So I am going to try my best and keep it as short as possible but it was really hard to cut six years of my life into this blog post, and also I always struggle with telling my story in a fear of being boring or boastful, So this is an opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone, because then I realised my stories are important to other people, because all of my experiences are a series of adventures and disasters that made me who I am and give people a sense of connection to me and my brand.So when I started my journey, I decided at 24 years of age I wanted to be a circus performer, It started as a hobby when I was 22 and then became more of an obsession. At the time I was a hairdresser and I had been for 8 years.
But I remember having these really instinctive gut feelings while I was hairdressing to pursue this passion for circus. I knew that I had to make the leap or these feelings would come back and haunt me in some form of regret.
So I thought all I need to do is apply to a circus school in London, train for a few years, land my first performance and from then on things are going to get easier…. BUUUUT…
That was not my reality.
I remember the day I rushed home from work to open a letter that I had been anticipating weeks to arrive.
I had auditioned for the National Center for Circus Arts in London . Sounds pretty fancy doesn't it? Prestigious... and it was. Serious talent got picked to go there. Looking back now it was pretty badass and a brave move considering I had no experience in circus or gymnastics previously, I couldn't even do the splits. I suppose the advantage of having poor self awareness, you just throw yourself into the deepend and say 'fuck it' I can do it, I got this shit. With no idea of the adversities and heartache that lay ahead, You see, I don't think logically, I just follow my heart, I suppose maybe I'm a little delusional or naive, but I would rather be that than a depressed pessimist. Anything is possible in my eyes. And I never cared what people thought. Well I did a little but I always felt I had nothing to lose.
Prior to this audition I had left my full time job at Toni and Guy in Covent Garden,
and took on a part time job as a hairdresser in a small salon called Bedhead Tigi, It was in a trendy spot called Boxpark, and the salon was built in a shipping container. I worked here Saturday and Sunday, I told the boss my hopes and dreams and he was very giving when I needed time off. Now that I had Monday to Friday free, I could enroll in a 12 week full time intensive circus course, called Aircraft Circus in Greenwich. 12 weeks of intensive training to get me prepared for this audition, I needed to be able to pass a physical exam, strength, dance and prepare a 3 minute audition of my desired discipline, which of course was Hula Hoop. That was my obsession. That's how all this started, Jamming with a plastic circle at a festival, I mean, I have two left feet when it comes to dance but damn I have rhythm when I move with a Hula Hoop, I just get lost in time.
So As you can imagine how nervous and excited I was to open the letter, This was the letter! That would predict my future!
And I remember exactly the feeling reading those god damn words..
“We are sorry to inform you that you have not been accepted into our school but please do not let this diminish your efforts to pursue a career in the circus industry and you can apply to our school as many times as you like”.
Well…….I think I cried for a whole week. I felt so defeated and felt I had reached a dead end. I was so depressed, I was starting to succumb to that pessimistic depressive person that I said I'd rather not be! I was losing hope, I think it took weeks to regain the motivation again, to shake off that feeling of "not good enough" to keep going and to not give up, 'To hell with the letter' I screamed, "you will not predict my future, I will create my own path, I will be the author of my OWN life. So keep your letter", I said in my head. not to them of course! I think most of my drive came from a spite of wanting to prove them wrong.
I started to reach out to people in the industry and get advice, I looked into other circus programmes around the world.
I had read a biograpghy of an artist I admired and seen she spent some time training in China. So I thought Hmmm.. China sounds like an adventure… So I emailed A school in Beijing and they got back to me with everything I needed to do to be accepted into the school.
So I went to China I trained for 8 months, I ran out of money and came back to Ireland, with no job, so luckily for a skill you never forget I went back to hairdressing
But then I finally landed my first ever contract in wales touring around for the summer performing at haven parks A short circus production, More of a family, childrens show. But a brilliant stepping stone and an opportunity to get my foot in the door of "The Circus World"
I still felt though I wasn’t at a high level and I wanted to get better opportunities.
