By LARRY VAUGHT
PIGEON FORGE — She’s been in a rock band and had her own TV show when she was a high school student. She was the first female ringmaster — and as it turned out also the last ringmaster — for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
But now Kristen Michelle Wilson is happy as she can be living here and being part of Dolly Parton’s Celebration, a Spectacular Dinner Show at Smoky Mountain Adventure.
“I moved to Pigeon Forge in February and went right into rehearsals for the show. Everything Miss Dolly does is phenomenal because she always wants you to come back,” said the energetic Wilson. “Americans are happy to reminisce about their childhood and that’s what the Cirque (Du Soleil)-theme brings. Children, grandchildren, great grandparents … everybody can enjoy the incredible acrobats, mind-boggling acts and just good down-home fun that we have.
“I love what I get to do and it is such a blessing to inspire people and bring joy and create memories. We have a cast of 21 from all around the world. Places like Hungary, Australia, Russia, Venezuela. We have all come together to create our own family to entertain you. We want to share that joy and getting to make those memories for folks is the biggest honor of my life.”
Wilson is one of the emcees and the key vocalist in the show. Both her joy and passion for what she’s doing and limitless energy are on display during the show. She believes the show cast has the same type teamwork that a successful sports team — she grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and remains a die-hard Florida State fan — has and that the show also has “incredible athletes” performing nightly.
“They are world class performers and some of the things they can do just stuns me,” Wilson said. “The show reminds me of Broadway meets (Las) Vegas that meets the circus. The level of entertainment across the country has soared in recent years. Part of it is probably technology but part is that audiences expect a high level of performance now.
“As performers, we challenge ourselves to learn the next big thing. These folks sometimes do three shows and then rush back out to practice and keep perfecting their craft. That work ethic is so infectious.
“Everyone is willing to share the next trip with the group. I even got to try a few aerial tricks when we first started, but I keep my feet on the ground now and make noises. I leave those tricks to them because they are spectacular.”
She’s become a “Tennessee girl” quickly. She had vacationed in this area once but says it was like “moving to paradise” when this opportunity arose.
“If there was a beach here, I would probably never leave. I can see Mt. LeConte from my front yard. I have little bunny rabbits that greet me when I come home,” Wilson said. “I have become a gardener. I am out mowing my yard. I lived in an Orlando apartment for years and then on a circus train — even though I was lucky and had the mansion on the train with a living room, kitchen, full-size bath tub.
“Here I love that everywhere I go people stop and greet you and want to know how you are. I will be shopping at Wal-Mart and have people recognize me from (Dolly Parton’s) Celebration and then when I am performing I will literally have at least one guest per night ask me if I was the circus ringmaster. Our final farewell tour with the circus started in Florida and went to Massachusetts and hit all the major cities. Here in Tennessee we are close to so many cities and states. It’s heartwarming to be recognized by so many people.”
At age 10, she was cast in TV commercials for the Florida Department of Agriculture. At age 16, she got a job with WCTV — a CBS affiliate — as a teen correspondent reporting on issues impacting teens and young adults. She learned to edit as well as how to write a story. During her college years she hosted a talk show on a regional TV station before getting a job as a production assistant at Comcast in the marketing department.
However, the itch to perform never went away and she moved to Orlando in 2010 where she started her own rock band that played rock, country and funk dance music. She was by far the youngest in the group.
“You learn a lot about interacting with different crowds in a band. There are no scripts. As a performer, that was a great seven years,” she said.
She had also been working various dinner shows in Orlando when she hear Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey needed a new ringmaster. She knew they had never had a woman ringmaster but decided to try since she was already working as a ringmaster for a circus and magic show in Orlando. She felt the audition went well and a month later found out she had the job.
“I spent the fall of 2016 secretly training before it was finally announced in mid-December I would be the first woman ringmaster,” she said. “We kicked off the tour in Orlando and it was an incredible experience with 20,000 people screaming for you.”
Three days into the tour she got the news along with other circus employees that after 146 years, the show was closing. That led to a five-month farewell tour that put her into the history book again as the final ringmaster for the show. However, there’s no bitterness on her part over the show closing so suddenly.
“It was the greatest experience. I am so grateful I got to do it all,” Wilson said. “It was bitter because no one wanted it to end but very sweet because I got to do it. I got to tour the country and watch America’s backyards as I would go by on the train. I got to sing the national anthem across the eastern seaboard. It was incredible.”
She started writing a book and then music after the circus closed. Hurricane Ivan blew the roof off the Orlando theatre group she had worked for, so that was out. Then a friend she had worked with in Orlando who had joined Dolly Parton’s show in Pigeon Forge recommended her for the job.
“I got the call from the dinner show’s creative team asking me to come and here I am,” she said. “The show is such a celebration and hits all the notes about having an adventure with your family. The show’s creative team is very flexible and always tweaking the show to make it better to keep you coming back. In October, we will start the Christmas show. I couldn’t be happier helping folks make memories here at the same time I am creating a lot of great new memories for myself as well.”