Orissa Kelly: Shooting From The Feet
A fire foot archer?! It’s an unusual job title, but for Orissa Kelly, firing burning arrows with her feet is all in a day’s work
By Anna Hart
As a writer, I’m on a relentless quest to learn about life, and the best thing about my job is the wild variety of people I get to meet, bond with and extract wit, wisdom or weirdness from, like squeezing juice from fruit. I knew I’d extract weirdness from a conversation with Orissa Kelly, one of the world’s most prominent (and… well, only) fire foot archers. I got wit and plenty of wisdom, too.
“Go on, guess what a fire foot archer is…” I asked my friends all week, before delightedly affirming that yes, I get to interview an acrobat who shoots burning arrows from a bow held with her feet. I was actually a pretty good archer myself at school, before my eyesight declined and I was too vain a teenager to wear glasses. Now, I might take it up again because Orissa has inspired me, and she’s precisely the blast of New Year inspiration we need in our lives right now.
“Why?” is pretty much my opening question. I’m talking to Orissa via Zoom in Montreal, where she sits cosied up in a green sweater, drinking tea. “I’d always been a gymnast at school, and when I stopped, I began training with aerial silks, purely as a hobby, a way of keeping fit,” she explains. Orissa is from Hemel Hempstead, from a family of equally active, go-getting types: her brother was a stuntman and now choreographs fight sequences for Marvel, and her sister used to be a boxer who now works in strategy for the UN. “My trainer, Delia Du Sol, was a brilliant circus performer who was pregnant, and she asked me if I’d like to take over some of her work gigs while she was on maternity leave,” says Orissa.
And this is how Orissa wound up cancelling her university application and became a circus performer. “My first ever gig as a performer was on the X Factor Live in Beirut, obviously quite a high-pressure job seen by an audience of eight million, something I hadn’t totally grasped beforehand,” she says. “As soon as I heard the response of the live crowd, I was bitten by the performance bug and I went straight onto my laptop and cancelled her UCAS application to study fashion and design at Bournemouth University.
“Essentially I started my career immediately with pretty high-level gigs. I’m so grateful to Delia for kickstarting my career like this,” she says, still shaking her head with apparent incredulity at her good fortune. “Today, part of my definition of success is to have the ability to help others achieve the same. I’d love to be able to do this for younger performers.” This is the moment I realise I’m going to learn a lot about success from a 27-year-old fire foot archer.
The next life strategy lesson comes in quickly: “I realised there was a lot of competition for aerial silks performers, so I wanted to find one thing that nobody else could do as well as me,” she says. “I could be one of many aerial silks performers, or I could find something where I’m the only one – a trick that can be done in any venue, that I can train for without specialist equipment or costly training, because I didn’t have any money at the time.”
This is when she hit on the idea of firing arrows with her feet. “Nope, I hadn’t been an archer before – in fact, I could fire arrows with my feet before I could do it with my arms,” she laughs. But she could imagine the spectacle. “I began practising for six hours a day, at my local cricket ground because I thought this was the place I was least likely to be arrested for playing with weapons!” Fuelling her dedication was a recent breakup, and mastering an art like fire foot archery sure is a fabulous diversion technique. And this is how Orissa fell for archery. “There’s so much to love about this sport, but I really enjoy the variety of people you get at an archery range, it’s something that you can do at any age, with any level of physical ability,” she says, recounting a time she saw a blind man pick up a bow at her local range. “His wife stood behind him, whispering prompts like ‘up a bit’ or ‘left a bit’ and the trainers pinned balloons to the target so he could hear when he hit the mark,” she says. “It was amazing.”
She also discovered that despite the prevalence of fictional female archers in popular culture – Katniss from The Hunger Games, Merida from Brave, Ygritte in Game of Thrones and Wonder Woman – it remains a male-dominated sport: all bows are black or camouflage print, and it’s hard to even find a female bow. “There’s really no need for this to be the case, because – especially compared to other sports – women aren’t really at a physical disadvantage here. In fact, we’re typically better at aiming sports because we can slow our heartbeats more effectively than men,” she says. She does explain that men typically fire 50lb bows and women 30-40lb.
