Adults have been known to shriek and children to bawl when they spy Daisy the Clown, often before she even begins her kid-friendly act, and sometimes from across a room.
When it comes to evoking a primal fear of the unknown, Santa's got nothing on clowns, says Kim Daley, who's been performing as Daisy for more than 30 years.
But the Columbia resident has mastered a way of defusing children's anxiety — and avoiding meltdowns that can unnerve parents and freak out other kids. To flip audience reaction to Daisy from negative to positive, Daley transforms into her girlie circus counterpart before their eyes.
Armed with all the clown essentials — face paint, red nose, wig, and $350 custom-made red leather shoes in size 15 — she chats soothingly with her audience, which usually consists of 2- to 8-year-olds, as she gradually morphs into character, staving off kids' apprehension.
Daisy will perform and transform for kids at a special school's-out lunch Friday at the Hawthorn Center in Hickory Ridge, a mid-February gig she's had for more than a decade.
Most clowns prefer to stay in character and wouldn't dream of shattering the illusion, says Daley, who often works with her husband, Tim. He's an insurance salesman and financial adviser who performs part time as a clown named BO. Both belong to the World Clown Association, which is based in Indiana.
"I tell them I'm a mommy clown and show them a picture of my clown family," Daley said. The couple's grown children — Jack, Jennefer and Kate — all performed with their parents when they were young.
"By the end of the show, the children are coming up to me and patting the bunny that I pulled from a hat," she said.
Daley studied early-childhood education in college but never completed her senior year after marrying her high school sweetheart. She realized as a sophomore that dyslexia was at the root of her struggles in school.
"Both of my daughters became kindergarten teachers, and I would never have been able to do what they do," she said.
The couple wed in 1978, and she was expecting their first child within months.
"My whole dream as a young girl was to be a mom. I have always loved children and thought teaching would be the perfect job," she said. "But I really had to work much harder than most people." Instead, she became a stay-at-home mom, a job she cherished.
When their firstborn, Jack, was turning 3, the couple decided they wanted to have a clown at his birthday party. Daley decided to save money and fill the bill as a "crazy lady clown" who could be silly and goofy enough to entertain her son and his toddler friends.
"I was hooked after that," she said. "I realized that God had made me to be a clown and that everything [in my life] had led up to my being a clown."
Initially Daley did amateur tricks, such as tying scarves together and pulling them out of her sleeve, but over the years she's taken classes and attended clown conventions to build a professional act with comedy magic tricks, face painting and balloon sculptures.
One popular trick involves Daisy holding a bouquet of flowers that makes her sneeze, causing all the petals to drop. She then says some magic words and produces the bouquet, petals restored.
Tim Daley, who says he enjoys performing with his wife, describes one of his favorite acts.
"I ask Daisy to teach me a magic trick, so she hides a yellow bandanna and tells me she will show me how to make reappear. But all I hear is 'yellow banana.' " So he grabs one.
"She tells me to fold it and then to squeeze it, and I end up with a mushy banana in my hand, and the kids just love it. Then she tells me to make it disappear and I pop it into my mouth.
"I know every single thing that she does and I've seen countless of her shows, but even now, Daisy can still make me laugh," he said.