Business Personal Finance

Tuesday 23 July 2019

How to reinvent yourself when life becomes a circus

Johnathan Lee Iverson. Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Feld Entertainment
Johnathan Lee Iverson. Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Feld Entertainment

Gina London

Long before Hugh Jackman sang and danced under an imaginary big top, Johnathan Lee Iverson lived the real-life fairytale as ringmaster of the Greatest Show on Earth.

A classically trained tenor and the first African American ringmaster, for 17 years he stepped into the centre ring spotlight of the oldest and most famous circus in the United States, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey - donning a bright top hat and a sparkly waistcoat in colours as vibrant as his persona.

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"The moment I put on the costume, this alter ego would come to life - a fierce, swaggering exaggeration of myself," Johnathan told me. "And that's saying something because I'm already a 6-foot-4-inch man."

More than merely introducing clowns, jugglers and acrobats, Johnathan made an oath to himself to promote the performers as worthy, glorious and fun.

"They were more than human beings at the moment I introduced them. The greatest compliment from performers was that I made them feel more alive. 'After you announce me, I have to live up to that', someone told me.

"But I told them I was just a glorified fan who had the privilege of announcing these incredible people. They were masters of the universe. I revered the circus. It was the zenith of entertainment."

The circus he loved so much was also the place where he met his wife Priscilla. "It was my second season when a group of talented Brazilian dancers arrived. We clicked rather quickly. We started dating in the summer and got married in the fall."

It was also the place where they raised two children: son Matthew, now 14, and daughter Lila now 10. "We lived on the world's largest privately-owned train. There was a nursery and a school. Of course, our kids had the best gym teachers in the world, I can tell you that."

Eleven months out of 12, the circus train criss-crossed America to perform some 450 shows every year. Saturdays saw them repeating their spectacle on three separate occasions.

"You never had a boring day. There was always something. I think that's the magic of the circus. I was utterly sure of my identity and my role in the Greatest Show. At the sound of my voice, magic happened. Joy became a real, tangible thing."

Then, in 2017, the sounds, the magic and that tangible joy - all came to an end. After 146 years, the iconic circus folded its tent for the last time.

Johnathan, his family and the rest of their extended performing family they had spent most of the past two decades working and living with - were out of work.

Now, two years later, I wanted to check in on Johnathan and see how things are going. I caught up with him by phone at his home in Orlando, Florida. I will let him tell you about moving on in his own words.

1. Rest to find clarity

"I was someone who was extremely active for many years and used to a high level of energy. My first thought was, 'What can I immediately do to survive and not blow through our savings?' But friends said 'you've been on the road for years, you don't have to jump into the next thing right away you need to rest'. So, I did. We're told to keep grinding, but it's okay to zone out and veg for a while. Rest is a good thing. I'm a lot clearer now.

2. Accept with joy

"I've learned that, for better or worse, your past doesn't entitle you to anything. You might think someone who has done something high-profile can go smoothly to the next thing, but the world doesn't work like that. In entertainment, you become old news fast. You have to accept the challenge of reinvention with joy."

3. Affirm and Fellowship

"You cannot do something that long and not have it become your identity. So, I had to say to myself then and I still do every day: 'Of course I can reimagine myself.' I say my affirmations every morning to start my day. I will come out anew. I can come up with something else.

"I'm also finding groups of supporting people. There are a lot of former performers who were also making the transition. Some have started entertainment companies of their own. My wife teaches ballet and jazz and our children do cirque training and conditioning. We have other friends who do corporate events or work with the Mouse (as in Mickey - Walt Disney World is in Orlando). The fellowship has been very helpful."

4. Maintain Physical and Mental Health

"Settling into civilian life, I knew being active physically would keep me mentally healthy. I got to the gym. I also listen to educational podcasts. My mother taught me the necessity of filling your environment with life-giving things. That can be music, reading or YouTube lectures. Immerse yourself."

5. Keep Going

"You acquire grit through the circus. It's a brutal schedule of a workplace - the special forces of entertainment. So, while opportunities are coming, I'm also learning how to pursue different things too. I'm amid audition season right now. I have to audition like anyone else. I tell young people - keep going! Go go go!"

After all, life is the greatest show. And the show must go on.

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