Trailblazing Ringmaster Brings Diversity To The Circus

Johnathan Lee Iverson has the distinction of being both the youngest and the first African-American for Ringling and Brothers Circus. Iverson talks to guest host Allison Keyes about his job as the leader the of the circus.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

There's just something about the circus the swirl of alpacas, yaks, elephants and, yeah, the tigers. People who set themselves on fire and shoot themselves out of canons, and one person in the center of all the action: the ringmaster. Johnathan Lee Iverson has the distinction of being both the youngest and the first African-American ringmaster for Ringling Brothers. He joins us now. And, I have to say, I have to start what a cool job.

Mr. JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON (Ringmaster, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus): This is more than a cool job. I have the greatest gig on earth. Nobody has it, not even Oprah. Oprah doesn't have it better than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVERSON: She just owns everything. But I don't care. I have the greatest gig on earth.

KEYES: But wait, did I read somewhere that you called yourself a beautiful, brown Liberace? Really?

Mr. IVERSON: I'm something like that. I didn't use those exact words. But I always felt it was like somebody, like, Sidney Poitier and Little Richard and just blew it up, and then you got me. And that's what I look like when I'm out there on the floor. I mean, it's amazing. I don't know how my wife deals with me. My ego just blooms when I step onto that arena floor. It's unbelievable.

KEYES: But this isn't what you wanted to do in the first place. You were going to be opera man.

Mr. IVERSON: Yeah, see, this is the wonderful thing about my whole situation and I tell children this all the time when opportunity meets preparation through the access of quality of education, great things happen. You can always expect the unexpected. As long as you have a great education, you're prepared for anything that comes your way.

My plan was to be, you know, I was going to an opera star, I was going to be a musical theater star, maybe a film star. That was my plan. And, of course, God giggled and said, well, I'll throw this at you and let's see how you handle that. And it was something that wasn't even I can't even sit up here and lie to you and say, oh, I always wanted to run away with the circus. I didn't. It wasn't even in my...

KEYES: Are you kidding? How could you not want to run away to the circus? Who doesn't want to run away?

Mr. IVERSON: Well, I grew up in New York City. So, it's like, you know, I had enough circus in my life. You know, of course I attended the Ringling Brothers shows when I was coming up. That was the tradition. You just had to do that. It was such a major event, and I lived for it. I mean, till this day, my favorite act, and it's in the show, is the globe of steel.

KEYES: Oh, yeah.

Mr. IVERSON: And I mean, the difference now from when I was a kid to now is now I'm, like, I'm downing Tums because I'm so nervous every time seven bikes go into this 16-foot sphere. And I'm just shaking, and I'm the one who has to be composed. I'm the ringmaster, just in case but I feel like the audience, you know. It's just such a marvelous event.

KEYES: But I wonder what's different in the way you ringmaster today, as opposed to what the ringmaster did 140 years ago. I mean, besides the whole singing thing.

Mr. IVERSON: Wonderful question. I actually am, in a sense, I'm like a nouveau type of ringmaster. I actually I always call this gentleman to me he's just wonderful, his name is John Harriot, and he's basically the last of the original ringmasters. And what I mean is the ringmaster was actually an equestrian. And that's why we wear the equestrian garb.

And, so he was an expert with horses and his role expanded. I mean, eventually he would basically be the guy who may have had a great circus history his self. He may have been an acrobat, who knows, he was born into it. He may have run the show. He may have been the general manager, train master, whatever. He have owned the show.

So the ringmaster always has this air of authority. I carry that because of the tradition. However, I'm more of an entertainer now. So I, of course, I host the show, but I'm singing in the show. That's how they actually got me. They're like, well, we want a singing ringmaster. And I said, well, I want a check and a job. And it all worked out. That's my PR answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVERSON: The truth is - I'm a overpaid, glorified fan who gets to wear spectacular outfits, and I get to brag about my superhero-like friends and these extraordinary animals.

KEYES: I have to ask you something, I know you're from the Upper West Side, right? So, you're in the circus, you're in the center ring, you've got the tigers coming in, how did you get used to the whole wild animal thing, 'cause I don't suspect there are that many of them on the Upper West Side?

Mr. IVERSON: Bless your heart for asking that question.

