I’ve been working on an investigative journalism piece about infiltrating the dark world of the circus arts and I had an amazing breakthrough this weekend. Here are my notes:
Last Thursday morning at 6:30 AM – I wake up to a Facebook message from someone I don’t know asking me to call him because they need aerialists for Superbowl Party gigs. I assume this is a Nigerian Prince scam aimed at aspiring aerialists and I will be asked for a bank account number to “deposit my payment into” once I agree to perform. I Google the person and the phone number and come up with a reputable Circus Arts Entertainment booking company. I am intrigued.
8:45 AM – I call the number I was messaged and speak with the owner of the company who explains he’s short aerialists for gigs he’s been booked to do and is looking to use some ‘local talent’ to fill in the gaps. When he says that I look around to see who he’s talking about and realize he’s referring to me. He found me on Facebook because most of my pictures are of me doing #circusshit. I immediately feel obliged to keep his expectations low enough I can live up to them while still making him want to hire me. I tell him I’m “newish” but am “totally an aerialist”. He is confused. But he is also desperate, so he tells me to send him a full body photo, video, and my measurements for any costumes I might need and he’ll get back to me.
10 AM – I take my measurements using a tape measure (it’s sharp) and send him this photo because it seems like the most literal interpretation of the request that I have readily available:
I also talk a girlfriend, Dakoa, who has been performing as an aerialist for about a year, into sending her information. I figure she’s young, hot, and talented enough maybe he’ll be super grateful for me sending her to him that he’ll hire us both.
11 AM – 6 PM – We wait. Gradually, it becomes clear he’s seen through my act and has realized I’m a 36 year old mother of three and not the aerialist he wants to hire to perform at a ‘Celebrity Superbowl Weekend Party’. I am disappointed but not surprised. I resolve to go back to the drawing board and redouble my subterfuge efforts.
10:45 PM – My phone rings. I have underestimated his level of desperation. He is still moderately confused regarding my level of expertise and asks me to talk to his aerialist. She asks me some questions about tricks I can do. I’ve had 2 glasses of wine and am generally bad at remembering the names of things. Plus the same tricks have different names everywhere. I mostly end up telling her: I swear I can totally do 15 minutes of stuff. And I’m really good at straddle-backs. I have very flexible hips. Clearly, every other aerialist within 500 miles is already booked, and they agree to hire me (and Dakoa) for one of the Saturday gigs. I hang up and wonder if I really can do 15 minutes of stuff. I text everyone I know that I’m about to become famous or die of humiliation; one of those, but nothing else. Then I don’t sleep the entire night.
Friday morning – I head to the circus gym and work on being on the silks for 15 minutes. It’s exhausting, but I make it through. I begin to have enough hope I can do this that it immediately ignites a fear he’ll change his mind (after I’ve already told everyone I know) and I won’t be hired after all. Being a professional aerialist is emotionally exhausting.
Friday 8 PM – He calls and confirms Dakoa and I are coming Saturday night. He gives me more details and says he’ll have costumes for us, but that we should bring our own if we have any. He mentions the theme is ‘futuristic glam’. I’m not sure what this means, but I suddenly have the urge to watch The Labyrinth.
Saturday 10 AM- 3 PM – I try on every leotard, fishnet, and lace top I can find in Chandler Mall. I also buy a metric fuckton of glitter to apply in various ways. I consider cementing my agreement with my husband about which celebrities I’m allowed to sleep with if I ever meet them in person (since it is a ‘celebrity party’ after all), but I realize my list consists of Louis CK, Ira Glass, Ben Gibbard, and CT from The Challenge, and I’m probably unlikely to see any of them at a lingerie-themed Superbowl party, so I don’t bother.
4 PM – 4:45 PM – I lay on the floor in our bathroom while my husband attempts to apply fake eyelashes for me. He’s very detail-oriented and has lots of experience with epoxy, so I assume he’ll do a great job. He is strangely uncoordinated at it. He is angry and touching my eyeballs. I make a mental note to find some Youtube tutorials for him to watch so he can do a better job in the future.
6 PM – I arrive at the venue, a gallery in downtown Phoenix. Dakoa and I head inside and find no circus folk. The security team hasn’t heard of us or the company who hired us, but there is a silk rigged from the ceiling, so we unknot it and try it out. It is much lower to the ground than I’ve been practicing on, which immediately eliminates about a third of what I worked on the previous day. One of my fake eyelashes falls halfway off while I’m practicing and I can’t get it to stick back on without redoing the whole thing, so I look like a ‘special needs’ aerialist. I feel like I might throw up.
6:45 PM – Another set of circus people shows up. They are of the sword-swallowing, glass-walking, hammer-scissors-into-your-sinuses variety. They were told the costume theme is Steampunk. The only male of the group has a large, fresh scar up his back. He says he had a sword swallowing accident in the fall and was in the ICU for a month. I want to tell him to grow up and stop sticking sharp things into his orifices, but I’m afraid he’ll say, You’re not my mom, so I keep quiet.
7 PM – I call our contact and ask when he’s getting there. He says a different guy will be our manager at the party and he’s on his way. He also explains we will each be doing two sets as an ‘aerial bartender’. Dakoa and I have never done this before. He tells me to go to their Facebook page and look at the pictures of the other girls doing it to see what poses they use. I don’t know what to say except, Sure! When I get off the phone we find a silk rig that hangs below a chandelier ringed with vodka bottles that have LED light displays. We practice pouring upside down.
