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16th Feb 2010 -

I am starting this blog today because I am scared, and I want to remember that I was scared. There is a feeling in my stomach like an exam tomorrow. I have had three nightmares already.

It began with the job requirement that airhostesses wear make-up.

Or it began with the French law that women are forbidden from wearing headscarves on buses.

I think it began with the ending of a relationship, and by being boxed and gift-wrapped into some one else's idea of a person.

No, it began on the farm. The electrician stopped for a cup of tea and a chat. He was a nice, middle-aged man. He was a nice middle-aged man dressed as a nice, middle-aged woman. And before I knew it I caught myself thinking,
Me, who has always prided myself on being liberal and open-minded. And then I thought,
'What shall I do?'...
Then I realised that I didn't need to do anything except have a nice cup of tea and a chat; which is what I did.

But I couldn't leave it at that, not any of it. I thought about my reaction. Then I thought about other people's reactions to me. I thought about the French women and the airhostesses and I read a lot of Peggy Phelan. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to explore the otherness, and my otherness, and this visually representable 'real'.

And so it begins. As of tomorrow, and for the duration of Lent, I will wear the face of a clown. I will get up each morning and rather than put on my make up, I will put on the make up of a clown. My clown. I will not leave the house without my face and will only remove it to sleep. And I am scared. There is a feeling in my stomach like an exam tomorrow. I have had three clown nightmares already.

17th Feb 2010 - Tails

My alarm went off at 6am and woke me from another clown dream. I was applying my make up in a school playing field. I got out of bed and applied my make up for real.

I flipped a coin and it came up tails, which means a sad face. This was a relief to me since, although my rule is to let fate decide my look, I didn't feel much like smiling.

Did you ever see that film 'Indecent Proposal', where Demi Moore is sold to Robert Redford for one night only and a lot of money? There is this bit where she is applying her lipstick and she is so nervous she makes her mouth into a big red splodge. I experienced something similar today with my clown face.

It was surprisingly hard to know where to start. Research had me set on a white-faced clown, but it wasn't that simple. I had assumed that by painting my face I would automatically look ridiculous, but I had forgotten that a woman in make up is not so weird. The white base looked oddly beautiful. I could see why Geisha's chose that style of decoration. Even adding the detail was tricky. It was so easy to slip into something else: Goth, drag or cabaret.

I had read somewhere that being a clown is not about wearing a mask, but exaggerating your own features. This is why you should never copy the face of another clown. A book on face painting helpfully suggested pulling exaggerated expressions to find your inner clown. Doing this at 6 in the morning felt suitably ridiculous.

After 40 minutes I decided it was as good as it was going to get. Walking out of the house and into the dim morning I felt like a victim. Driving to work I was paranoid. Arriving at work I felt sick.

I tried to scurry into the office with my hat on and my head down, but got caught signing in by a woman from upstairs. I smiled. She shrieked. It was not a good start. After a pause she said,
'Nice make up'.
She didn't look happy. But then, neither did I.
'What's all this about then?' she asked.
It's a question I will get asked a lot. I explained about the project. She sneered and said,
'Oooh kaaay', in a drawn out kind of way.

After she had gone I went upstairs feeling sad. I knew this would happen, but it still felt bad. The day got better though. Well, if people looking at you and gwarfing can be described as better. But this laughter felt like kind laughter, and I preferred it to the sneer.

Walking down the high street to a meeting I was heckled by a group of teenage boys, who helpfully directed me to the circus. After the staff meeting Vicky told me she was worried the whole time that I was about to break down. It was very distracting, she said. I apologised. I had actually been quite focussed on the discussion and temporarily forgotten my clownness. This gave me hope. Perhaps there will be periods of respite. Perhaps I will not have to spend the next 40 days in a state of continual nervous tension.

18th Feb 2010 - Heads

Last night was Wednesday night, and Wednesday nights are Kung Fu nights. I had been worrying about this. I was worried because respect is a big part of Kung Fu and the level of respect a clown could expect seemed dubious. Looking like a fool I felt like a fool and I didn't want to go. Not like this. I hated it and hated myself for doing it. I was also worried that my face would melt into my eyes.

To counter this second fear I sprayed myself with fixative. Then I dragged myself into the car and drove to class. Everything was heavy.

