THE WORLD NEEDS MORE RED NOSES
Canadian clown is on a global humanitarian mission to ease suffering with smiles,
MONTREAL— After years working birthday parties, private functions and public festivals, of making people laugh for profit as Yahou the clown, Guillaume Vermette decided to follow his dream.
The 29-year-old from Trois-Rivières, Que., sold his entertainment company two years ago, launched a fundraising campaign, filled a backpack and dove into a new life marked by overwhelming misery, suffering, violence and desperation.
Vermette, a full-time humanitarian clown, has never felt so enriched. He has never felt so enraged, either.
His shows are for street kids in Haiti and Burkina Faso, Syrian refugees in Greece, Burmese refugees in Thailand and Russian orphans living in ramshackle conditions.
“Yes, it’s rough sometimes,” he admitted in a recent interview. “If you brought me a recipe to save the world I’d drop my clown nose and do it.”
But the world ricochets from the ruins of Syria and Iraq, to the Rohingyas fleeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Burma, to the heightened nuclear threat from North Korea. And Vermette’s red plastic nose, powder blue suit, red suspenders and, sometimes, ballerina’s pink tutu are never in the closet for long.
In conversation he rants against injustice, exploitation, prejudice and intolerance. He says that what he has seen in the last year or so convinces him that the world is becoming an uglier place. Then he bursts out in an unbridled laugh.
“You have to accept that you can’t change the world. You have to accept that the world is a horrible place,” he said. “To embody change is the best thing you can do — and to be positive. But to be honest, it’s getting harder and harder. I thought it would get easier, but it’s not.”
The first time he put on a costume was 12 years ago while working as a camp counsellor in the Inuit village of Salluit in northern Quebec.
He was a 17-year-old white kid working with Inuit youth not much younger than he was but who were already facing serious personal, social and substance-abuse issues. One day, Vermette went into the camp’s costume closet on his break, dressed up and started walking through the streets, marveling at the reaction.
“It was fun, but I felt there was something more — a human contact,” he said. “It allows you to realize that we are all the same. We laugh at the same things. We are touched by the same things.”
An idea was born. He took clown courses, created his own entertainment company at the age of 19 and enrolled in university, studying psychology. It grew to the point where he had 30 performers working for him and no time for his studies.
Some profits from Yahou Productions went to pay for humanitarian work, but he was frustrated by bureaucracy trying to get into hospitals and orphanages, where his tricks and gags might brighten someone’s day.
In 2011, a friend slipped Vermette a piece of paper with a telephone number and the name of Patch Adams, the American doctor and activist clown portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1998 movie. It took him two weeks to work up his courage.
“I called and introduced myself as Guillaume the clown from Trois-Rivières in very bad English at the time. He listened to me and, at the end, asked me to come with him to Russia with about 40 other clowns to tour the orphanages,” Vermette said.
In the years since, Vermette has been to Russia 17 times working with an organization called Maria’s Children, that visits orphanages and hospitals and helps the survivors of the 2004 Beslan school massacre where 330 people, including 180 children, were killed by Chechen terrorists after a three-day hostage situation.
One of the kids, Ruslan, lost his father and sister in the Beslan attack. Ruslan’s only surviving relative, his mother, has never really recovered from the trauma, Vermette said.
“I don’t do shows for him because it doesn’t interest him. He needs a presence. He needs a mother and a brother and that’s what I give him as best as I can.”
Patch Adams, perhaps the world’s most famous humanitarian clown, is no longer just an inspiration for Vermette. He is a friend.
“I think the strongest thing that Guillaume brings is that he really has a deeply loving heart for all people,” Adams said in a phone interview.
He’s also become well respected in the community of itinerant performers who cross paths in far-flung refugee camps or come together for humanitarian missions.
“A clown like Guillaume could be making a really decent wage. Circus is back in a big way. With his skills and experience, he could be absolutely packing away the money, but we don’t miss it so it’s not a sacrifice,” said Ash Perrin, founder of The Flying Seagull Project, a troupe that works with refugees in Europe.
Perrin and Vermette first worked together in 2016 in northern Greece, where 14,000 refugees stayed in a makeshift camp, hoping to make asylum claims in Europe. Their common work ethic and concern for the children united them while performing up to eight shows a day in hot, difficult conditions.
“(Children) pick up on the atmosphere of the parents,” Perrin said. “Parents are losing hope after they’ve been there a while. Hope is a thin resource in the camp.” One moment from that trip is etched in Vermette’s memory. While he was performing, surrounded by kids, a fight broke out and gunshots pierced the air. Everyone scrambled to safety, except Vermette, who couldn’t hear anything over the sounds of the children laughing.
For that brief moment, he had removed his audience from their hostile and miserable reality and transported them to a place of happiness. And he had done his job.
“If you brought me a recipe to save the world, I’d drop my clown nose and do it.” GUILLAUME VERMETTE
Guillaume Vermette, a humanitarian clown, found his gift for mirth 12 years ago working with Inuit youth.