One of the only female circus ringmasters on earth shares her secret to success

Welcome to the circus. Meet your ringmaster: Stephanie Monseu

She’s the lord of the ring.

Meet Stephanie Monseu, the new Big Apple Circus ringmaster, which, she said, puts her “in a very special place where magic happens.”

The coveted career move also finds the 50-year-old from Queens in a signature top hat as well as a very select sorority. For while the Big Apple Circus, now in its 41st season, has featured female ringleaders for a couple of their one-ring spectacles, at most circuses the role of ringmaster has typically been taken by men. Consider: In 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced its first female ringmaster in 146 years. Two days later, it announced it was closing.

Still, Monseu, a veteran performer with a clown-carful of circus skills who in 1994 co-founded Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a New York-based troupe, sees her current position, and other women ringmasters before her, as signs of progress.

“I’ve been doing circus work for nearly 25 years,” she told Moneyish after a performance at Lincoln Center, where the New York leg of the show runs through Jan. 27. “I know the ins and outs of my industry. I’m a performer. I make costumes. I’m an electrical rigger. I drive the big trucks.

“I may have experienced attitudes about women in circus 15 years ago — about what women can do or when negotiating a contract,” she added. “But I’ve persevered. Women over the decades have changed the circus culture.”

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Working in and out of the ring informs her role as ringmaster, whose job, she said, is “opening the door and to connect the acts with the audience.”

Company brass at the core of Big Apple concur. “Stephanie is an extremely dynamic person and passionate performer,” chairman Neil Kahanovitz told Moneyish. “As a veteran global circus performer, she has a ton of experience and expertly balances the genuine warmth and command needed to be a ringmaster.”

Vanessa Thomas and Carrie Harvey have previously worn the top hat as ringmaster. “We’re thrilled for Stephanie to join that legacy,” said Kahanovitz.

Growing up in Flushing, Queens, and Margaretville, NY, in the Catskills, she didn’t dream of running away to the circus. Monseu wanted to rocket into space. “I wanted to be an astronaut when I was seven,” she told Moneyish. Eleven years later her dreams were more down-to-earth, and she envisioned herself as a forest ranger in Yosemite National Park.

She insists that her fantasy careers share common ground with her circus life. “There’s this great embrace of adventure,” said Monseu, “along with testing the limits of endurance and experience.”
In the early 1990s, after leaving metalsmithing studies at FIT and while working as a waitress in New York, she got her first taste of the circus — in every sense.

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Keith Nelson, a fellow waiter at Around the Clock in the East Village who ate fire, taught her how to do the same dangerous and dazzling sideshow stunt. “One snowy night, next to a dumpster,” Monseu recalled with delight, “I Iit my first torch.”

She was hooked. Next came juggling, clowning, sword-swallowing, broken-glass walking. She also learned about the business side of the circus.

United as personal and business partners, the two launched Bindlestiff, which wove together elements of street circus, vaudeville, and a sexy subversive streak. In the last quarter century it has gone from an underground-style show for mature audiences to a family-friendly, far-reaching nonprofit arts organization whose mission leaps beyond just entertainment. It mentors and empowers young people to become stronger students and community members through the creative, mental and physical challenges of the circus.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk in Hudson, NY, where Bindlestiff has a base and Monseu has a home, she explained circus instilled her with courage, discipline and a sense of community. She’s sharing that with others. “By speaking directly with youth and community members that my own program has grown and stretched in new ways,” she told Moneyish.

Like most businesses, circus is a small world. Monseu’s work has earned attention and helped lead to Big Apple. Her key to success? “You have to be willing to take risks and be unafraid of failure,” said Monseu, who divides her time between homes in Brooklyn and Hudson when she’s not touring. “The most incredible tricks often are discovered during practice when you make a mistake that leads to something surprising,” she added. “If you can replicate the mistake, then it can become a trademark. That takes intellectual and physical flexibility, and the results can be very powerful.”

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