When the Iversons were growing up—Priscilla in Rio de Janeiro and Johnathan Lee in the Upper West Side of New York—they never imagined they’d be working for the circus, but that’s exactly what this couple is doing. And not just any circus. They’re part of the prestigious Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the world’s “greatest show on earth.”
After graduating from college, Johnathan joined the circus in 1999. His outstanding vocals earned him the coveted ringmaster position, and the native New Yorker is the first African-American to hold the title. Priscilla, an accomplished Brazilian dancer, nailed a three-day audition for the circus in Rio. She was chosen as leader of the Brazilian dance troupe. In 2000, she moved from Brazil to the US.
“The circus is a dynamic world,” explains Johnathan. “You have very human people doing very extraordinary things. It’s a fantastically unique culture.”
“There is really nothing like it,” adds Priscilla. “It’s pretty special to work in the circus.” While they both intended to remain in the circus for a couple of years, Cupid had other plans. “I wanted to return to Brazil to run a dance company after completing my two-year contract with the circus,” she says, “but then came Johnathan.”
Prior to formally crossing paths, Johnathan and Priscilla were familiar with one another thanks to a mutual friend and co-worker who was convinced the pair would make a great couple. “He was adamant that she was the one for me,” says Johnathan. “He would also tell me that she is gonna love me.” Back in Brazil, the matchmaker told Priscilla how “Johnathan was tall, dark and handsome, just the way I like it.” Needless to say, Johnathan and Priscilla were eager to finally meet. But when the faithful encounter occurred, chemistry wasn’t instantaneous.
They were in Tampa, Florida, and Priscilla and the other Brazilian dancers were standing by the circus train (a mile-long train in which all the performers and their families travel and live in), waiting for the bus to take them to an arena for rehearsal. “We were running late and I needed to use a telephone to call someone to let them know,” Priscilla recalls.
That’s when she spotted Johnathan on his phone.
“I asked him if I could use his phone and he told me to wait a minute,” she says. “He didn’t make much of my urgency, so I asked him if I could use it now.” This wasn’t the meeting she envisioned. “I thought he was kind of arrogant.” Johnathan was put-off by Priscilla too. “She seemed kind of rude. It was more like her tone was abrasive. I’m very sensitive to people’s tones. But I eventually gave her the phone.”
Despite the initial cold first meeting, both agree they found each other to be “very attractive.” During winter quarters on tour with the circus, the two engaged in some friendly flirting. Ultimately this would lead to Johnathan confessing his feelings to Priscilla.
“In Hartford, Connecticut, I called her out of her dressing room and laid it all out. I alerted her to the fact that my feelings for her had matured,” shares Johnathan. Priscilla admits she was overwhelmed with happiness. Her feelings for Johnathan had grown too. When she heard rumors about Johnathan’s flirtatious nature, she almost wrote him off until their matchmaker reassured Priscilla that there was no truth to the rumors about Johnathan courting other girls. “So when the day came and he spoke to me outside my dressing room, I was so happy and I wasn’t expecting it all. I told him yes, of course.”
Touring 48 weeks and working 450 shows a year in the circus means Priscilla, Johnathan and their kids—Matthew (9) and Lila (5)—are always in different cities. Johnathan asked Priscilla out in Connecticut, and their first date took place in the next town on the itinerary Hershey, Pennsylvania. They went to see Moulin Rouge.
“Even though I could sense there was an attraction, she played an old-school game,” says Johnathan. “The thing I respected about her is that she didn’t make it easy for me. She didn’t play to my ego. We got to know each other and took it very slowly.” On their first date, Johnathan told Priscilla he wanted them to date exclusively. “He said, ‘You are mine and I am yours.’ I never had a boyfriend say that,” says Priscilla. “When we were dating, he was such a gentleman all the time. I was very independent then, and he taught me how to allow him to be a gentleman,” remembers Priscilla, who says she was always treated like she was number one.
“There was this spark and chemistry I never experienced before Priscilla. She displayed all the attributes I always admired in a woman, and that’s strength. She was an incredible leader,” reveals Johnathan, who says his first image of a strong woman was his mother.
Working with your partner can be tricky, especially if you’re always on the road. But the Iversons have made their unique circumstances work to their advantage. “I never wanted to be a performer that was always away from his family. I wanted my wife and children to know me. Working together was a great advantage,” says Johnathan.
But he does acknowledge that he was up front with Priscilla about needing some personal space. “I don’t want what we have to get spoiled. We need a respectful distance. There are those times when you just need to be alone. If Priscilla could, she would have a social event in our home every day,” says Johnathan.
Priscilla’s outgoing social nature has inspired him to come out of shell. It’s because of her he now wears brighter clothes, has stayed in touch with family and friends, and is now out exploring the cities he visits on tour instead of sitting in his trailer reading a book. “I love working together and being with each other all the time, but I understand his need for space,” says Priscilla with a chuckle.
