Stephanie Monseu has always had a knack for making things sparkle. Her thing was supposed to be jewelry, but a collision with chance altered her course.
“I think the best thing that ever happened to me was getting hit by a car during college, during my finals at [the Fashion Institute of Technology],” Monseu said. “I had already been really questioning [myself]. Like, do I want to sit at a jeweler’s bench for the rest of my life, hunched over a piece of precious metal?”
That accident and another that followed it injured her hands, leaving her unable to complete her coursework. During her recovery, Monseu met a man who taught her how to eat fire. Since that initial spark, she’s learned stilt walking and juggling and has traveled the world performing.
Now, she glitters as the new ringmaster of Big Apple Circus, which is visiting Northshore Mall in Peabody through May 5. For its 41st season, the circus is highlighting its array of “real-life wonder women,” with Monseu at the forefront.
She’s Big Apple’s fourth female ringmaster, a designation that swings, trapeze-like, between empowerment and normalcy. Monseu knows “at least six or seven other women” who do what she does and “probably about the same number of men.”
“I don’t choose to see myself as some kind of anomaly, some kind of rarely empowered female,” Monseu said. “All of my adult life, I’ve been surrounded by empowered women. I’m always surprised when people ask, ‘What does it feel like to be an empowered woman?’ I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I haven’t really experienced the other side of that for a long time.”
One of those women is acrobat Virginia Tuells, dubbed the “world’s strongest mom” by Big Apple. Tuells, who gave birth to her daughter Sofia in 2017, is part of a balancing act where she lifts her husband, Ihosvanys Perez.
“I love the energy that they have with each other, the playfulness,” Monseu said.
The show’s other highlights include a trapeze act featuring a quadruple somersault (a trick so difficult it was only first managed in 1982), dogs who catch Frisbees and drive tiny cars, and a heart-stopping dual aerial act called “Desire of Flight.”
“I know what’s going to happen, and I’m scared every time I watch it,” Jenny Vidbel, the show’s animal trainer, said of “Desire of Flight.” “There are times during this act where [Ekaterina] completely relies on [Valeriy Sychev] to catch her while holding the straps. It’s a very intense but really beautiful part of the show.”
Before every show, Monseu takes about two hours to get ready. “And that isn’t because I’m doing my eyelashes,” she quips.
Rather, she darts around the circus, giving fellow employees high-fives and elaborate handshakes and spreading positivity. She finds a spot in the house where nobody can see her and watches the audience, imagining how she’s going to welcome them into her fantastic, foldable world.
“It’s part of the role of a ringmaster,” she said. “You’re the gateway. You’re the relatable, normal person in there. You know, we’re not flying. We’re not subjugating gravity. We are the welcomers, and we’re the ones that are saying, ‘Hey, come on in. You’re part of this. We need you as much as you want to be here.’ ”
And that moment — when she finally runs down the steps into the ring and gives the audience a booming introduction — never gets old.
“I love the school-age audiences,” she says. “The sound of [1,600] or 1,700 children’s voices raised in ecstasy or joy or surprise is one of the most transporting things I’ve ever experienced. . . . Adults take a little while to unfold and get into the groove, but they do and so I love watching that over the course of the show. . . . It’s just such a great communal experience.”
BIG APPLE CIRCUSjenni.email@example.com.