KEYES: You know, one of the wonderful things about growing up in New York City is you gain a whole lot of great common sense. And so, going in, I already just knew, just instinctively that I had to respect these animals. They are still what they are. I don't believe in the word domestication.

KEYES: I have to ask you this 'cause I covered the lawsuit against Ringling Brothers over their treatment or alleged mistreatment of the performing elephants last year. I mean, what do you say to the people that wonder, is it cool for the animals to live in cages like that? Is it cool for them to be chained like that? I mean, how - what do you see their treatment as?

Mr. IVERSON: The thing is this: first of all, 12 million fans can't be wrong. It's really an insult to our audience when you hear these dynamic charges. It's an insult to them. You're saying that 12 million people a year are a bunch of masochists.

KEYES: But the 12 million people aren't backstage. They don't know what's going on.

Mr. IVERSON: No. But they have the sense enough to know. I mean, we have the highest population of elephants outside of Southeast Asia. That's a lot of elephants. That's a lot of money. We're neither Wall Street or the House of Representatives. So, we don't screw up with our greatest investment.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are chatting with Jonathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster of Ringling Brothers. We're talking about his career and how he stays calm when his life is literally a three-ring circus.

So, Jonathan, back to fun. You spend 48 weeks a year on a train with your wife, who dances with the circus and your kids. Is that a cool thing or is that a, oh my god, I have no address thing?

Mr. IVERSON: Oh, that's a life thing. And it's an extraordinary life thing. I never wanted to be one of those artists who was a stranger in his house. You know, I always heard those horror stories of, oh, look, mommy, somebody (unintelligible) coming to our house. Oh, that's your dad, by the way. I didn't want to be that, you know. I really always dreamt about being a hands-on father. And this job has given me that gift.

KEYES: And I hear it's not bad to be the ringmaster on the train. Something about a really nice nice digs there?

Mr. IVERSON: Oh yeah, man, my digs are my dig's swinging. I can't put up a I'm not even going to try and be humble about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVERSON: I have quite the pad. And it's lovely. It's fun. I mean, traveling on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey train, the world's largest privately owned train, is it's wonderful. It's a city without a zip code. I'm elated that I get to share this experience with my family.

KEYES: I've got to ask you, I know you were the first African-American to have this job. Was that at all odd or anything, the first time you walked out there in your sequins and your top hat and were like, yeah, that's right, that's me. Were people, like, wow, what's that black man doing in the middle of the ring?

Mr. IVERSON: Yeah, I came out with my fists pumping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVERSON: Back then I had an afro. I was really angry. Still angry. Say, oh, 129 years, y'all had all these white men. No, but to be honest, it was something that I went back and forth with. But I really understood it when I would meet older African-Americans. My grandfather was an activist. My grandmother was an activist, and their first circus was coming to see me. You know, there was this interesting pressure, you know, because when you're the first, everybody's looking. And that pressure, really, honestly, I was prepared for it when I was in the boys choir of Harlem and growing up in the home that I did with the mother that I have, it was always indoctrinated into me that you represent a legacy of marvelous strangers who for some reason cared enough about you to risk their lives, risk humiliation so you could be where you are.

So, in anything I would do, even if I wasn't the first just going to college, just being a student every day, just being a human being for me I always have that in the back of my head, you know. Like, I have to honor these people, you know, like, mediocrity is not an option. Because when I really think about it, it's really the ultimate grace that these strangers, these marvelous strangers would do that for me.

When you're fortunate enough to have a spotlight on you, I think you do have a responsibility. And as much as it may burden and as must as it may be an inconvenience, I'll take that inconvenience over lynchings and being beat at sit-ins. You know, after what those people did for me, I, you know, whatever I go through is nothing. It's nothing.

KEYES: All right, can you just give us one ladies and gentlemen? Come on. Come on.

Mr. IVERSON: Oh, of course, I'll do it. Boy, the ladies love it. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I've been your ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson with the lovely Allison Keyes of NPR. And you've just enjoyed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's Barnum's FUNundrum, the Greatest Show on Earth.

KEYES: Jonathan Lee Iverson is obviously ringmaster at Ringling Brothers. He was kind enough to join us from our New York studios. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. IVERSON: Thank you for having me.

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