Divorce: My ex-husband the Clown

Joel Jeske

Joel Jeske (Photo credit: Prehensile Eye)

I remember telling my parents when I first met the man who is now my ex-husband.  I started with the positives– he was college educated, worked with the touring company of Chicago’s acclaimed Second City, studied with the Cambridge Footlights in England and had toured the world a few times over as a performer.   Then I finally let the cat out of the bag so to speak and said.

“He is a clown”

My parents were oddly accepting, I think they had grandchild in mind and half-clown grandchildren were better than no grandchildren.

As far as clowns go, my ex was quite accomplished.  He has been nominated for two Drama Desk awards, performed with every major circus in the country and has also performed extensively in Europe and Asia.   I always say

“He is kind of a big deal…if you are a clown”

But being married to a clown, even a semi-famous one is not a barrel of fun.  For starters there were the other clowns, many of which were extremely snobby.  The pecking order went something like this

  • Theater Clowns – Well trained, college degrees or higher, performances not always comical, sometimes only entertaining to other clowns.  Considered the most artistic.
  • Circus Clowns – Some join the circus straight out of high school, have skills such as juggling, stilts, acrobatics, etc, always funny, have a reputation for being rough around the edges
  • Birthday Party Clowns – Derided by Theater and Circus clowns, yet some birthday party clowns make more money than any other type of clown
  • Hobby Clowns – Amateurs who dream of one day becoming circus clowns, a few even follow circuses around like groupies.
  • Gospel Clowns – Clowns who view clowning as a “calling” rather than a job, use clowning to proselytize.  Many don’t believe in getting paid.
  • Rodeo Clowns – Work with animals rather than people:  in a category all their own.

To the rest of the population, a clown is a clown.  So a highly skilled theatrical clown like my ex is the same as a hobby clown named Sparkles–A man wearing a rainbow wig, scary make up, a dirty costume, and plastic shoes who twists balloon animals in the park for tips.

As a result of this common misconception about clowns, the clown world is full of rules and standards.  In order to be a “real” clown one had to study with Lecoq in France or Commedia dell’arte.  Clown college, which was run by Ringling Bros., was shut down in 1997, so any circus clown that came after that time was viewed as having lesser training.

So imagine marrying a highly regarded member of the red nose mafia.  They weren’t exactly the most welcoming group, and what made my situation worse was when my ex decided that I should become his partner-in-crime.  I thought that working as a clown might be better than as a mostly out-of-work actress, so I took the plunge and attended a brief clown school in Manhattan.  I liked the training, but found some of it to be completely inane.  In one class we were told to shout obscenities and throw tennis balls at each other, it was beyond useless.

My ex and I made great clown partners, but for years no matter how many gigs I booked, and no matter how many huge audiences I entertained, I never felt completely accepted.  I often felt treated like the Yoko Ono of clowning.  I was even accused of influencing my husband to not work with certain people or to only work with me.  It was all nonsense.  I never had any aspirations of running away with the circus or becoming a famous clown.  By joining my spouse in his passion,  I was trying to make my marriage stronger, as this art form was so important to him.  But I made a mistake many spouses make and put his dreams before my own.  By subjugating my own desires and needs for his, I was making our lives too interdependent.  His happiness became more important than my own and I would ultimately pay the price for this.   When the marriage fell apart, I not only lost my partner but my ability to earn an income.

Most of the clowns cut me off immediately.  I went from working all the time to nothing.   I tried to get traditional employment but in this competitive job market I had no luck.  I have joked that being a clown for nine years is the same as working in the sex industry, it is the stain that won’t wash off.   And thanks to the internet I can’t hide my past, so I stopped trying to go straight and went back to clowning.  I had to build up my own clients and relationships with new entertainment agents but I am slowly pulling myself up.

Now that it is all over, I am the one with the strange occupation trying to explain to people how I got myself into this line of work.  It is never easy to say to new people, especially potential dates

“I am a clown, my ex-husband got me into it”

A shocked expression usually flashes over their faces, as if I am about to start some type of joke.  Sadly I am not.

