Stewart was living in Florida and working as an administrator at a local theater when she heard about Ringling's clown college. At first, she says, she thought it was a joke, but when she attended the school's graduation ceremony, she says, "it sparked something in my soul and I just couldn't get enough." So in the fall of 1993 she enrolled in the intense eight-week course. Afterward, trained in the ways of pratfalls, pie throwing, and face painting, Stewart moved to Las Vegas to work as a "roaming clown," entertaining children and gamblers at the Circus Circus casino. It was in Las Vegas that she reunited with Jay Stewart, one of her former clown college instructors, who was playing Larry, Moe, and sometimes Curly in a stage version of The Three Stooges. The two were married in 1996. "My mom jokes that at least I didn't marry a clown, I married a stooge," Stewart says with a laugh.
Looking to start a family, the couple figured the responsible thing would be to settle down and get regular jobs. They decided to move to Georgia, Jay's home state, where they worked at a vinyl-flooring company and had a baby daughter, Karen. But the lure of performing was irresistible, and the pair signed on with Ringling Bros. in November 1999. "We wanted our daughter to know us for what we really are," Stewart says.
They've been on the road ever since, performing 500 shows a year. (She did take an eight-month break when she was pregnant with her second child, Nicholas.) "It's exciting," Stewart says of life on the road. "Normally we're in a new city every week, we get to see these new places, and there is always a fresh audience." Life on the road means lots of time spent in Laundromats and searching for grocery stores, but circus life also brings the roar of audience approval.
"Getting a laugh is so good," Stewart says. "You go out there and perform your gag. When they laugh they are rewarding you."