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Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Tuesday, 1 June 2010 14:54 UK

The mystery of the human regurgitator

Stevie Starr
'Here's one I... ate... earlier"

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

The "Regurgitator" performance on Britain's Got Talent has horrified and fascinated the nation. But how does Stevie Starr do it?

It makes for gruesome, stomach-churning, compulsive viewing - and it definitely should not be tried at home.

The appearance by Stevie Starr, also known as The Regurgitator, on ITV's Britain's Got Talent - in which he appears to swallow and then bring up again a succession of objects, including coins, a lightbulb, a billiard ball and a mobile phone - has become reality TV's latest grimly compelling watercooler moment.

In one apparent feat of gastric dexterity, he apparently swallowed Amanda Holden's engagement ring along with a locked padlock and its key, before regurgitating all three with the ring entwined within the lock.

The simple answer is: I do not know
Dr David Smithard
Chairman, UK Swallowing Research Group

However, his on-screen exploits pale in comparison to his live act, in which he ingests goldfish and bees before bringing them back up alive - or so, at least, it appears.

The 47-year-old Glaswegian, who has been touring the world for 20 years demonstrating his skill, claims he began swallowing his pocket money aged four in a children's home to prevent it being stolen.

But how, exactly, does he do it?

NHS consultant Dr David Smithard, chairman of the UK Swallowing Research Group, admits he is perplexed - but suspects stagecraft is involved.

"The simple answer is I do not know," he says. "I cannot explain the ring and padlock.

Second stomach?

"To get something back up from the stomach dry is impossible because you would have to be bringing up lots of acid."

The Times report

If even medical science is stumped, the many internet forums and blog sites discussing the phenomenon can be forgiven for being confounded as well. But Dr Smithard dismisses the most popular online suggestion - that Starr has a second, "dry" stomach - as impossible.

This diagnosis might lead us to assume that the act is simply sleight of hand, or rather mouth.

But Nick Fitzherbert of the illusionists' association The Magic Circle, believes that the majority of Starr's act is unlikely to be simulated.

While he notes that some magicians employ stagecraft so that they appear to swallow razor blades, and suspects that a conjuring trick may have been used to conceal the mobile phone, Mr Fitzherbert believes it is more probable that Starr is, somehow, ingesting most of the objects he puts in his mouth.

"It's not the sort of thing you learn to do at your local magic club," he says.

"I think this falls under what we would call the 'allied arts' - the circus area where things are very, very specialist."

Human ostriches

One performer who has known Starr for 20 years is Paul Zenon, a magician and comedian who also dabbles in non-simulated cabaret skills such as fire-eating.

What you see is what you get
Paul Zenon

He insists that Starr's act is "absolutely, 100%" genuine - noting that such acts were commonplace in circuses and side-shows during the 19th Century.

Indeed, a search of the Times's archive reveals a report from 27 December 1898 on Barnum and Bailey's show, which included a "'human ostrich' with his appetite for glass ornaments".

By 21 January 1937, the same paper tells the story of Signor Mario Fuser, the "human ostrich of Trieste", who "made himself famous by swallowing a wide assortment of hardware and cutlery". Unfortunately, the "handle of one of the spoons perforated the intestine" and "his life is now in danger".

"There's a long history of it," Zenon adds. "What you see is what you get. It's very much related to sword swallowing.

"I think we're seeing a revival of the side-show, because people are bored of looking at ordinary people and things on reality TV."

Whatever the secret of Stevie Starr's technique, and despite the fact he was voted off Britain's Got Talent, it is one that is likely to hold the public's attention for some time yet. While they, in turn, hold their stomachs.

A selection of your comments appears below.

So glad you brought that up...
Peter Bradford, Maryland, USA

I saw this guy 14 years ago at my Students Union, his show was excellent and had us all talking about it for days, the only solutions we could come up with were very impressive sleight of hand or a cleft palate.
Dan, Guildford, UK

I saw The Regurgitator 15 or 16 years ago when I was at university. It is an amazing act to watch and I have no idea how he does it. Most amazing to me was him taking a glass full of icing sugar into his mouth and then returning it dry. Even if he didn't swallow it, how on earth did it not dissolve in his mouth?
Mike Plunkett, Fleet

If people want to prove he is not swallowing the items, why not ask him to agree to x-ray after swallowing but before 'regurgitating' the items? Certainly entertaining with a cringe factor.
Martin McCrory, NY NY

I can't watch this guy, he makes me feel really sick. Why would you want to do this? It can't be good for you surely?
Rachel, Leeds

Stevie Starr's act is completely legit...The fact is that some people can open there gullet very large and in some cases empty there stomach of fluids. When I was younger a friend could eat boiled sweets in class and when the teacher caught him he could swallow it and then bring it back up. It would be the same size as when he swallowed it.
Thomas, Dormansland

Watch the footage again regarding the mobile phone at the end, you can quite clearly see him take something out of his pocket and place it in his mouth before spitting it out again. As for the ring and padlock, it obviously has to be sleight of hand. I do not doubt he swallows other things though.
Lee, Manchester

The Regurgitator did a gig at our Uni in Bangor many years ago, when I was working on the bar there. He came to the bar after his gig and asked for a pint, and paid me in coins he regurgitated up - the correct amount of course.
Libby, Coleford, Somerset

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