Chris took one look at me and said he felt underdressed. Tim warned me that just because my face was painted didn't mean I could punch in mime. He also informed me that I wasn't to turn up again with a sad face or I would put people off coming. He would bring his daughters face paints, he said, and adjust my face accordingly. But it felt good to have them joke about it and once we got to fighting all anyone could think about was getting through.

I asked Melike about it afterwards, but she said,
'Do you look at me when we train? Do you think, 'she looks red and sweaty' or 'her hair's a mess''
And I realised that of course I didn't. There was no time or energy to think about anything except blocking her kicks.

Aside from white paint rubbing off on everyone's kit it was all going well until half way through when I started feeling weird. Tim recognised the nausea just in time to get my head down and prevent me passing out.

I was very hot. Staring up at the ceiling I wondered what was wrong. This had never happened before. My suspicion is the fixative was stopping my skin from breathing properly. Idiot. I saw myself, a clown in a kung fu kit, lying on the floor with legs in the air. I fleetingly wondered if I looked pale.

19th Feb 2010 - Heads

I am visiting family in Devon for the weekend with my friend Sheena. The journey down was safe enough except stopping for coffee, when the sound of circus music began to infiltrate our conversation. Looking behind I saw a gentleman smirk, honk and shout 'smell my flower'!

Walking in the fields felt good. The relief of being alone was amazing. Just to know no one would see me felt lighter. I knew this experiment would be hard, but the struggle is different to how I imagined. It's not life changing and the responses are not even dramatic, it's just that they are there, always. Whether it's avoiding eye contact or staring, laughing or frowning. Even knowing it's funny or harmless doesn't matter. The comments are hard and the whispers harder, but my own anticipation and paranoia are hardest of all.

There are times when I forget, but then it's in the remembering; seeing my face in their face. Or looking forward to a walk on the moor or a trip into town before recalling that I will have a clown face. Then it still seems like fun, only some of the light has gone out of it somehow. There is an edge to everything now.

20th Feb 2010 - Heads

It is good spending time with people who know me well. They very soon forget, which helps me forget too. My mother was genuinely baffled when a man in a van pointed and laughed at us before driving back for another look.
'Then I remembered I was walking next to a idiot', she smirked.

The reaction of children is comforting too. I have heard multiple clown phobia stories since beginning this project and was truly concerned about my little niece. But hearing my voice she rushed to greet me with out stretched arms, and I nearly wept with gratitude!

Rosie, a friend's child and a little older, also beamed.
'Look mummy, it's a funny clown', she said, before demanding to have her own face painted.

Watching my father perform the dame in the village panto was an odd experience: we looked scarily similar. The reaction of the villagers was also strange. At first they took me to be part of the performance and eyed me with cautious smiles. However, when it became clear I had no part in the show, they took to communicating with Sheena about me. It was as if I wasn't there or couldn't hear. Comments like, 'I think she's taken it a bit seriously', or 'have you called Ghost Busters?', were clearly meant in jest, but something about my exclusion made us both feel uncomfortable. When Sheena began getting sympathetic smiles we decided it was time to leave.

21st Feb 2010 - Heads

Clothes shopping was difficult. I couldn't try on anything which didn't zip or button, for fear of leaving my face behind.

Two days into this project I put on my red dress and blue jumper. This might not seem so strange except I haven't worn this dress for two years. It was only looking at the pictures afterwards that I noticed the co-ordination with my face.

Something else I have noticed is that I have become almost OCD about my personal hygiene. It's as if by having shiny hair and smooth hands I can compensate somehow for my face. Or perhaps it's a fear that if I smell and look scruffy I will be one step too far down a road I don't want to tread (or others to see me tread). Or maybe it's that my teeth look yellow next to the white...

I'm surprised at my personal vanity and the knock it's taken. I saw a man I found attractive in the high street yesterday and clocked him without even realising. It wasn't until he glanced my way and gave a start before muttering,
'Scared the shit out of me',
that I felt ugly.

I've heard alot of those comments in Devon, far more than in London. I have over-heard 'fuck' or 'fucking' alot which, when coupled with the word 'clown', feels weirdly aggressive.

Sheena says she doesn't hear them, which leads me back to questioning my paranoia. I haven't made it up, but I suppose I didn't have to hear. It's like I'm listening out for it, waiting for it to happen.

