First female ringmaster with Ringling Bros. gets to do favorite things on grand scale

On Jan. 12, Florida native Kristen Wilson, 35, will make her debut in the production of Circus Xtreme at Orlando’s Amway Center.
On Jan. 12, Florida native Kristen Wilson, 35, will make her debut in the production of Circus Xtreme at Orlando’s Amway Center.
Published Dec. 15, 2016

Kristen Wilson stood in the restroom at Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, threw her hands in the air, mouthed a silent "whoop" and did a victory dance that shook her bouncy, brown curls.

Wilson wanted to actually scream out, but the men and women who had offered her a job moments before were still within hearing distance.

Only a week had passed since the 35-year-old Florida native was waiting in line for a first audition in Orlando, but she came to believe that she started on this career path when she was just a child.

"The night before the initial audition, I was putting my resume together and seeing these eclectic things that seemingly don't make sense together and I had an 'aha' moment," Wilson said. "This is the accumulation of everything I have been working for, and I didn't even know it.

It would take several more phone interviews, a review process involving more than 100 applicants, and a final call back, but in the end, the decision was unanimous: Wilson would become the first female ringmaster in the 146-year history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"She came in and sang a song from the show and, yes, she sounded great, but then she sang Greatest Show on Earth by Christina Aguilera and it blew me away," circus director Rye Mullis said. "That was the moment I knew she was right for the job. Her pop vocals are insane, and her presence. She was like no one we saw during the audition process."

Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, agreed: "She is dynamic, fun and genuinely inspiring."

To demonstrate that, Wilson had to work through nerves and excitement as she faced a rotating panel of interviewers from a number of Feld departments, for whom she sang, announced acts, went through costume fittings and showcased her acting chops.

Wilson, single and living in Orlando, first heard about the auditions for a 39th ringmaster through a man who held the job in the 1980s, Jim Ragona. Ragona had hired Wilson for work at a theater company in Orlando.

She sees this as more than coincidence.

"I've done the research and realized the first Ringling show I saw when I was 4 years old featured Ragona as the ringmaster," Wilson said. "Fast forward and he's hiring me for a job, then after that I hear from him about this opportunity."

Wilson is less concerned about her status as first female ringmaster than she is about excelling in the role.

"I made sure when I was offered the job, I said, 'I don't want to just fill a slot,' and they said, 'No, you're the right person for the job.' "

The circus shows produced by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are rooted in a history that held the operation back from hiring a female ringmaster.

"We were slaves to tradition for so long," Mullis said, "but we've always been open to the idea. Being able to break tradition is really freeing for Ringling Bros. It's important to evolve."

Wilson met with other circus women who broke the tradition — the first two female clowns.

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"They still work for the company, which I think says a lot," Wilson said.

Another first for women came in 2009 when Alana and Nicole Feld produced their first show as executive vice presidents of Feld Entertainment.

"I think Ringling has been wise in bringing the best people for the job," Wilson said. "It has never mattered if you're a man, a woman, green or purple. It's about who is the best at that skill set."

Wilson's skill set was born out of a love for learning and for new experiences, which led her to switch majors several times in college. She has worked as a camp counselor, graphic designer, a member of both rock and hip-hop bands, an actor, a director of commercials, a TV host and more.

It all helped lead her to center stage.

"I love running through the crowd, dancing and pumping people up. Now I get to do all my favorite things on this grand scale."

On Jan. 12, Wilson will make her ringmaster debut at Orlando's Amway Center for the premiere of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's new season, Circus Xtreme, where she will sing the national anthem then introduce human cannonballs, tightrope walkers, BMX riders and trampoline artists.

"The first three cities for Circus Xtreme are in Florida, so being able to pay my respects to the state that has gotten me to where I am is a true honor," said Wilson, who grew up in Tallahassee and attended Leon High School.

Circus Xtreme will stage a five-day run at Tampa's Amalie Arena from Jan. 25-29.

She'll travel and live, in circus tradition, by train — in the 200-square-foot compartment that comes with the top job.

"In train lingo, that's like a mansion. I have my own stove, fridge, washer and dryer and even a full-size tub."

Nothing to stop her, in other words, from finally letting out that real "whoop."

Contact Arielle Waldman at