOST.
Not a class, but hands down the Body Piercing Archive tour; both Matt Lodder and Paul King are excellent story-tellers. In terms of classes, I was most excited about a class about Trans Anatomy and (what I expected to be taught was) piercing people on HRT, but that turned out to be a class that had nothing to do with piercing whatsoever. It was still really valuable, but since I already have a BA/MA in Gender Studies I felt like I would have gotten more out of Brian Skellie’s Bevel Theory class that happened at the exact same time.
- DO YOU HAVE A NICE OR FUNNY STORY FOR US YOU LIKE TO SHARE, OR IS IT WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STAYS IN
had (or still has?) the tendency to fall asleep naked. In the bathtub, on the floor, pretty much anywhere that isn’t a/their bed.
- ARE YOU PLANNING TO GO BACK AGAIN?
Yes. There is no place I would rather be. Besides, I left my heart there so I really need to go back.
(not necessarily Vegas though. Vegas itself is not so great).
- WHAT WOULD YOU TELL OR ADVISE TO OTHERS, WHO HAVE DOUBTS OR ARE SCARED TO GO OR APPLY
Do it. Keep in mind that most people who want to apply don’t do it because they think they’ll never make it – so sadly but luckily for you, there is much less competition than you think there is.
Furthermore, you have every right to be there. No matter your skill level, your “connections” in the industry, the way you came into piercing… you belong, and you will find a new family that will wholly understand and unconditionally love you. That alone is worth the stress of applying.Oh, and don’t get intimidated by the fact that you’re not an APP member, or don’t work with high end jewelry, that you’ve never sold gold in your life or that your main supplier is Hollywood Body Jewelry. You’re there to learn and enjoy, not to be perfect.
And if you’re a person of color, definitely apply. We really really need you in this industry. This year felt like a true victory where Egypt/the Middle East was represented for the first time, with two scholars and one attendee from Egypt (Dina Mady, Fatma Tarek and myself). If you’re from the Middle East and want to chat, I’m sure all three of us would be more than happy to help you.
Photo's and answers : Ava LaBija