A lifelong clown walks us through a day in her life
Many people start off their mornings with a shower and putting on makeup, but that’s about where the similarities in morning rituals end for Jane Swiggum. Instead of eyeshadow and lipstick, Swiggum’s makeup routine involves face paint and a red nose.
Over three decades ago, she worked as a summer school teacher and invested her time into helping children. When looking for a way to support and entertain children, she stumbled across the idea of clowning from a newspaper article about a woman who had just completed clown school.
“I was just wowed by the pictures that she had by going to this school,” Swiggum says. She decided to get involved herself and enrolled in the same school. Swiggum hoped to gain some basic experience and knowledge to take back to the kids she worked with, but didn’t expect it to have such an impact on her own life.
“This is not something I set out to do,” Swiggum says. “I set out to teach children. I was never onstage. But one session at clown camp in LaCrosse and I was hooked.”
32 years later, clowning remains a huge part of her life. She attends community parades, puts on shows for toddlers, and works with local seniors to bring joy and entertainment.
In her decades working as a clown, Swiggum has developed different characters for each season and holiday, but her main character remains Dotty the Clown. Through her work as Dotty, Swiggum has received much recognition from the World Clown Association. She was awarded Clown of the Year in 2019 and was inducted into the Midwest Hall of Fame for performance, costume, and makeup. She also received the Midwest Clown Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Because of how much needs to be prepared the morning of one of Swiggum’s shows, from putting on her makeup to getting into her intricate costumes, the preparation for the day of a show starts the night before. She rehearses the show and gets her makeup, props, magic tricks, and costumes for the next day.
The next morning starts early with a shower to flatten her hair so that she can fit it under Dotty’s wig. Getting ready beyond that can take over an hour as she puts on her auguste make up. Auguste clowns like Dotty are those that enjoy getting pied in the face or wearing mismatched clothing, unlike the dolled up whiteface clown style that can be found wearing tuxedos or pretty dresses. Though Dotty’s personality is that of a diva, Swiggum likes being able to have more fun and be the sillier type of clown.
The last steps to Swiggum’s preparation are putting on her clown shoes, wig, and nose. Once her shoes are on, the day’s excitement begins.
“It’s like the magic comes up from my shoes,” Swiggum says. “If I’m tired and I’ve been busy or maybe not real excited, once I put those clown shoes on, [the magic] goes all the way up to my brain and I’m excited to go.”
When Swiggum is fully dressed in one of Dotty’s handmade costumes she leaves for the venue. When she started clowning, she would feel shy or embarrassed when driving to the location of her show. Now, Swiggum embraces it. In her small city of Monroe, Wisconsin, she is known throughout the community for her work.
“I’m just the clown down the street,” Swiggum says.
Her fears of being seen in full clown garb subsided as she became more invested in the act, especially during her time with other clowning students.
“We learned together,” she says. “We gave each other confidence.”
Swiggum now arrives at her performances full of confidence and excitement. She usually puts on a 30-45 minutes show. Her shows consist of humorous acts, occasional magic, balloon twisting, bubble shows, and light shows – the typical clown stuff.
After the show, she sticks around to answer questions. Proud of herself after a long day of showing people a good time, she “floats” home in a state of excitement and thrill.
“People give you a high because you’ve seen them smile; you’ve seen them laugh,” she says.
Once she makes it home, Swiggum winds down from her day and ends the evening exhausted after a day of clowning.
“I learned in clown school that if you’re not exhausted when you get done with your job, you haven’t done a good job,” she says.
Even though the work can be hard, Swiggum says she would never change what she does.
“I don’t think I’ve ever clowned without being excited about it,” she says. “I cannot imagine my life not being a clown.”