There are things that make me laugh too though. Passing by a group of men outside a pub I was surprised to hear one whistle. The empty street confirmed it was directed at me but it was a very odd noise, like a canary or something. A canary, or someone who's got halfway through a wolf whistle before realising that it's totally inappropriate to wolf whistle a clown...

22nd Feb 2010 - Tails

I was happy the coin landed me a sad face today. I had to go to a conference in Birmingham and was worried about a whole heap of things. It somehow feels more bearable if my face matches my mood.

Getting the tube and train was uneventful. For this I thank London. The rush-hour shove is all-inclusive.

Arriving in Birmingham I got lost. Then I couldn't bring myself to ask for directions. I kept remembering a news article from a few years back about a girl murdered in Birmingham by a paranoid schizophrenic.

Eventually I got desperate and plucked up the courage to ask a workman. He was very pleasant and set me back on track without a second glance. Ashamed, I wondered what I had been afraid of.

Twenty minutes later I muddled my left and right and was lost again. An old man asked if he could help and again the act of kindness confused me. The conference was at a theatre and he asked if I was performing there. I told him no, I was going to a conference. I try not to give an explanation unless I am directly asked for one. It feels too much like excusing myself. The man didn't pursue it but offered to walk with me, and we talked politely about the weather the whole time. I felt wonderfully normal.

Approaching the reception I heard frantic whispering and the word 'clown', which cut off abruptly as I turned to sign in. This tickled me as the conference was about excellence and inclusion.

23rd Feb 2010 - Heads

It was a studio day today, which was a relief. Walking through New Cross to get there was daunting though.

I am learning about my own prejudices. Approaching the building I passed a large black man, who frightened me a little. He did a double take when he saw me.
'Are you trying to scare people?' he asked.

Later, in Sainsburys, I rounded the corner of the fruit isle and nearly collided with a young girl. She can't have been more than twelve, and had her friend in hot pursuit. Gasping, she turned on her heel and whispered urgently,
'Did you see her face?'
From then on I could see them in my peripheral vision, tracking me down across the supermarket. Eventually they plucked up the courage to confront me.
'We like your face', said one.
'Yeah, it's really cool' said the other.
I thanked them and we all stood there smiling awkwardly for a moment before shuffling off in our different directions.

I am developing a tendency to stay in of an evening. I tell myself it is because I need to write this blog. I tell myself it is because I am tired from such an emotionally draining project. I don't tell myself it is because I can't wait to wash my face off and feel clean again.

To counter this I went to 'Folk at the Oak'. It was good to hear the music and bad to smile at the table of young men, feeling rejection in their reaction. An older man was concerned for my eyes, but I reassured him they just look yellow next to the white.

24th Feb 2010 - Tails

Here's a strange thing: I have stopped having the clown dreams. Now my flatmate has them instead.

It is exactly a week since I began the project. Getting up at 6am to apply my make-up I noticed the difference in my mood. I no longer felt nervous. Just tired. I am getting better at constructing my face too. The routine is more familiar even if the paint isn't.

Walking out the house I did not feel like a victim, just a bit of a prat. It pleased me though that I was a sad clown again. So far I have only thrown 'tails' on days when I have had to go into the office...

People react more directly to the sad face. They tell me to smile. They tell me to cheer up. It did cheer me up when one woman said,
'Good Lord! You haven't been out like that have you?'

Another week of Kung Fu. This time I did not use the fixative and I did not pass out.

I am trying not to count down the days because it makes me feel desperate. There is a part of me that thinks, 'I should be making the most of this, I should be enjoying this special time as a clown'. But mostly I'm just trying to get through.

25th Feb 2010 - Heads

I have just got back from Loughton Youth Theatre. The Youth of Loughton took one look at me and started screaming. It was mass hysteria and took three leaders ten minutes to calm everyone down.

This is the first really frightened reaction I have had and it was very strange. I didn't know what to do to make it better.

Later, when everyone was quieter, we sat in a circle and I explained the project. Everyone was interested and I spent a long time answering questions. They wanted to know everything from the practicalities of face painting to the motives behind it and the different reactions. I assured them they were the first people to scream on mass. They apologised and said it was the way I had entered out of the dark with my hood up...

