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Area resident: Clowning business requires more than a red nose, big shoes

Coulrophobics – those with a fear of clowns – beware.

Despite recent reports in the news that there is a clown shortage, Bob Neal, vice president of the World Clown Association said it just isn’t so.

“What we’ve found is not that there aren’t people into clowning,” Neal said. “It’s that young people just don’t join organizations as much, they think that obligates them to something.”

Michelle Nilles of Minooka, known in the clown world as Strawberri, agreed there aren’t a lot of young people joining the organizations, and even some who have been around a while, such as her, are moving away from them.

She said at one time clowns joined the various organizations for insurance purposes, but there are more options available to them now.

Clowning is a business that requires more than donning a red nose and big shoes, according to Neal and Nilles. It requires ongoing education for the life of the clown.

“I’ve always wanted to work with children,” Nilles said. “I also wanted to be home with my kids, being a clown allowed that, and I’ve been taking classes ever since.”

Area clowns often get together for jams where they practice face painting and balloon-making skills from one another.

“We get together, sit and practice new things,” Nilles said.

There are several clown conventions available for those interested in clowning to attend and learn from some of the world’s best clowns.

This year the World Clown Association will host it’s annual convention in Northbrook at the end of March, where attendees will take part in classes such as “Using body movement and facial expressions.”

Nilles became Strawberri in 1998 and has performed at birthday parties, colleges, corporate events and festivals. She said she is lucky and remains busy, sometimes performing 6 to 10 parties a weekend.

“I have a few people I’m starting to train,” Nilles said. “I have a lot of gigs I have to turn down because there are not enough people to fill them.”

She said many of her customers have said she needs to clone herself, but since she can’t, she wants to train others to follow in her not-so-small footsteps.

“You can make a living at it, but it’s tough,” Neal said. “Recently, Ringling Bros. held an audition for 14 clown spots and 500 people auditioned for those spots.”

Neal said clowns like to share, and they’ll often take someone under their wings to help.

To be a successful clown, Nilles said you have to love kids, have patience, like people, be outgoing, and don’t mind working weekends.

“The best thing about being a clown is no matter what is happening in your life, to see the excitement of a child, it makes your heart melt,” she said. “They make you smile and forget everything else going on in life. It’s very rewarding in many ways.”

She said the worst thing is working every weekend and missing family events for work, but it’s no different than many jobs that have crazy schedules, like her previous job at the railroad.

“When someone becomes a clown they are doing it from their heart,” Neal said. “You get to forget about the troubles of the world, people don’t laugh enough.”

Despite the bad rep clowns have gotten with scary movies featuring them as the bad guy, Nilles said clowns are still in demand, and the fear can be dispelled by a properly-trained clown.

“If I know someone is afraid I stay back,” she said. “If they are young I just stand back and wave at them. Little ones that are afraid end up trying to sit on my lap.”

She said many come up after an event and tell her she’s not scary.

“No, I’m not scary,” she responds with a giggle.

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