This spring, seven celebrities ran away to join the circus. They never got farther than Burbank.
But that’s all right, since an empty soundstage on a small studio lot near the airport in the Southern California community is just where they need to be. Within its confines, they learn new skills, find inner strength, challenge fears and wind up with a few fresh bruises and even a broken bone.
On Wednesday, on NBC, viewers get to see both the painful journey and the high-flying competition it’s leading up to, with the 90-minute premiere of “Celebrity Circus.”
The ringmaster of this extravaganza is former ’N Sync member Joey Fatone, who did his own stint as a celebrity competitor on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
But on this early May day, the celebrities are still a long way from competing in front of an audience for votes.
Actors Antonio Sabato Jr., Christopher Knight and Stacey Dash, singer Blu Cantrell, model Rachel Hunter (also an alumna of “Dancing With the Stars”), TV host and skateboarder Jason “Wee Man” Acuna, and gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer Janet Evans are hard at work with their trainers, led by former Canadian Olympic gymnast Philippe Chartrand, who has also worked with Cirque du Soleil.
“We’re training five days a week, eight, nine hours a day,” says Sabato (who on this day looks quite superheroish in a skintight red shirt and black pants). “We have a half-hour, 45-minute lunch, then we keep training. It’s brutal.”
Over the course of an afternoon, Sabato works with a trainer to scramble up a pole; Evans hangs from silk ribbons; Hunter works at entwining herself in a fabric pouch; Knight (who broke his elbow the first week and wears a brace) walks on a wire; Acuna flies from straps attached to his wrists; and Cantrell is flat out on the floor.
“I’m exhausted,” she says. “I’m anemic, and when I’m here, it takes so much of my energy. I need to eat more. I’m so lacking in the iron department.
“I don’t even go out (at night). I do nothing but go straight home, pass out, sometimes in the same clothes I’ve been in for six hours and wake up in the morning to an alarm saying it’s time to do it all over again.
“Six hours a day, 30 bruises later, 13 pounds less later.”
Dash, who is not feeling well this day, is heading home early. But before she leaves, she says, “I feel different. I feel empowered, for myself. I feel a strange sense of deep strength. It’s very profound, what you’re experiencing.
“I’ve become very emotional when I’m on the trapeze, which is one of the things I do. I’ve gone through emotions, exhilaration ... fear, terror. But I think it’s good for a person to go through that at a speed of zero to 60.”
The celebrities have eight weeks to perfect their acts before performing for an audience. They’re learning such exotic-sounding tricks as tight wire, fire knives, flying cube, Spanish web, Russian swing, wheel of death, trapeze bungee, tissue, hammock, Chinese poles, flying trapeze and German wheel.
Hunter says, “It’s like civilians off the street coming in to achieve something beyond their wildest imagination.”
“I feel like I’m in a big backyard at a friend’s house,” Acuna says, “and we’re just pushing the record button. It’s something I’m used to doing, but not putting it on network (television).”
Knight, the oldest of the competitors at 50, says, “You forget how old you are. The problem is, if you stop to say, ‘I’m too old for that,’ then you really are that old. The only thing that keeps you young is thinking of yourself as young.
“It’s finding that inner child. I have all the desire that I had as a kid; I just don’t get out of bed that quickly.”
But, he says, “My advice to everyone is to join the circus before you’re invited to join AARP. That’s what I’ve learned. That’s the net result of saying ‘yes’ to this.”
Despite being an Olympic athlete in her youth, Evans has found that her swimming prowess doesn’t help much when you’re hanging upside down from silk panels. That is, if you can actually get to the panels.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says while getting a shoulder massage. “I don’t. I’m the worst person here. We’re doing these movement classes, and everyone’s going into these great positions, and I’m tripping.
“In fact, the joke is with (trainer Sebastian ‘Seb’ Stella) is, I’ll be going onto the apparatus, but I’ll trip on the mat getting to the apparatus. It’s really true.”
Everyone’s hurting. Sabato was in good shape but has painfully discovered some muscles he missed in the gym.
“I’m doing stuff I never could think I could do,” he says. “It’s never too late. We can do it; you can do it.”
Along with his elbow, Knight deals with a troublesome knee caused by years of playing tennis. Evans still has flare-ups of shoulder tendinitis (hence the massage).
As for bruises seen and unseen, Chartrand says that’s part of circus, despite security measures to prevent serious injury.
“Now,” he says, “define ‘cannot get hurt.’ You can have an ouch but you will be able to heal. That’s what the celebrities here are discovering, the ouch part of circus.”
And, because this is circus, you have to look good while suspended or flying or rolling.
“When I was swimming,” Evans says, “I would literally close my eyes. They’re like, ‘Janet, you have to smile and present yourself.’ There are no style points in swimming!”