So guess what, I applied for a second time to the National Center of Circus Arts.I know, I know, but I just felt I had to try at least once more! It was more for my Ego rather than sticking to my integrity.
So I did the audition, after 8 months of training in China, I was a beast! I was determined... I performed my 3 minute Hula hoop solo piece which I absolutely nailed. I was on fire that day, I remember feeling so confident about the whole thing, They called me in for an interview afterwards, they were impressed how much I had improved in 1 year. After, I waited, the anticipation was killing me, But I was pretty confident I had it in the bag, not to sound cocky or anything, but not once did I drop a hula hoop! I smashed it!
Well I got the letter, It read, "We are sorry to inform you but you have not been accepted bla bla bla....." I remember thinking, are you serious? I just worked my ass off for an entire year and you are still telling me I am not good enough. I was fuming! I laugh now thinking back at how courageous I was, I even wrote them an email asking them to reconsider their decision, Maybe they made a mistake? Well thats what I told myself. Well I guess you know what happens next....
I went back to China. Yep, But this time I didn’t go back to that school In Beijing
I found another school In a Remote village in Wuqiao, Its actually a really famous town in the circus world for “the hometown of acrobats” and has a really rich culture in performing arts.
The students were mostly Chinese, Ethiopian, Laos, Cambodian and Palestinian.
So I was the only European for the whole year. At the beginning I felt a real struggle, mainly because nobody really spoke English and everyone at lunch in the canteen would sit with their group nationality,and speak their own language but luckily the girls from Laos adopted me in and made me feel welcome at their table.
I knew if I wanted to commit to a full year of being in a remote Chinese school I would need To learn Chinese and make a life outside of the school.
I started to meet people in the town and got invited to many dinners. I got better at Chinese and from then I started to really enjoy the culture. But It took a while, Like 3 or 4 months until I stopped calling my boyfriend to tell him how lonely I was. I was so tempted to just go home, I always thought why the hell did I travel 5000km across the world to train circus, I kept pushing mentally and physically, I was rebellious though, I just wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to get good.
The school in Wuqiao started to give me oppurtunities on Tv, for circus High Tops and talent shows in different cities. I was traveling around China alone, on sleeper trains, buses, I got lost so many times, I lost my passport and bank card and was stranded in the middle of nowhere. I was so frustrated with this language and my brain being overwhelmed by translating words at a speed I couldn't keep up with. So many people went out of there way to help me though, They must of thought, who is this crazy foreigner dragging around 30kg of equipment and luggage, dragging it up flights of stairs and throwing, rolling or sliding it down the steps, actually there is a little slope that you can just slide your luggage down,I used to pile all my luggage on it, jump on it and slide down, It was fun but I mean what the hell China!, You are known as the hive of technology innovation, Why do you not have escalators in every train station! (even street beggars now take payments from their phone and QR code, not that has any correlation but I just thought I would throw it in there!) I suppose that's why Chinese are so slim. That or they just got good genes.
So yea, That’s when the costumes came in because I didn’t have anything to wear for my shows, So I started to design up some ideas, it became another hobby of mine in my free time. So when I got back to the village, I wanted to bring my designs to life.
I took a few trips to the city to some of the most famous fabric markets of Beijing, I was in awe of it, the colours, the velvets, the crystals, it was all so beautiful, I bought so much I didn't even know what to do with half of it. A friend had recommended a local tailor in the village who worked for a small costume business, His name was Guoguangjun and he was 67. So he made me some costumes.
And then people on social media started to ask me where I got my costumes from and I think that really sparked the idea to take this futher and see where it would go.
I told Guoguangjun that I would love to start my own costume business, And he said well why don’t you?
And I said.. "but I don’t know how?", He said "well you just learn along the way!"
I really took what he said on board and told my boyfriend at the time what I was thinking of doing, and obviously he was a bit a hmmmmm… unsure of my idea.
