Most people think “clown” and picture a red, squeaky nose, white face paint and maybe some curly red hair. Oversized feet and squirting flowers are, of course, standard.
But Tricia Cotton Dean, aka Cotton the Clown, defies expectations. In clown guise, she has pink, straight hair, perhaps a colorful frock and a large bow in her hair, but her face is her own, unblemished by white powder or a red, bulbous nose.
She used to dress like your more traditional clowns, but gradually found that it could be off-putting for some people.“I found that I would encounter anxiety not only from children but from some very seasoned adults,” she said.
Clown anxiety has become something of a running joke in today’s culture, but for those who make their livelihood dressing as modern day jesters, it can be serious business.
Cotton the Clown draws a crowd at KidZ in a Minute Drop-In Child Care at Triangle Town Center.
“I think you see a lot more stranger anxiety now than you used to,” Dean said. “I just like to not deal with the fear factor.”
Dean is a Raleigh gal, born and bred. She left for a little while to experience the big city life of the Washington, D.C., area but eventually found her way back to her native land. She never set out to be a clown, but after she and her husband separated in 1991, she knew she needed to do something.
She is a graduate of the UNC School of the Arts and has some mean artistic and performance skills, but she had never tried to turn those skills into a career.
"I've always been incredibly thankful for the talent I have and the intelligence I have," she said. "But I never learned to push it further than I had to, because I never had to."
But the separation forced the former stay-at-home mom to find a path of her own.
It all started when somebody who knew of her artistic proclivities asked her to do some face painting at a party. She went and noticed many of the other face painters were clowns. An idea was born.
“I did not really care to do any kind of clown stuff, but I had to do that,” she said. “It gave people something to identify with. If you said child entertainer, it was kind of too vague.”
Her clown career took off from there. Dean is based in North Hills but performs all over the city, including large swaths of North Raleigh. “I don’t pass hardly three blocks without seeing somewhere that I’ve performed at one time or another,” she said.
Indeed, she recalls a point when she was making the performance rounds at nine bookstores and coffee shops each week; and her popularity just grew.
“All of them were just packed. It just created an incredible notoriety for what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t have enough time or I would have gone to other places, too. I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.”
She was so well-liked that businesspeople would often ask her to incorporate their businesses into the songs she performed. “One guy was detailing my car out in the parking lot while I was singing, just so I would mention his service to everyone there.”
Helping people on the inside
Songs are a big part of her business. She plays guitar and likes to have the kids come up and sing along. Face painting, too, is a mainstay. And sometimes, singing telegrams.
“I even had a judge hire me to break up courtroom proceedings,” she said. “I got to ride up on the sheriff’s elevator and everything. That’s like the ultimate in power, to break up court proceedings.”
And though she changed her costume to assuage some of the public’s clown fears, Dean has phobias of her own: balloons.
“If I had a party where we decorated with balloons, I would put them in the backyard and hope they’d pop because I couldn’t pop them myself.”
Thankfully, she worked through her fear and is now a competent creator of balloon animals.
As a life-long Raleigh resident, Cotton appreciates the growth of the city, though she thinks that the modern sprawl has led to some depersonalization. She sees her job as Cotton the Clown to bring that personal touch back into people’s lives.
“This is about helping people on the inside,” she said. “Helping people see the humor in things and have a good time.”
And knowing how things are in the world, who doesn’t need an extra helping of humor now and again?
Alex Granados writes about people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond.
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"Cotton,Thanks for encouraging me [at your show yesterday] to put aside my agenda, and do what was more important...You are such a dear person...I met someone tonight who I've seen at your shows before but have never officially met. We talked about how wonderful you are, and what a blessing your shows are. She and I had an immediate common bond..."