Mickey Lower of Bloomington spent the last few years of her 32-year career in teaching quite literally clowning around.
Lower was teaching in Clinton at the time and said the principal of her school came to the staff and asked what they wanted to see in extra electives.
Lower came up with what she called “Star Search.”
“Today you would call it ‘America’s Got Talent.’ It was a creative arts theater class so I thought I would shadow people like cake decorator or donut makers and bring that knowledge back to my students,” Lower said.
Then, Lower shadowed a clown, and the rest is history.
“I was already teaching magic tricks in my class and this clown was based out of Springfield. She did face paint, balloons, and magic and had a pretty strong business. I thought it looked like so much fun,” Lower said.
Lower ordered paints and on a whim decided to attend a face painting convention in Orlando with her daughter.
“That opened up all sorts of doors for me. I saw clowns doing some theatrical work like me. I came back and started to think about how to market myself,” Lower said.
Lower said she loves to go to renaissance fairs with her daughter and would often dress up as a queen, but was suffering from the heat in the summertime wearing long dresses.
“Then one day I walked into my daughter’s room as she was on her way to college. She had left animal prints throws and curtains out and about. Something clicked and soon I was thinking about more props and tablecloths for materials,” Lower said.
Lower was inspired and “Zoo Lady” was born.
“Kids tend to remember ‘Zoo Lady.’ My team that helps me is known as the ‘Zoo Crew.’ My logo has all kinds of different animal prints. I haven’t had a marketing class in my entire life, but this all just worked,” Lower said.
Lower said there was a four-year period where she was both teaching and being the ‘Zoo Lady.’
“That first year I made no money. I was look through the events in the newspaper and ask if they needed me to volunteer as a face painter. By that second year my name was out there and I partnered with the Children’s Discovery Museum and then my year three, people were calling me,” Lower said.
Lower is in her 11th year as ‘Zoo Lady’ now and said she still goes to the conventions to hone her craft.
“I meet fellow face painters who are jealous of the fact that I can drive to my jobs and come home. It’s all central Illinois. A third of my work is in Peoria and it’s only 35 minutes from my home. I go to library and daycare events during the daytime,” Lower said.
Lower also works at charity benefits and has a unique way to raise money.
“I will find a gentleman and paint a Hawaiian shirt on him. On the back I make a bulletin board that people can sign for donations and they will come back with $500. I come in at the end of those benefits where everyone is exhausted and I feel like I am the spark of energy,” Lower said.
“Oh and by the way, the guy doesn’t have to be buff or a supermodel. He can have a little pooch. The personality of the guy will get the money,” she added with a laugh.
Lower is also scheduled to visit the U.S. Cellular Coliseum’s Cultural Festival, Dunlap Days, Morton Pumpkin Festival, and some local free school supply giveaways in the coming months.
Rader’s Family Pumpkin Farm in Normal is also hosting ‘Zoo Lady’ every weekend during their fall season.
“Also being known as the ‘Zoo Lady,’ I feel I am obligated to go the zoos. We go about four times per year. I just was at Peoria Zoo too and it was really nice,” Lower said.
Lower said she really loves the university students too because they are game for anything.
“We go to Bradley, ISU, IWU and U of I. They will always just say ‘do anything.’ They are so bold and game to be painted as whatever,” Lower said.
Lower said she teaches her ‘Zoo Crew’ – including herself, a crew of 11 – the same style and skills she has learned so if someone calls and wants Lower they can get the same experience.
“I can’t be everywhere. I want them to have my same techniques and faces, but they can also come up with their own surprises and characters,” Lower said.
“11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday is that golden hour where everyone seems to want us,” she added.
That golden month is obviously October with Halloween taking up the crew’s time.
“That is a face painter’s dream month. Fall festivals, haunted trails, calls to be painted for parties or as zombies. It’s really fun to paint a face to match a costume and they don’t have to wear a mask,” Lower said.
Last year, Lower’s team had the opportunity to paint a cast of the production of “Cats,” 12 adults and 26 kids.
“We painted for nine productions and had to call in more volunteers. That was fun. We did a church for Noah’s Ark too,” Lower said.
Lower said she also has started an anti-bullying program called “Scully the Bully” to coincide with October as anti-bullying month.
Lower said it’s hard to believe that when she started the “Zoo Lady” persona, she had not picked up a paintbrush in 25 years.
Lower now has the ability to speed paint more than 35 mask faces in an hour.
“I guess I just always knew when I retired that I wanted to do something around kids. I don’t handle leisure well,” Lower said.
For more information on the Zoo Lady and her Zoo Crew, visit facepaintingzoolady.com or call 532-1642.