But I think he was used to my crazy ideas that it didn’t really phase him so he was pretty supportive of the idea.The first time he actually met me was at a hairdressing competition I was a contestant of. I had glued thousands of M&M's to a corset for my model to wear, hours later while my model had been sitting waiting impatiently in her pretty uncomfortable corset, she whispered to me," Jess the M&Ms are melting!" I was like damn... How could I be so stupid?? But anyway, I got through to the next heat of the competition and you bet I used skittles the next time! So yes, he knew my nature,It really didn't phase him. I started to brain storm names with him but I am not exactly sure how I came up with the name My Bubble Bum.
But because I had only made these high wasted ruffle shorts. It was very revealing on the bum, And I remember in London while training at one of the circus schools we used to warm up to a song called Bubble Butt by Major Lazor.
Very irritating song but very catchy! But we used to dance like crazy to this song, I had so much fun on that course and some of the girls I met here I share some beautiful memories, there was tears, sweat and laughter, no blood though, actually maybe a little bit. We did get injured very frequently, only one ambulance visit, and she was back up and running in no time. Circus is not for the faint hearted for sure, you need to be tough AF, mentally and physically. I think this experience definitely helped contribute to my perseverance in China.
So I was very fortunate at the time that my boyfriend was studying creative computing in his first year of college, and he created the logo for me. I had no idea how to set up a website, no knowledge on marketing, I didn’t even know how to grade sizes and the beginning I just made everything in one size, But he was right, I did learn along the way, I have learnt so much from then until now. All of my experiences whether bad or good, I just took one thing from them, and that was a lesson. I promised myself I would do it better the next time.
So I worked with him for maybe a year and a half, Things were starting to take off and people would regcognise the brand on social media.
I was getting a big following on Instagram, But then I noticed that he was getting really busy because he started to advertise my work on his social media, Its called We Chat, The equivalent to our Facebook I suppose. So that drew in a lot of attention and he got a lot of work from it in the town.
He was less interested in me and my work, after all he had enough income from the hype he built around the town, local acrobats and circus performers were coming to him for their costume, This resulted in him becoming a little boastful and arrogant and from then I just had a bad feeling with him. I noticed a look of deceitfulness, something I am normally good at judging, but when you are in a different country with a different language and culture, trust me, its easy to be deceived.
I asked him for a copy of all my patterns, he didn't want to give my patterns to me, he really turned a little bit evil.
So then I panicked a little and, I asked a Chinese friend for advise and she said whatever you do just don’t argue with him and try offer him what he wants.
Well… He wanted to rip me off and try sell me My patterns and argued with me that they were his. But he wanted A LOT of money and money that I did not have. I was broke. Every penny I had I put towards something for my business.
But anyway I think that’s another story for another day. But It took about 6 months to regain everything I lost. Because I didn’t know anybody else that could make clothing, especially with his expertise. He was extremely good at what he did and he knew it.
I remember feeling quite fed up and alone at this stage, I called a friend back home and and I think she was a little worried for me being here alone in China, She said;
"Why dont you go to BALI, or somewhere tropical, theres a whole community of designers like you, working with local tailors."
And I thought to myself,
Yes that sounds like a lovely idea and It would be great to be around like minded people in a tropical warm place, with a beach and cute coffee shops. That would be the dream. It would be better than living in this dusty polluted village with only one coffee shop that they don't even have dairy free milk or vegan cakes. But I thought, That’s not my story, and that’s not what I stand for, although she offered amazing advice, I am really glad I stuck to my values.