7:45 PM – Our manager for the night arrives. He doesn’t have costumes for us and is unaware we were promised them. We are also to do our own hair and makeup. This is a problem for me because I’m not totally aware of the levels of makeup. Before this night, I knew of:
Level 1: No makeup
Level 2: Going to the grocery store makeup
Level 3: Trying to look halfway decent makeup
Level 4: Fancy night makeup where it’s ok to look kind of slutty
Apparently, ‘Aerial performance’ makeup is Level 67. When I have more makeup on than I’ve ever had in my life, Dakoa shakes her head without approval and tells me the girls arriving at the event have more on than I do. I make a mental note to buy a “Learn How to Do Your Own Makeup Groupon”.
8:30 PM – When we are done with hair and makeup we put on costumes we’d brought. I have a leotard and a two piece outfit. Standing in front of the mirror, I look pear-shaped in the leotard, so I go with the high-waisted brief with a lace top and black fishnets. I feel moderately comfortable in my outfit. I have abs. I’m sleek-ish… for my age. Then Dakoa, who is 22 and weighs 7.5 lbs, complains about her muffin top. I realize I am obese and should immediately be put out of my misery.
9 PM – We are sharing a dressing area with go-go dancers in black lingerie, 3 storm troopers and two girls in light up cage dresses. I’m not sure how we all go together.
9:30 PM – We are marched out onto the Red Carpet of the event in front of photographers. They yell things at us and are not nice. They demand we be interesting. I wasn’t told verbal harassment was part of the gig. I feel sorry for famous people. Sort of.
10 PM – We start the first ‘set’. Dakoa begins it with 15 minutes on the silks. I asked to do the bartending first because I’m nervous and it seems easier. She looks gorgeous and amazing. I’m proud to be her friend, but I hate her a little bit.
After she’s done, some of the other circusy weirdos do their thing, and then it’s my turn on the aerial bartending rig. I am extremely nervous. I climb the silks, determined to wrap my feet, do a crossback and invert to pour upside down. I climb too high and hit my head on a bottle. I stand back up, slide down and try again. I’m still too high. Everyone is embarrassed for me. I wish I’d hit my head hard enough to knock myself out. I finally get into a position to pour drinks and am handed a bottle. I begin pouring ‘shots’, but as I’ve never been a bartender, much less an aerial bartender, I pour too much and the bottle is gone very quickly. I’m left to awkwardly change poses low to the ground and try to avoid hitting the bottles for the rest of my set. It’s horrifying. My cover is blown. I’m nothing but a late-30s Realtor/mom hanging upside down among beautiful rich people rolling their eyes. I consider hanging myself from the silk as my dramatic finale.
11-11:30 PM – We are on break. It’s far past my bedtime. I nurse a Rockstar and vodka. We’re told there are servers passing sushi on trays, but I’m too humiliated to eat. Dakoa comforts me by saying her first aerial atmosphere performance didn’t go great. I am determined to get through the night and then will abandon this ruse to go back to my suburban life. I’m in over my head.
11:45 PM – We head back out. I am on silks this time. I take a deep breath and start my set. I get through my first few tricks… and feel beautiful! I’m getting through this! People are smiling and taking pictures. I’m strong and competent. I feel good! Then, I invert and I realize my brief bottoms have slipped down below my belly button. Down below the extra skin on my stomach that announces I’ve carried three children to term. My stomach fat is hanging out for all of the beautiful rich people to see. I try to discretely adjust while continuing my routine. A rocker guy in a leather jacket comes to take a picture with me. I try to feel empowered. My body has been through things, but it’s amazing and strong! I halfway succeed. I feel worried there will be pictures of my stretch marks on the internet.
When I come down, and we get through the other acts, Dakoa takes a turn at the aerial bartending. She is amazing. People forgo their cups and stand under her with their mouths open to have vodka showered down on them. She obliges and coats dozens of expensive suits and faces with liquor. They don’t mind.
1:00 AM – I’ve changed into a leotard. Suddenly, instead of pear-shaped, I feel sexy and less like I’m living that nightmare where you get to high school and realize you forgot to get dressed. Lesson learned: Dress for being tied up in the air, not for standing in front of the mirror. It’s decided we only have time for one more set. Because Dakoa was fantastic at the bartending and I wasn’t a disaster on the silks, we’re going with that one more time. Dakoa and I take a selfie before going back out.
When I get to the silks, the music is dancey and infectious like it is sometimes after midnight. The crowd is drunk. I’m almost done with this insane experience. I begin to climb, and all of my anxiety and fear stays on the ground without me. I’m nothing but a dancer in the air, feeling the music and soaking up the drunk energy of the crowd. I spin and drop and pose like I was born doing this. I feel like a goddamn superstar. I could stay up there for hours. I finish the set flush with adrenaline and ego. I am an aerialist!!!
1:30 AM – We’re done performing, so we wander the residual party, barefoot, sipping celebratory cocktails. As performers, we have access to all areas. Even at the VIP sections, the black-suited security guards smile and open the red velvet ropes when we approach. Dozens of people stop us to tell us they LOVED our shows, in that way you do when you’re drunk and you feel like someone just isn’t getting how strongly you feel about the statement you’re making. We feel like the celebrities at the party. We see the supermodels briefly, before they leave. They tower over everyone else at the party. Behind a wall, in a section we didn’t know was there, a TRX is set up and a personal trainer is showing lingerie-clad girls how to use it. They are pathetic. We step up and show them how it’s done (or at least how we do it).
Everyone is super, drunkenly, impressed.
4 AM – I finally get home. I lie in bed, wide-awake, reliving the spectrum of emotions I experienced in this undercover mission. I am covered in bruises. The sheet of stick-on rhinestones I bought scattered throughout my makeup bag and now I’m so fancy I have rhinestone-studded deodorant. Who knows if I’ll ever get hired again, but even if I don’t, at least I had that last set. I was magical… if only for 15 minutes.