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Life After Divorce: The Clean Slate


chalkboard (Photo credit: Charlottes Photo Gallery)

There are few times in our lives when we can simply cut people out of our lives without apology or explanation.  One of the greatest things about my divorce was dumping a large part of my ex-husbands social and professional life in one fell swoop.  When you get married you don’t just have your own life anymore, instead two lives become entwined together.  Like the many tentacles of a squid — family, friends and co-workers are part of the animal, and it is difficult to avoid the appendages when dealing with the head.

Although I loved my husband a great deal, I didn’t always care for his friends or creative partners.  My husband was a clown, and when I say clown, I mean clown – a performer who wears big shoes, puts on white makeup and entertains adults and children alike.  My ex has worked with every major circus in the country and extensively throughout Europe and Asia.  He has also been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards for plays he has co-created.  As I would say all the time

“He is kind of a big deal…if you are a clown”

When we first moved to New York we socialized for the most part with other clowns.  I was treated a bit like a “Yoko Ono” figure.  Even though I had been performing since I was a child and had an extensive resume of creating and performing theater, most of the clowns treated me as a star-struck fan that married my husband in order to enter into the world of clowning.  Absurd as that is to imagine, that is what a lot of them thought.  As clowns tend to take themselves and their art form quite seriously, so any outsider who just married a big shot in their field, was automatically viewed with suspicion.  And as with any couple, sometimes when a conflict arose between my husband and one of his collaborators, I would get the blame.  It was much easier to attack me than to actually have a confrontation with the creative genius.

These relationships were further complicated because my husband encouraged me to go into his line of work, mainly because a lot of his gigs were on the road.  So instead of struggling to get work as an actor, I could instead travel the world as a clown with the man I loved.  It might seem an odd career path but it worked out for us for many years.  We worked on cruise ships and traveled the country for various clients and circuses. Our penultimate performance as a clown couple was at Lincoln center for an audience of hundreds.  I knew this life wasn’t going to make us wealthy but I liked the work and it definitely made my husband happy.

When we split, I pretty much lost most of my income.  I wasn’t formally blacklisted but people kept hiring my ex and they stopped hiring me.   And trying to find other employment was next to impossible with the work history  of “clown” during one of the worst recessions in recent decades.  I openly joked that being a clown was the same as working in the sex industry, it was the stain that wouldn’t leave.

On top of this economic blow was the erosion of my support group.  It came in waves, the first to go were my in-laws.  Although they called frequently and we visited them at least once a year as soon as the marriage ended, they immediately cut me off.  The best I got was a voice-mail from my mother-in-law with no follow-up.  Then came the friends of my husband I never liked but tolerated for his sake — the clowns who took themselves very seriously.   I went on facebook blocked all of their profiles, removed their emails, threw out their addresses and deleted them from my phone.  Then the third wave happened it was the strangest and most painful.  Mutual friends rallied around me at first, sympathizing with my situation, but then some of them dropped off and even started to side with my husband.  They chose to support my ex-husband because professionally it made more sense for them to do so.  It was extremely hurtful for me, but at the same time it made me discover who was a true friend, who was an acquaintance and who was dead weight.  After surviving the excruciating ordeal that was my divorce, I really don’t miss the dead weight

When the dust settled, I formed new friendships that will last a lifetime.  My true friends stuck by me, with no sense of obligation and no sense of duty to my spouse.   In the battlefield of my divorce these friendships were only strengthened.  I especially found myself bonding with fellow divorced friends, as they were best suited to understand the many ordeals that come with a divorce.

I still work as a clown, although I am actively looking for ways out of it.   Instead of Lincoln center I now work in living rooms and instead of being flown around the country I take the subway dressed as my alter ego Lulu.  It is truly humbling but at least now I am completely in charge of my destiny, and I am no longer stuck being treated like a sidekick by a bunch of people I never liked in the first place.   And it gives me great comfort that I will never have to sit through a boring dinner party and listen to artistic theories of clowning — some aspects of divorce are downright exhilarating.

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