Funny Business (Albuquerque Tribune Article 12/98)
Former social worker Debi Pierce makes her living spreading happiness and laughter as Twinkles the Clown. A caring, sincere social worker left her well-paying job at the New Mexico Human Services Department to clown around.
People told Debi Pierce she was crazy, but she took her decision to start her own clowning business seriously; she had an idea and a plan. Pierce's plan for ‘Twinkles the Clown" was developed during an Albuquerque TVI entrepreneur class she took where her marketing strategy won first place during a competition.
I just had this confidence that I could do it; that I could make it," Pierce said.
Twinkles was inspired by her mother, "Jingles", also known as Mary Saylor, who began clowning for charity events in 1987. The clowning was contagious and in a few months, Pierce began her clowning business. Eleven years and nearly 5,500 parties and 200,000 balloons later, Pierce has made Twinkles the Clown a success.
Pierce said she loves how clowning helps people suspend their sometimes difficult lives for a short time.
I love what I do and I do what I love. It's a winning combination," Pierce said.
At the heart of her clowning success is Twinkles' personality. "The most important part of clowning is developing a character," Pierce said who created hers after a 6-year-old.
"I've created a clown that is really me inside," she said. Twinkles, just older than a preschooler, often gets "cornfused.” Ronald McDonald is her old boyfriend. Twinkles has a sister named LuLu and a brother named Buster.
As her business grew, Pierce continued to develop her character through five international clown conventions and three clown camps. Ringling Brothers helped Pierce design her makeup.
Being a "happy clown" is challenging. She puts on her makeup for eight to ten parties a week, and she doesn't always feel like being happy or funny.
When people are depending on her to entertain 20 children at a birthday party, there is little room for flexibility in her schedule--Twinkles doesn't have a twin.
Pierce explained an experience that happened to her daughter a few years ago. Her daughter was hit by a car twice in two different accidents the same week.
Pierce had to find a replacement for her parties but her clients were less than forgiving, she said. "When that kind of stuff is going on it's hard to be entertaining," Pierce said. Despite the challenges of maintaining a relentless schedule and trying to keep her act creative and new, Pierce finds that children are the reason why she enjoys clowning the most.
"Kids just crack me up," she said, giggling about the time she performed a magic trick for a young boy at a birthday party. "It was like a ‘supposed' mind-reading trick," she said. The birthday boy was supposed to be reading her mind, sending her a telepathic message which would let Twinkles know which card he chose from the deck. "The boy gave me such a weird look I almost lost it right there," she said, laughing the whole time.
Pierce said there is a dark side to the clowning business that has a
dearth of humor and humanity. Some entertainers try and humiliate kids during magic shows with "gag" routines. Others have been reported as slapping children or showing up drunk at parties, she said.
"Get references," she recommends to anyone who is hiring a child entertainer, "You are allowing someone in your home with your children."
Other dangerous aspects of child entertainment are party favors and balloons that if swallowed, can cause children to choke.
"Balloons are the leading cause of death with little kids," Pierce said.
After working with children at welfare and adoption agencies through social work for 14 years, Pierce said she understands children well. This, in addition to the business savvy she learned from her entrepreneur class, is the secret combination of her success.
Last year Twinkles handed out 100,000 business cards. In 1993, she had a picture of Twinkles painted on her van. She said the marketing and advertising has paid off with 45 percent of her business coming through the yellow pages.
She said sometimes the big picture of the smiling clown painted on the side of her van makes her too recognizable, especially when she drives in town to run errands or make a personal trip.
"I feel a little weird when I have to drive to funerals and stuff," she said.
Being Twinkles sometimes isn't enough to pay all the bills. Since business is slow from January through April, Pierce took up another business to even out her cash flow. For the past two and a half years she has been doing income taxes for about 100 customers in a business she purchased called Tax Time. "It's kind of an odd combination," she said of her clowning and accounting businesses, but she favors entertaining at parties.
"In the beginning I felt guilty charging at parties," she said, because she had such a good time. "I got over that though. It just makes you feel so good that people enjoy what you do," she explained. Pierce said her entertainment is purely family-oriented.