Afterwards I wondered if age played a part in their reaction. All the younger kids I have encountered have loved me. There must be a point then when clowns stop being funny and start being scary. These children were on the cusp of teenage, so perhaps the loss of innocence has something to do with it.

26th Feb 2010 - Heads

After reading my blog yesterday, Sheena said she was surprised at how unhappy I had been. Not that the project wasn't hard, she said, but rather the clown seems such a happy figure she assumed I was having lots of fun. Surely everyday is a fun day for a clown?!

I had a related experience in the supermarket today. My food was on the conveyer belt at the checkout and I was waiting to pay when a young voice behind me whispered,
'Mummy, it's a clown'.
I am getting used to this response. I turned and saw two small boys in the queue behind me. What was strange was their mother's reply.
'Of course it's a clown' she said, 'look at all the funny food she's eating'!
She then proceeded to dissect my purchase and it's absurdity for the entire supermarket to hear.

I didn't think there was anything odd about my sandwich and crisps, but I could relate to the food fascination. I often take a sly glance at the conveyer belt and assess the choice of my fellow shoppers. It's a fun premise to invent a character and a life. But I would never dream of doing it out loud. It made me feel de-humanised in a way that is becoming familiar.

27th Feb 2010 - Heads

I woke up feeling pretty positive, and was really glad that I tossed 'heads' and could paint myself a happy face. It's not that the expression effects how I feel once the paint is on: I did wonder if it would, but actually it's the make-up I am aware of, not the expression.

No, it's the moment of painting where the difference lies. That crucial point, which I put off for as long as possible, is somehow easier to go through with if my face corresponds with my mood. Yesterday I woke up in a very black temper and really resented having to paint a big smile on my face. It seemed twice as hard as painting my melancholy clown.

It was as well that I felt positive today, since Sally studied me and said,
'It makes your teeth look yellow. And your eyes.'
I am finding these knocks to my vanity hard to take, especially since people usually say how nice my teeth are.
'It makes your coat look grubby too', she added. She was right.

Sally and I spoke about the self-analytical nature of the project. She pointed out that I was spending a lot more time deconstructing my thoughts and feelings, and trying to read and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. We wondered if this would continue after the project had ended. Sally thought it might have positive effects, a kind of clown therapy!

But I'm not so sure. I hate being so self - conscious. I thought I'd left all that behind with my teenage years. I know I deliberately set out to study this, but I am finding it hard involving myself so directly. There is something so wonderfully removed about theory books. I can think ah, life is like this because of this, that and the other. But when my own life becomes the case study I get all tangled up.

I'm finding this blog a challenge too. Words are not my first medium and they seem terribly committal. I am forever conscious that whatever I write about anyone else is always already an interpretation. This makes my clown seem almost hypercritical. I am aware that the only thing I can write about with any accuracy is how I feel. For the rest I am trying to collect facts without imbuing them with meaning. It is hard.

Steve suggested providing a way of allowing others to comment on the blog. This is a good idea and something I will look into.

28th Feb 2010 - Tails

Last night I met, then lost, a man. Here is how it happened.

It was Wei's birthday and we all went to the Rivoli Ballrooms. I was nervous because it was my first big night out as a clown. I love jiving and was really worried that no one would ask me to dance. My face was a happy clown though, which I hoped would work in my favour.

It was an odd juxtaposition, my 1940's hair and tea dress with my clown face. It felt bizarre, like double fancy dress.

Standing on the edge of the dance floor, it was easier than I thought to have fun. People wear all kinds of things to the Rivoli, and there are often hen nights or birthday parties with everyone in fancy dress. Wei had come as Frida Kahlo.

People did ask me to dance. In fact I spent the whole evening jiving and drinking. In the end it was the drinking which was the problem. Unlike being a clown, it throws things out of proportion in a way that can't be rationalised in situ.

By the end of the evening I was very drunk and very happy. I wasn't thinking about being a clown at all. And it was then that I met Tom. We danced and danced until the music went down and the lights came up. I made him promise to come to my jive class at Hern Hill. I didn't think of my face until he asked about it, and even then it didn't seem like a problem. But shortly after I went to the ladies and caught sight of myself in the mirror.

Half my forehead had rubbed off and my eyebrows were smudged. I had big fleshy patches around my nose where the white had worn away. The laughter lines around my eyes and mouth had been carved out of the paint by little rivers of sweat. My mouth had been partly lost due to the drinking. I repulsed myself.

