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The Mary Sue Interview: Feminist, Honorary Jedi, and Human Cannonball Gemma the Jet

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's an awesome role model!

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Gemma Kirby’s job requires spending a lot of time in the air, which makes sense considering her original career-goal: “When I was really little, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. My friends would call me Luke because when I was 3 or 4 years old I found Star Wars and I demanded they call me Luke and I would not answer to anything else.”

Gemma, who’s currently travelling as human cannonball Gemma the Jet with Ringling Bros.’ Circus XTREME, kept her Jedi name even as her interests grew to include dance, aerial art, and trapeze (as well as an eventual degree in psychology!). In an interview with The Mary Sue last week before we got to see her in action, the 25-year-old talked circus life, double standards in the entertainment industry, and inspiring kids to shoot for their dreams and ignore restrictive gender norms. Yep, she’s pretty flipping rad.

The Mary Sue: How do you go from flying on the trapeze to deciding you want to try the human cannon ball?

Gemma Kirby: You know, it really found me, I didn’t find it. Basically, I was on hiatus from training from trapeze and performing trapeze, I went home back to Saint Paul to finish my degree, and I was contacted by a mutual friend of my coach who asked me if I was interested in learning how to get shot out of a cannon. It happened very quickly; I got contacted at the end of Nov 2013, by mid-December I was training on the cannon in Indiana with my coaches, and by early January I actually opened with the show. I just completed my 500th shot last week in Philadelphia, so you can have an idea of how many performances we do, it’s quite a lot.

Gemma in action.

TMS: Do you have any other milestones you’d like to hit, or a goal for how many times you get shot out of the cannon?

Kirby: During this Circus XTREME Tour I will hit 1,000. It’s obviously very exciting for me as well but I don’t know how long I will do this job. I really love it now but one of my life mottos is, do something that you love until you don’t love it anymore.

TMS: I know there’s only so much you’re allowed to say about the mechanics of your act and what’s actually transpiring inside the cannon, but what can you tell us about how being a human cannon ball works and what the experience is like?

Kirby: Well, I can definitely tell you what it feels like and even what I do to an extent. Basically, myself and two others prepare the cannon for every shot, and the preparation can start anywhere from 1-3 hours prior to every shot. For example, if the arena is cold, we have to heat the cannon fully to an ideal temperature, typically between the mid-60s and the mid-70s Fahrenheit. I also have to climb inside the cannon before every shot and run a series of pre-flight checks, and we also do external pre-flight checks as well. Although I can’t say exactly how it works, I can give you some statistics as to how far I go; I go about 104 feet off the arena and I go about 40 feet high so it’s quite an enormous leap.

I experience a g-force of 7, so 7 times the natural force of gravity. So if you could imagine an amusement park ride, where sometimes you’re at a complete stop and then you’re hurtling forward, it’s like that only even more intense. Plus you’re completely untethered, no seatbelt, nothing to hold onto, so I have to keep my body super tight and stiff as a board when I shoot because if I don’t, I could get off target, I could not have a straight flight. There are a number of things that could go wrong. Body control is super important. What else can I say? I’m always careful about what I say [laughs].

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TMS: It sounds to me like an incredible adrenaline rush, but you do it so often. Do you still have that feeling of excitement every time?

Kirby: Yes, absolutely. It’s never gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. Every single time is a thrill. Every single time, I have butterflies. Of course it has gotten less scary over time.

TMS: Did the risks deter you from trying the act? [Wikipedia says more than 30 human cannonballs have died during the stunt, with the most recent fatality in 2011.]

Kirby: I was never ignorant to the risks. I’ve been injured before doing other acts in the past, never doing the cannon, but I know what it’s like to have an injury and I know what it’s like to have to recover from an injury, and I knew that the cannon was a riskier act than I’ve ever tried before. So for me priority number one is always staying safe, always having my head in the right place before every shot. No matter what’s happening, my personal life, or in the audience, or back stage, none of that matters. It’s a lot of physical training of course but also mental training.

TMS: Do you feel like the circus is a male dominated world in any way, and have you felt that people doubted you because of your gender or your age?

