DeMarcus Hughes takes his job seriously, but you wouldn't notice it. As his alter ego, Smiley the Hip Hop Clown, it's all about good times, laughs and crafting the best balloon shapes in Detroit. Hughes wasn't always so dedicated. In fact, back in high school he didn't take it too seriously and wound up with a 0.6 GPA with unsuccessful stints at Southeastern High School and Henry Ford. The Detroit native moved with his great aunt to Fairview, Michigan and, at Fairview High School, Hughes eventually raised his GPA to 3.0 – often higher.
After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, an experience that helped to shape the future entertainer, and led him to New York. "That was the beginning of me learning more about myself," Hughes says. There, he trained as an interior communications technician but felt himself drawn to the familiar patterns of his youth – this time, the positive stuff, such as rapping, dancing and "competitive speaking." After two years of service – from 1991 to 1993 – Hughes decided to leave New York and return to Detroit with a very specific mission: He was going to give back. But how?
He started his business as a motivational speaker and a magician; he also threw in some landscaping for good measure. Then, someone suggested he should be a clown for the express reason of reaching more children. And, for Hughes, that made perfect sense. "I started doing motivational shows and birthday parties," Hughes says. That was the beginning of Smiley the Clown Company and of course, Smiley the Hip Hop Clown. "Growing up I always smiled," Hughes says about the origins of the character. "People always called me Kool-Aid, like the Kool-Aid commercial. I used Smiley because I smile a lot."
But Hughes' clown knowledge was limited to the circuses he'd attended as a kid. He hit the books and learned as much as he could about clowns and landed on what he wanted Smiley the Hip Hop Clown to be. Mostly, that would include rapping, dancing, magic tricks, balloons, face painting and even working the crowd as a DJ. It's been 25 years. Today, you'll find Smiley in Detroit schools, private parties and at the annual Metro Detroit Youth Day, which takes place in July at Belle Isle.
"Interaction is very key, very important," he says. "The whole audience becomes Team Smiley. We become one with each other. It's not just a Smiley show. They are a part of the show, as well." And if you're really lucky, you might get a chance to see the Smiley Mobile with the spinning rims. "I drive my Smiley Mobile all the time," Hughes says. "To me, it's not a job – I can do this for free. I tell people that I'm clowning for life. I keep the kids entertained. It keeps me in shape, youthful as well."