“You want to be aiming with a higher bow poundage, because arrows shoot straighter, but this is something every woman can train for,” she says. “I brought out a range of pink arrows and they sold out, so I wish there was a bit more information out there that didn’t push the idea that archery is just for men – I did this because I want little girls to feel that they can take up archery.” She’s partial to a bit of pink and sparkle, but these days, Orissa is an admirer of antique Mongolian bows, which are beautifully crafted objects.
It’s plain that she’s found a true passion, so it interests me to hear that physically, archery isn’t necessarily the best match for her abilities as an acrobat. “From a contortion perspective, what I do requires back flexibility that I don’t have naturally – I really had to train for it,” she says. “But technical ability shouldn’t be the thing that stops you doing something you love.” I nod as she talks, appreciating this reminder that we don’t always have to stick to anything – a career, a pastime, a social role, a niche contortionist trick – that we seem physically or mentally primed for. There are many more ingredients to success than innate ability.
And Orissa’s success is down to imagination, determination and some hard-headed business sense. “It was a very practical decision to try and grow my social media following,” she says, when I ask her about her 1.4 million TikTok and 350K Instagram followers. “When I first started out in the UK, I was charging in the low hundreds for a performance, and since growing my social media presence, I can charge more than five times this amount,” she says. “I manage myself, so even though I charge up to $10K for a performance, I can still perform at a friend’s child’s birthday party for free.”
Our conversation so far has been so uplifting that I am reluctant to bring in any note of negativity, but I have two unasked questions scribbled on my notepad, the words: “haters” and “creeps”. Orissa laughs. “Sure, I get negative comments online, about my weight, from older men in archery saying I’ve cheapened the sport, some really nasty stuff, and of course, I’m not immune,” she says. So how does she cope? “What I do now is ask myself if there is any truth in what they say. Perhaps they’ve made a valid comment, perhaps I am sounding ungrateful, moaning about a missed flight connection when everyone else’s Christmas travel plans are also in disarray,” she says, once again, sounding like the sort of level-headed friend I need in my life.
“But if there’s no truth in it, nothing to learn from, I forget about it,” she explains. “I would also recommend separating your social media persona from your actual life.” Her private life isn’t online. “So if, for example, I got cancelled (social media death), they aren’t cancelling me, they’re cancelling my professional acrobat persona,” she says. “This would still be very painful, but I know I’m still me.” I ask if the social media element is a joy or a chore as for many athletes, it’s the latter. “I love being able to inspire and engage with lots of people, and control my own narrative,” she says. “And I love that I can film a video that gets 10 million views, I’ve reached so many people, and hopefully brightened up their day a little.”
And as for creeps? Foot fetishists, weird DMs, billionaire clients assuming she’s a sex worker as well as a contortionist? “Of course, I’ve had to navigate all of this,” she laughs. “I’m dressed in sexy costumes and my performance is sexy, so it’s inevitable. However I am very careful about protecting myself and I am very clear with bookers and clients about my act – what I will and won’t wear, and what the contract entails,” she says.
She’s a smart businesswoman, her own manager, with plans to work on sponsorship and monetise her social media more this year. “I’m also practical – I am 27 right now, and I would be surprised if I’m doing this when I’m 35,” she says. “Not necessarily because of physical challenges, I just hope I’ve found something else to be excited about by then.” There are so many other nuggets of information I glean from our conversation: her recommendation of saffron as a mental balance supplement, her love of Dale Carnegie inspirational books, her personal definition of that “discipline” as what we have to fall back on when we don’t feel like doing what we know is good for us.
But it’s her parting shot (sorry) that really sticks with me, that is somehow exactly what I need to hear right now. “When I was training in a damp cricket field, I was so focused on getting out of that field and into arenas, into high-profile gigs and onto TV. Now I have all this success – and I realise how much I miss those long days alone in the cricket field,” she says. My advice to anyone starting anything new is to savour the hard bit, because this really is the bit that matters – the bit before you become successful. It’s the story that makes you who you are, that changes your personality. The journey is your success, not what comes afterwards.”