Making a career out of clowning around

By Áine O Donnell

Media caption,
'My clown name is Kazoo'

Jess Harkin was just three years old when she first saw a clown at a circus. From then on, she decided she wanted to be one.

She wanted to dress up and perform tricks to make people laugh, but that all stopped when she was in primary school.

Her classmates made fun of her and she was bullied.

"People at school told me to cop on," she said. "They made me feel like it was stupid so I let go of it for a while."

Jess struggled to make friends and spent most of her time at school on her own.

"I was really shy and I didn't have any friends. I spent lunchtime standing against the wall just watching everyone else play and have fun."

The summer before she started secondary school, Jess began learning to perform magic tricks.

She used them as a tool to approach people and start a conversation.

"The magic became a way for me to go up to people. I would show them a trick and then they would talk to me."

Image source, Jess Harkin
Image caption,
Jess's parents encouraged her passion by buying her magic sets

But the County Donegal woman suffered severe anxiety and struggled while at secondary school.

"I had really bad anxiety issues and I just couldn't deal with it. I was scared all the time and I would pretend to be sick so I didn't have to go to school.

"I didn't want the teacher to talk to me or make me talk in front of the class. I avoided eye contact with everyone and just kept my head down."

Jess had started receiving counselling for the problem but didn't want to stay at school. She left before the start of her final year.

Image caption,
Jess works in a supermarket to support her dream of making it as a performer

"My parents didn't want me to leave but they could see I wasn't happy so they agreed to let me.

"I was so relieved. I know school is important but no-one who is hiring a magician or a clown is looking for qualifications. They just want to see what you can do."

'Just winged it'

The 22 year old started learning her craft by watching videos on YouTube and reading books about magic.

She also went to classes at the In Your Space circus school in Londonderry.

"At the start, I just winged it but then I started going to circus school in Derry. It just clicked straight away and I loved it."

Jess performs for audiences across Northern Ireland but she says there are not many opportunities for circus performers.

"There isn't a scene here. I know a couple of magicians and clowns but there isn't very much work going for us.

"I'm really going for it now. I want to move to America and do this professionally."

'Find the shy kid'

Jess wears brightly coloured clothes, paints her face and wears a red nose when she performs. But how did she pick her clown name?

"I chose the name Kazoo the Clown because kazoos are annoying and no-one likes them."

She uses her performances at parties to encourage shy children to build their confidence by getting involved in magic tricks.

"Every time I do a party, I try to find the shy kid to get them up for a trick.

"Sometimes they don't want to stand up so I pass the wand down to them so they can be a part of it.

"They remind me of what I used to be like. I tell their parents to take them to circus school."

She says magic tricks and performing as Kazoo has helped her manage her anxiety.

"I'm much more confident now. I can perform on stage in front of an audience. It's changed who I am now."