What might you expect from a lunch date in the company of a sword-swallowing, fire-eating seductress?

Having witnessed the eye-watering feats performed by diminutive New Yorker Heather Holliday when she was last in Sydney in 2015 for Sydney Festival, I had plenty of preconceptions, but none of them came close to this former Mormon, cross-stitch-loving, considered young woman who seems a world away from her sassy alter ego. But is she? Yes and no.

“Heather Holliday is who I am on stage, it’s a completely different me. I don’t walk down the street wearing push-up bras or showing cleavage in real life. Ever,” she says smiling, before mischievously adding: “It’s all aspects of my personality, though, they’re all me … [some are] just suppressed in the daytime.”

Holliday – it’s a stage name, although her first name is legit – is here performing Limbo Unhinged, a live-action show featuring a mix of circus, cabaret and burlesque performed to a live score led by the irrepressible band leader and fellow New Yorker, Sxip Shirey.

Audience members who caught this crew’s debut show, Limbo, will be familiar with Holliday’s talents and those of her fellow performers who include a Chinese pole master and beatboxer from France; a Brazilian aerial whiz; and Australian dancer Hilton Denis.

Four years after debuting that show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival they’re comfortable enough with one another to take the show, and their own daring acts, to a new level.

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Where Holliday’s Limbo persona was bouncy and cartoon-esque – a bubblegum-chewing, playful, hair-twirling character who had curves in all the right places and breathed fire like a dragon – her Limbo Unhinged character is all grown up.

“My costume isn’t a little vintage circus skirt anymore, it’s a sexy strappy outfit I have to tape myself into so I don’t fall out, and my hair is an elegant beehive. It’s a lot moodier, and I miss my Limbo character a lot. I’m still trying to adjust [but] I think it’s important to push yourself into new areas. And dark and moody are certainly new for me.”

Holliday has inhabited the gritty, mysterious world of the circus since she was a teen growing up in Manhattan, where she and her friends would regularly meet at Coney Island for a cheap, fun night out. The Freak Show, entry $3, was a personal favourite.

“I was a punk and it was just a cool place to go – roller-coasters, the beach, and the freak show was awesome, this place that made me think of an underground place where you needed to know the right people to get in, yet anyone could go to Coney Island.”

She interned at the Coney Island museum and, inspired by the freak show, soon began teaching herself sword swallowing. “I just really wanted to be involved with Coney Island and one thing led to another. It wasn’t just like I woke up one day and went, ‘Hmm, I want to swallow swords for a living’.”

Sword swallowing is, Holliday insists, merely a matter of practice and training your body to accept the blade while controlling your gag reflex. “Your body really does allow you to do crazy things when you push it. Swallowing a sword is just like learning to do the splits – you go into it and it hurts but eventually your body accepts it.”

Obviously the job comes with a serious dose of danger – there are no safety nets or harnesses in Limbo Unhinged and Holliday confides her fondness for dark lipstick helps conceal her regularly burnt lips. “It’s not a big deal for me,” she shrugs. “I burn myself every night.”

What really comes as a surprise, though, is when she shows me a cross-stitch patch she made for her boyfriend Iain McPherson. They met when she was opening her own show The Curious Couple From Coney Island in his bar at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

It’s not a talent she chooses to share with her 11,000 Instagram followers (@heatherswallows).

“When I post on Instagram I have to be cute. If you post things you actually like – ‘I’m reading this awesome book’– I lose followers. No one cares. I’d have to hold it up with my boobs in the picture, it’s so unfortunate,” she says before adding: “But then, it’s not really that unfortunate because I don’t really want to share myself with my followers. I want to share tour dates and promote myself as an artist. It’s important to have things that aren’t for everyone and share them with people you care about.”

Limbo Unhinged is at the Sydney Opera House Studio until March 3.Tickets here.

The Opera Bar has created a drink inspired by Holliday, called Light My Limbo. It's made with Havana dark rum, Cointreau, Falernum, passionfruit, pineapple and lime.