Because Now, after a long and exhausting search, I found 3 local seamstresses who all work from there homes, Who were brought up in Wuqiao, a place which has a really long history of acrobatic schools, performances, costume making and the manufacturing of Circus equipment, and I absloutely love when I get in a taxi, or go to a local restaurant, Theres always somebody who has a family member or them themselves is or used to be a circus artist, So I love that I can be apart of this community and support that. It beats a tropical beach and vegan treats any day. But I am determined to convert my local coffee shop, but It may take decades.. they are ingrained in culture and traditions. They don't deal with change very well. Especially coming from a foreigner who buys one coffee and sits and uses their Wifi all day. But deep down I know they love me. They know I'm here on a mission.
It took me a long time to feel confident and understand the why behind what I do. I take a lot of inspiration from China, I am very interested in this culture and wanted to create a garment of cultural value. Not only am I proud that my clothing is made in China but I wanted my customers to also be proud wearing it and thats why I try to incorporate Chinese culture into my designs.
I use a high neck collar which is called a Mandarin collar and this is known in China as a symbol of feminity, And I think It is my responsibility to connect the piece of clothing to the artisan who made it through transparency
From choosing the threads, The fabric, making the patterns, Getting all of these things to their houses, There is so much work and effort that goes on before the costume even gets to the customer, so that’s why I try my best to convey my message of valuable craftmanship.
And if I am honest, At the beginning of starting my business, I was terrified to tell people I made my clothing in China, Because I too once had this perception on china being this place where you can get bad quality in poorly conditions, Until I had a direct and personal experience with the country myself.
It was never about building a business for me, it was more about connecting with people who had similar passions and everything just evolved from doing what I loved. So I think things worked out for me because I was my my ultimate customer, Everything I was making were all things that I personally would wear myself. Thats just how it happened.
Currently we are right in the middle of a pandemic, I am obviously very nervous about the uncertainy of the future, A lot of things got cancelled for me, I work with a performing company in the Maldives, so that got cancelled, I was meant to go back to China to work on my clothing, There is no way I can go back anytime soon.
But I have to say I am so grateful of all the resources out there to help small business and self employed people in this time of crisis.
I am apart of a community called ISACS and they stand for Irish Street Art and Circus Spectacle, They help local artists in there development and offer a tonne of information on training, funding and residencies and so on.
So they were absolutely amazing in helping me.
Its so important to have a support system in place, Entrepreneurship is a lonely world. And its not for everyone, But its the world that I am willing to explore. I have grown in so many ways because of it, I am always a fan of personal development, How I can be a better person in order to lead and guide others. I am no use to others if I haven't done the work. I want to have kids and teach them all I know, we need to bring good people into this world if we want to provoke change.
This lockdown, Don't get me wrong, I have had many meltdowns, A feeling of powerlessness, uncertainty, fear for the future, but until I surrendered, let this act of god take its course, I have had the time to reflect and revisialise the future, and to better prioritise whats most important to me , I think it’s a matter of just trying to find that balance.
I cannot go back to China, I am not sure when, But I am grateful that over the years I have built and earned the trust to work with these women while operating from Ireland. I will go back maybe once or twice a year but be based in Ireland, I want to be able to be close to my own family and invest in the relationships that I have here.
I know this a negative situation ,and its sad,and I am not trying to be ignorant or denying the fact that people have been deeply affected by it, whether its physically or financially, It really is a hard time for all of us, But I really I try and see the upside to things, basically using this situation to kickstart on building on the things that normally I wouldn’t have the time for.
So updating my website, Editing photos, Organising a photo shoot for a new collection, learning Chinese, training, family time, Also writing this blogpost, basically just upskilling, learning. Getting creative.
So I just want to finish up there though, but I want to say stay safe everyone, stay at home, Take care of yourself and your family, And we should all make it out on the other side, mentally stronger and definitely with stronger immune systems!
And yea I just cant wait to do all the things that I once took for granted, Like being close with friends,Hugging people! Oh damn I miss hugging people, going to sit down in a coffee shop, sea swimming, all these little things I am just really looking forward to!
Ok I better go!
I will try post more regularly, and not wait until the next pandemic. Just kidding ;)
Founder and Designer @MyBubbleBum
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