Listen to this episode of Working with guest Carol Collins:
Clown scares have been in the news lately, but Carol Collins wants you to know that you have nothing to fear.
Forty years ago, Collins set out with her daughter on a trick-or-treating excursion. Lacking a costume of her own, she donned a spare clown outfit as they made their rounds. Something about the experience stuck, and within a week, Collins—who had been a sixth-grade teacher—decided to try clowning professionally. “I want to do this. I want to make people smile,” she remembers realizing.
Before long, she was applying the makeup and pulling on her polka-dotted pants for fun and for profit. At first, she says, she “didn’t look too cool. I smeared on makeup and I had a little skull cap.” She incorporated a handful of other components in those early days, from a wig made out of a ballet tutu to comically oversized eyelashes. In the decades since, though, she’s mastered the craft of professional clowning, settling into a style and a look that’s entirely her own. Now in her 70s, she still performs, though she’s taken to slipping orthotics into her bulbous, brightly colored shoes.
For this special Halloween episode of Working, we spoke to Collins about what a clown actually does all day. She talked to us about everything from perfecting her look—which now almost always features a ladybug—to mastering balloon art. She also has some very practical thoughts on getting all that clown makeup off once she comes home from a show. Thanks to her years of hard-won experience, she also now serves as an agent for other entertainers, so we talked about the effort that goes into booking shows and the costs of staying safe in the business.
While Collins is a good-natured, delightful presence, there is one thing that gets her up in arms: Stephen King’s It, a story that has contributed to decades of mistaken ideas about clowns. “When that came out in my area, they wanted me to help with the publicity of it. I said, Are you kidding? I should be suing you,” Collins recalls. But well-aware that children sometimes distrust clowns even when they haven’t delved into King’s fiction, Collins has strategies for comforting the frightened. By the end of Bingo’s visit, she says, they’re almost always sitting on her lap.
Above all else, though, clowning for a living seems to bring joy to Collins herself. “When I start putting on the makeup, as soon as I get the final touch, the nose, it perks me up. I just forget about whatever was bothering me,” she says.
In a Slate Plus extra, Collins shares some of her other favorite memories from the clown industry, including clown conferences around the world, her own articles for clown publications, and her time with Tom Selleck … the clown. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at slate.com/workingplus.
Carol’s clown links:
- Collins’ website
- Center Ring Circus School
- Clown makeup
- Clown costumes
- Clown shoes
- Healthy Humor
- Caring Clowns International
Podcast production by Mickey Capper.