I remember telling my parents when I first met the man who is now my ex-husband. I started with the positives -- he was college educated, worked with the touring company of Chicago's acclaimed Second City, studied with the Cambridge Footlights in England and had toured the world a few times over as a performer. Then I finally let the cat out of the bag:
"He is a clown."
My parents were oddly accepting. I think they had grandchildren in mind and half-clown grandchildren were better than no grandchildren.
As far as clowns go, my ex was quite accomplished. He has been nominated for two Drama Desk awards, performed with every major circus in the country and has also performed extensively in Europe and Asia. I always say:
"He is kind of a big deal...if you are a clown."
But being married to a clown, even a semi-famous one, is not a barrel of fun. For starters, there were the other clowns, many of which were extremely snobby. The pecking order went something like this:
- Theater Clowns: Well trained, with college degrees or higher. Their performances not always comical, and sometimes they are only entertaining to other clowns. Considered the most artistic.
- Circus Clowns: Some join the circus straight out of high school. They have skills such as juggling, stilts, acrobatics, etc. Always funny, have a reputation for being rough around the edges.
- Birthday Party Clowns: Derided by Theater and Circus clowns, yet some birthday party clowns make more money than any other type of clown.
- Hobby Clowns: Amateurs who dream of one day becoming circus clowns; a few even follow circuses around like groupies.
- Gospel Clowns: Clowns who view clowning as a "calling" rather than a job, use clowning to proselytize. Many don't believe in getting paid.
- Rodeo Clowns: Work with animals rather than people -- in a category all their own.
To the rest of the population, a clown is a clown. So a highly skilled theatrical clown like my ex is the same as a hobby clown named Sparkles -- a man wearing a rainbow wig, scary make up, a dirty costume, and plastic shoes who twists balloon animals in the park for tips.
As a result of this common misconception about clowns, the clown world is full of rules and standards. In order to be a "real" clown one had to study with Lecoq in France or Commedia dell'arte. Clown college, which was run by Ringling Bros., was shut down in 1997, so any circus clowns that came after that time were viewed as having lesser training.
So imagine marrying a highly regarded member of the red nose mafia. They weren't exactly the most welcoming group, and what made the situation worse was that my ex decided that I should become his partner-in-crime. I thought that working as a clown might be better than as a mostly out-of-work actress, so I took the plunge and attended a brief clown school in Manhattan. I liked the training, but found some of it to be completely inane. In one class we were told to shout obscenities and throw tennis balls at each other -- it was beyond useless.
My ex and I made great clown partners, but for years -- no matter how many gigs I booked, and no matter how many huge audiences I entertained -- I never felt completely accepted. I often felt like the Yoko Ono of clowning. I was even accused of influencing my husband to not work with certain people or to only work with me. It was all nonsense. I never had any aspirations of running away with the circus or becoming a famous clown. By joining my spouse in his passion, I was trying to make my marriage stronger, as this art form was so important to him. But I made a mistake many spouses make and put his dreams before my own. By subjugating my own desires and needs for his, I was making our lives too interdependent. His happiness became more important than my own and I would ultimately pay the price for this. When the marriage fell apart, I not only lost my partner but my ability to earn an income.
Most of the clowns cut me off immediately. I went from working all the time to not working at all. I tried to get traditional employment but in this competitive job market I had no luck. I have joked that being a clown for nine years is the same as working in the sex industry -- it is the stain that won't wash off. And thanks to the internet I can't hide my past, so I stopped trying to go straight and went back to clowning. I had to build up my own clients and relationships with new entertainment agents and I am slowly pulling myself up.
Now that it is all over, I am the one with the strange occupation trying to explain to people how I got myself into this line of work. It is never easy to say to new people, especially potential dates:
"I am a clown, my ex-husband got me into it."
A shocked expression usually flashes over their faces, as if I am about to start some type of joke. Sadly I am not.
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