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Away from the spotlight’s glare and the crowd’s clamor, Marguerite Michelle confesses that existential crises plague her at the oddest moments. Like when she’s dangling from the rafters of an auditorium…by her hair.

In other words, when she’s at work.

“There are times when I’m performing, just up there spinning around by my hair, when I’m really thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life? I can’t believe I do this!’” says Michelle, billed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as America’s only working hair suspension artist. “Even to me, it is all very strange at times,” she adds.

To anybody outside the three rings, “strange” doesn’t do justice to the beautiful Michelle’s existence. Her only home is a trailer that follows the circus from town to town. Days off are rare—the troupe does several hundred shows each year—so Michelle generally spends her waking hours caring for her locks while lingering in that trailer in a stadium or coliseum parking lot, ’til the ringmaster says it’s time to make her unique, stirring (and only 90-second-long) contribution to the Greatest Show on Earth.

But Michelle’s not an outsider. Hair suspension, you could say, is in her roots. As with virtually every daredevil now in town with the Ringling Bros. troupe, the circus is really all she knows and has ever known. Now 27, Michelle was born to circus performers who in turn were of circus performers, and so on and so on—six generations of her family have lived this life. And her husband, Angel Quiros, is a high-wire acrobat for Ringling Bros. and fifth-generation performer. (They met, of course, under the big top.)

So it says a whole lot about Michelle that she takes any time at all to ponder the normalcy of her lot. Because in her universe everything is bizarre, nothing is bizarre. Not even spinning around approximately 50 times at an incredibly high velocity, while hanging—like Rapunzel in sequins—by those gorgeous, butt-length brown locks with nothing but 40 feet between her and a concrete floor. Show after show, day after day, year after year.

“I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was very small,” says Michelle. “I loved watching my mother perform, and I remember when I was 8 years old telling her that I was going to do the same thing with my life that she did. This is all I ever wanted.”

It seems a very masochistic aspiration. That would be true even if Michelle’s act, which originated in China hundreds of years ago, relied on smoke and mirrors. But it isn’t an illusion: Hair suspension performers really are being pulled up by their coifs. (The leaflet distributed outside the D.C. Armory by PETA proponents, titled “Cruelty Is Not Entertainment,” didn’t include a passage on hair hanging, but few Ringling Bros. acts, animal or otherwise, seem as deserving.)

And although hair suspension isn’t quite as risky as many other circus acts—”My husband’s safety on the high wire is what I worry about, not mine,” says Michelle—it is quite painful. At the tender age of 11, Michelle discovered the hard way that the job of her dreams was every bit as painful as it looks. That’s when mom helped the youngster braid a strap-and-steel-rod contraption into her coif and get her first hairy hoist.

“Oh, that hurt so much,” she says, grimacing at the recollection. “The pain was unbearable.”

Even with 15 years of experience under her cap, every time her 105-pound frame goes roofward, there’s some level of agony.

“I have a much stronger scalp after doing this for all these years, so the pain is not like it was when I was young,” she says. “But it still is painful. When people ask me if what I do is easy, I try to tell them that it is not.”

Not that she’s a complainer. Michelle, like her peers in Ringling Bros., tends to suffer silently. Pain is as much a part of the circus as the stench of elephant dung. Performers learn to ignore or otherwise overcome both.

“When the pain gets to me, I try to just concentrate on my performance and hope it goes away,” she says.

Keeping her coif in shape mitigates the misery come hangin’ time. Pursuit of a split ends-less ‘do entails frequent scalp treatments and brushings, a good diet, and the use of only the highest-quality shampoos and conditioners. (Aveda is Michelle’s current fave. “I’d love a sponsorship deal from them,” she says.) Perms and dye jobs are banned.

Circus performers, including hair suspension artists, are likely to swing from future branches on Michelle’s family tree. Her 12-year-old sister already feels the pull of Ringling Bros., and could be added to the act in a few years.

She and her husband have not yet reproduced, but if and when they do, don’t be surprised if another high flier or hair hanger is the result. Both wannabe parents understand that the survival of Ringling Bros., and all other circuses, depends on bloodlines. And they intend to do their part to keep this way of life—curious as it is—alive.

“It is very common for circus performers to marry, and for their children to be circus performers. Just hang around after the show and watch these children practice with their parents, and you will see that,” Michelle says. “This happens not just because of the time you spend on the road but because it is very hard finding anybody who isn’t with the circus who understands you. I mean, this is a different lifestyle.”

And you have to be conditioned for it. —Dave McKenna