They dated for five months before tying the knot on November 15, 2001.
Fittingly, they got married after their 10:30 morning show at the United Center in Chicago. The minister, who attended the circus beforehand with her child, preformed the ceremony in a suite in the arena. Johnathan and Priscilla exchanged vows in front of close family and friends.
“During the wedding, I’d never been that calm and so sure in my life,” says Johnathan. “The commitment and respect became stronger as the desire to love and be loved. Marriage was about discovering who we were as two completely different individuals,” says Priscilla.
“With people like us, who are sort of stars in our own little world, to come together like that can be a challenge,” says Johnathan. Both he and Priscilla have been performing since they were young. Johnathan was part of the elite Boys Choir of Harlem. Priscilla excelled as a dancer and took part in many performances as a child in Brazil. “You are so used to being favored. Our greatest challenge was learning how to be equally submissive,” adds Johnathan, who also says he’s learned how to be a better listener and pay more attention to Priscilla’s needs.
Another test that would threaten their union was the green-eyed monster. “Well, it was either stop being paranoid or lose my husband,” explains Priscilla. “I had to make a decision. I was not only jealous, I was possessive, which made it worse. I use both verbs in the past tense, only because the jealousy and possessiveness that lives in me today is 50 percent dealt with, and the other 50 percent is controlled for the sake of a good marriage. I can say I matured a lot from all that, and the peace we have is tremendously amazing and not worth any drama.”
In 2004, they decided to hop off the circus train and move to New York City. Priscilla was pregnant with their first child, and Johnathan was ready to try his hand at something other than being a ringmaster. Priscilla looked forward to being a mother.
“My mother was a role model for me. She took such good care of us and served us. I am the same way with family. I simply love taking care of my family,” says Priscilla. Johnathan’s parenting style is also heavily influenced by his own mother. “She was so involved in every aspect of our lives,” he says. “I do the same with my children. It’s important to be hands on.”
When their first son Matthew was born, Johnathan says witnessing his birth moved him so much that he “deified his wife.” The first several months after the birth, he began to feel unworthy of Priscilla. “I felt so small compared to her. My respect for her shot through the roof watching her push life out of her body. I realized we are not equals, and she was it.”
Three and a half years later, their daughter Lila was born. “Raising our children is such a great blessing. Love for yourself and others are big things for us. So is being polite and courteous. We also talk a lot about the importance of knowing that your choices will always have consequences,” says Priscilla.
Life away from the circus wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Iversons. Work was sporadic for Johnathan during those six years, although he did land some off-Broadway roles and TV commercial work. He took the opportunity to volunteer at his children’s school and became head of the parent’s advisory committee. Priscilla found a steady gig as an office assistant. “We struggled a bit financially, and it was a humbling time. I came out of college and landed a great job. I think you need to get burned a little. It gives you some perspective,” says Johnathan.
“It took a lot of prayer to get through it,” shares Priscilla. “Because we were both very independent, started working relatively young, and always had a lot of opportunities in front of us, it was hard having doors being closed at a time we really needed them open. I knew how tough it was emotionally for Jonathan.” In fact, it was her thoughtful gesture while grocery shopping that would reaffirm to Johnathan that he made the right choice in choosing his wife.
“We were on line at the grocery store and she walked by me and placed the money in my hand to pay for the food,” says Johnathan. He refers back to this moment when he thinks s about his love for Priscilla. “It’s the queen taking the reins without shaming her king. It was an endearing moment for me. I take pride in taking care of my family.”
Four years after leaving the circus, Priscilla and Johnathan got a call asking them to return. “It was an easy decision. We missed it. I never felt that exhilaration I felt at the circus after I left. Your co-workers are lions and tigers. You are not impressed by much,” says Johnathan. As for Priscilla, she missed the travelling, her friends, sitting in front of a mirror applying the makeup, and the audience’s energy. Although in the same breath, she enjoyed being able to raise her son in one city.
In 2009, Johnathan reclaimed his role as ringmaster. While Priscilla returned as a dancer, she quickly rose through the ranks to become a production manager, responsible for overseeing the entire extravaganza—from animals, equipment, performers, lighting and sound.
“I don’t think there is a man on this earth more proud of their wife,” gushes Johnathan. Before their hiatus from the circus, they were working and living on the train by themselves. Today they have two children to juggle in addition to their hectic schedules.
“Johnathan is a real hands on partner, and I thank God for that. I am busy all the time. The kids get to see the best of the country through their home window,” says Priscilla. “There is no experience like the circus anywhere,” says Johnathan. “As they say, ‘If your marriage can survive the circus, you can do anything.’ ”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.