My happy drunken world tipped into hysteria. The idea of talking to Tom seemed utterly ridiculous. I was ashamed to show my face, literally.

Standing outside, my friends tried to convince me otherwise. And I was torn between letting this chance go and looking like a total fool. Finally I grabbed all my courage and ran after him. This stupid clown face wouldn't defeat me. I reached into my pocket for paper and a pen to ask for his number, but could only find a lolly pop, so I offered him that instead.
'Is that for me?' he asked.
I nodded.
'Thank you for dancing with me', I said.
'That's ok. See you at Herne Hill' he said.

I walked back to my friends and told them what had happened. The story should have ended happily there, except Rachel looked puzzled and said,
'But our jive class isn't at Herne Hill, it's at Tulse hill'.

1st March 2010 - Tails

I had to teach a one on one kung fu class yesterday morning. I was a sweaty, hung-over clown with a miserable face. Sam is twenty and training to be a stunt man. I felt truly sorry for him as we stood opposite each other throwing punches, but he just smiled. Afterwards he said it was a first for him.

On the whole I am getting more positive than negative reactions. Or maybe my reading of the reactions is getting more positive. The laugher doesn't seem so threatening.

My skin is bearing up better than I expected. Researching the project I found the West End make up shop responsible for supplying shows like the Lion King. They sold me some very expensive barrier cream, which forms a protective seal between my skin and the paint. With the exception of dehydration and a few spots it seems to be working.

I keep obsessing about situations I don't want to have to deal with whilst I have a clown face. Here is my list:

1) Funeral
2) Car crash
3) Administering first aid
4) Running into Andrew
5) Getting into an argument
6) Being caught speeding

Most of these things would be bad anyway and I occasionally worry about them, but now I find myself thinking about them often. Then I worry that by thinking about them I might somehow make them happen.

2nd March 2010 - Tails

Well, I didn't have a car crash but I did get a puncture. John helped me put on the spare wheel, but it was bald so I had to visit the garage. Rachel thought I should drive with it flat so that my car would kur-lunk down the street in comedy clown fashion.

I found the mechanic attractive, which was difficult. I immediately wanted to offer him an explaination for my face, but couldn't because that's not the point. I felt awkward and wretched where normally I would be chatty and smiley. It annoyed me that I found the situation hard.

But the mechanic was very professional. He did not mention my face and fixed my wheel in under five minutes. It was a relief that everything was so straightforward and all I had to deal with was paying eight pounds for a new valve.

As I went to pay, the old man who owns the garage stared at me and said,
'Did you forget to look in the mirror this morning?'
Then he ruffled my hair as if I were a pesky kid.

3rd March 2010 - Heads

The dehumanising thing works both ways. It can cause people to talk about me or around me rather than to me, but it can also bring down barriers. Having a clown face is a good icebreaker. Complete strangers chat to me as if they knew me. It reminds me of the way I think of celebrities as familiar.

It’s nice when people speak to me who I know by sight but have never really spoken to before. There are many people like this in the studio. The usual protocol would be to smile pleasantly, murmur a greeting then avoid eye contact and shuffle on by. Now people stop and talk to me. Today, one of the boys a few studios down actually knocked on my door and came into my space (a bold move indeed).
‘I have to ask you about your face’, he said.
A similar thing happened with the lady at the local charity shop.
‘I have to ask…’

Often people don’t ask 'why?' directly. I like this. I like hearing rationalising responses and seeing how people make sense of the ridiculous.
‘Big night out is it?’
‘Running a children’s party are you?’
‘Performing in something?’

Sometimes I can side step these enquiries with a ‘no, no’ and a laugh, but if people persist I tell them more about the project.
Here are the things I am most frequently asked:

1) How long do you have to do it for?
2) Do you wear it all the time?
3) How long does it take to paint your face?
4) Doesn’t it affect your skin?
5) Do you sleep in it?

Here are my answers:

1) For the course of lent, so up until Easter Sunday
2) The rule is I don’t leave my house without my face on
3) It used to take forty minutes, but now I have it down to eight
4) No, I have special barrier cream
5) No, I give my skin a chance to breath

(nb - For the next instalment of this blog, please visit the sub-menu 'Life is Ludicrous - Weeks 3&4')