Kirby: Yeah. Yes I have. I wouldn’t say the circus is male-dominated, but I would say that women are often over-valued for their looks and undervalued for their talent. Maybe not necessarily at Ringling Bros., but I’ve definitely felt that I’ve been typecast at times, put into very tiny revealing costumes, and I’ve felt like my looks were primary and my skills were secondary, and I don’t think that happens to men as much.

So for me in this role in Circus XTREME… I feel like for the first time in my career, it’s celebrating my toughness as a woman and my strength as a woman firstly, and my sexuality secondly, which is a huge breakthrough for me as an artist because in the past that hasn’t been the case, I feel like as a woman I’ve been expected to be eye-candy first and athlete second and that goes against everything I stand for as a woman and as a feminist. So it’s really a privilege for me to be in this role in XTREME and get to be tough and be cool and be strong and be applauded for that, but also I still do put on makeup and do my hair and wear a beautiful costume, so it’s a great juxtaposition of the soft and the tough. I do appreciate that very much about my role in the show.

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TMS: That’s a huge endorsement of the show, I think. Obviously the circus as an idea is something that’s really romanticized in pop culture. What is it like to literally be traveling with the circus and seeing behind the scenes and living that life day in and day out?

Kirby: Well when people ask me “what’s the biggest misconception about circus life,” it’s that… it’s a lot tougher than people think. And a lot less glamorous than it appears. The circus is built on sweat and sawdust and commitment. Everybody who travels with the show–which is over 300 people–we all do it because we love the show and we want to put together the show, and it’s a lot tougher than it looks, it’s a tough lifestyle to be on tour. Sometimes we’re at the theater 13 hours a day then we all commute home to the train, we all live on the circus train, to shower and eat and then do it all over again. So it’s commitment to that special kind of illusion we’re creating in the ring to not show the toughness and to not show the effort.

TMS: Is there any pop culture representation of the circus that you think captures that at all, or no?

Kirby: Thus far, in the media, I haven’t seen a really accurate portrayal of the modern circus. We do have a lot of portrayals of the antiquity of circus, for example Water for Elephants or with American Horror Story this season, and I can’t really speak to how accurate those portrayals are because I didn’t live in that time, but I really haven’t seen any media that really captures what it’s actually like now. Including documentaries!

TMS: Aside from the human cannonball, do you have a favorite act in Circus XTREME?

Kirby: Oh, man… I work with so many talented people. I mean really, we have artists from fourteen countries and they are the best of the best at what they do and they’ve spent their whole lives committed to their discipline. One of my favorite acts is the highwire act, it’s the Danguir Troupe, they’re artists from Spain and Morocco and Russia and they put this act together and it’s just incredible. I’m a groupie, I’m a fan of all of my coworkers.

Obviously anyone who elects to get shot out of a cannon on a daily basis is a definite BAMF, but what struck me when I saw Gemma and her co-workers in action at the Barclays center last weekend was how genuinely empowering her act is. Her fierceness served as a reminder that beauty and strength don’t need to be gendered qualities or mutually exclusive, something Gemma told us is part of her personal mission as a human cannonball:

I see girls becoming really discouraged by their perceived gender roles at a really, really young age. I had parents who didn’t say “no, a girl can’t be Luke Skywalker,” they just said, “okay, Luke.” I’m eternally grateful to them for instilling that in me, but the more that I navigate through life as an adult I realize that’s not the message girls are getting. The message girls are getting is to be extremely conscious of their appearance, and to be very delicate and very meek and to allow men to fulfill roles in their lives that really they could be filling in their own lives if they were empowered to do so.

So for me, I hope that I can empower girls to believe in themselves and to see that the limits they have put on themselves, the mental and emotional limits that they have, are a product of a society that tells us that we have to make our decisions based on our gender roles. Girls can do anything, women can do anything. I still think we have a long way to go in that regard, and if I can be a tiny part of instilling empowerment and believing in one’s self, I hope that I can be in some small way. I hope that maybe a girl will see my performance and say “I didn’t know girls can get shout out of cannons! What else can we do?” For me that’s the most important role I have; beyond entertaining, I hope that I can be inspiring as well.

She sure is.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

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