The Rock and Roll Ringmaster
Kristin Michelle Wilson gives us a peek under the top hat at the big top
Florida native Kristin Michelle Wilson literally personifies an exclamation point. Her sunny personality and unflappably positive outlook were no doubt part of her appeal to the powers that be at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus when she was hired to be the first female ringmaster in the 146-year history of the show. As only the 39th ringmaster in the history of the attraction, Wilson has a big hat to fill. But she seems to be more than able for the challenge and as Circus Xtreme crosses the country in a bittersweet farewell tour, she hosts the show with unbridled enthusiasm. She spoke with INsite by phone from the circus train.
The circus has been so romanticized – in movies, in art and in general culture it’s almost a myth, but it’s a very real lifestyle.
Everyone has that childlike wonder about the Greatest Show on Earth, right? How can you not feel that? I’m lucky because there are only a few people who’ve been able to live this life. You’re right, it’s been so romanticized in the culture about “running away to the circus” and getting to travel the country. I love it because I’m able to inspire people.
There have been other women in the circus but usually in decorative or supportive roles.
When I was first hired, there was a lot of discussion about what my title should be. Should I be the Ringmaster or Ringmistress? I felt very strongly we should retain the title of Ringmaster. The job is gender-neutral, it’s about hosting and singing and being larger-than-life. You wouldn’t change the title of reporter or CEO or president, you’re just doing your job. It’s inspiring to me when young girls or women will come up to me and say, “We’ve seen you lead the Greatest Show On Earth, now we know we can do anything.”
You sing in the show and it’s great that you are a real rock and roll ringmaster. That’s a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the circus experience.
I’ve been a television news reporter, a talk show host, an actress, a waitress, a film producer as well as the lead singer of a rock band, but this is all of my favorite things all rolled into one job. I’m just so thrilled to do it because it’s the longest-running show in show biz.
The selling point of the circus has always been that it’s so many different elements rolled into one big show.
My major was international affairs, so to be able to work on a show with 13 different countries represented, that’s pretty exciting to me.
Politics aside, it’s a whole United Nations of performing arts.
It is! And I feel that’s something that is really needed in our society right now. Celebrating what can happen when we all come together. To put our best foot forward and really revel in all the diversity the world has to offer rather than to be against each other because of the differences.
Another romanticized element of the circus is the family atmosphere. What’s it like on the inside?
It’s truly a family. Not only are we performing between 5 and 13 shows a week on average, we live and travel together. A lot of people don’t know that we still travel the country by train, so it’s almost 300 people including the cast and crew, together on a train. I think it builds much more comradery than a normal job would. It’s like having your relatives along. We have 22 children who travel with us and a nursery and a school with multiple teachers.
Is there a hierarchy among the troupe?
Everyone is equal. I wear the top hat, but I’m the same as the person who holds the curtain or unloads. If one person is missing, it changes the experience for the audience. And that’s really important for me. I really do feel like the circus is a microcosm for society.
Obviously you know from being in a band, the pressure of being thrown together into a marriage of sorts. You have to make it work or the whole thing falls apart.
You really do! And timing is critical. When I was offered this role, I had to give up a lot of things I’d worked hard to get. I’d created a life for myself, but everyone said you’ve got to take this job, it’s incredible! It’s like going from a small family to a really big one and for this many people to work in unison is incredible. You have second and third generation circus performers and the elders often set the tone.
How did the cast and crew react to the news that the show was closing?
Well when they made the announcement, of course everyone was shocked, surprised and sad. For many of the performers, all they’ve ever known is life on the train. We have people here on visas to work, and some relationships will end. It’s a very different experience from my own, so my heart goes out to them. I’m able to offer a bit of perspective due to my own history.
And what is their overall response?
The response from everyone is “The show must go on.” They could have closed it the week of the announcement, but this has turned into a farewell tour. Every show, we are determined, will be the very best we’ve ever done. It’s the only way we can do it. We know there’s a finite amount of time left and we want the next generations to be able to see the greatest show on earth and to know what it was all about. It’s been the greatest joy of my life and I know the dream will continue.
So these final months are indeed bittersweet.
That’s true and it’s not been lost on any of us. But the focus right now is on the day-to-day and the minute-to-minute. When you’re up on the highwire, you can’t be thinking about putting your resume together and what the future may hold, you need to be thinking about right now. The bitterness is you have found your dream and you’ve been told that soon you’ll have to let it go. But the sweet is that we were able to live it.
Ringling Brothers Circus will have it's finals shows in Atlanta from Feb 15-20 and in Duluth from Feb 25-Mar 3. For tickets, please visit ringling.com/tickets.