Lori Wheeles is one busy lady! Last year she entertained at over 300 events. On a weekly basis she will deal with drooling kids while performing magic then swim with the sharks at the Shedd. She is daring, yet disciplined, a lot of fun and I am pleased as punch to introduce you to her!
Holly: What would you call yourself and what you do?
Lori: I call myself a Children’s Variety Entertainer. I bring high energy to the party. I can make most anything (within reason) out of balloons. I can make things I don’t even know I can make when I get strange special requests and I am very social while making them.
Another thing I do is face painting of a very special type. I call it Painted Tattoos. Pure pigments made from stencils of multi colored images of children’s choosing with a large display board that the kids can look at ahead of time and decide what they want. They have a lot of fun with it. They stay on when you want them to stay and come off with soap and water when you want that.
In addition, I bring high energy to my shows at an event by way of general games and dance or perhaps a family (geared towards kids) magic show. I am great at engaging children of all ages, literally the ones that are under two, with drool on their chins, to the obnoxious nine year old boys. I have a special way of pulling them all together. It is something to behold considering the diverse ages of the children.
My magic is stage magic geared towards a younger audience and I am good at including the birthday child to be my assistant. I am known for my variety parties. At a typical party I will do Painted Tattoos, Games and Dances, and finish with Balloons, all combined in a two hour party. I bring joy and laughter to the children and focus their energy in a social and energetic way.
In Europe they have a type of clown that isn’t scary like a white faced clown. European clowns have more of a familiar human face to children, without the whiteness and without as much of the extreme reds that scare a lot of kids. I decided to be a European style clown as my entertaining persona.
Holly: What area do you reside and/ or work?
Lori: I live in Chicago, but am a GPS professional. I may not know where the party is, but will be there early. If all fails, I have a BPS. Boyfriend Positioning System. I call him and he looks it up on Mapquest.
Holly: How long has it taken you to get to the professional level you’re at now?
Lori: I began working for a company that was similar in 1999. I worked for them for four years and decided that I really liked parts of what they were doing, however I thought there was something missing and I was able to find and develop my own niche. I made the leap to work for myself in 2003 and have never looked back.
Like all careers mine is still a work in process. Within the first six months of going on my own, I felt 80% confident in what I was doing. I belong to both balloon artist and practicing magician organizations. I go regularly every month and see the national and worldwide pros. I am amazed and realize that I still have so much more to learn. It keeps everything fresh and is more fun for me since I continually learn new things.
The other way I get to the level that I am is through the magic of DVD’s. Almost without exception entertainers are sharing people and sell modestly priced DVD’s to help others in their skill level. There are lots of resources out there. There are also some wonderful You Tube videos on how to make or perform most anything. It’s my job to find them and use them. I make myself use or do them on a regular basis. When my work volume is slow, I use it as study time and break out the DVD’s and magic tricks that I’d previously purchased.
Holly: What in particular or in general has helped you grow in your avocation to become who you are today compared to when you began? These may or may not be others in your field, perhaps family, friend, other…
Lori: My kickstart was myself. I am fiercely independent. I bought a book and taught myself how to make balloons with my own energies. One of my personal traits that is invaluable as a business owner is having always been careful with my finances and in my spending/saving. As a sole proprietor, that skill has gotten me through a lot of lean times. Sometimes there are tough times when the gigs just aren’t coming as fast as I would like them to. We all go through them. It’s in my nature to know where the money comes and goes.
Holly: What critical decisions did you have to make along the way to becoming who you are today?
Lori: I’m very self-disciplined, determined and no stranger to concepts of daily practice towards a goal and craft. Like playing an instrument, there is no shortcut for practice. If you don’t practice, you will never have the skills along with positive mental attitude.
I decided I was going to work for myself and not look back. I have a strong business background and chose a market niche that I would enjoy working. There was a relatively low startup cost. Plus, I believed in myself that I could make it happen. I was tired of someone else making the money for my hard work.
I worked in retail management for 20 years (high end clothing) and was ready to go out and do something fun and make a major change. I was very good in the retail industry, but ready for the next chapter in my life.
Holly: What are some of the major challenges you face or have faced?
Lori: The big challenge is making time for me. Ahhh, the joy of working for one’s self. Here’s the catch 22. When is the work day over? When I am tired? When I am sick of it? When everything is done? What is the definition of when everything is done? The answer to that changes from day to day. I keep in mind that even though I don’t have a corporation or boss, I still have to balance the two. When do I quit?
Several years back I was in a major accident, hit by a car while on foot, flew up in the air and landed on my head. People weren’t sure if I was going to make it. However, I had my strong will to get back to work, a supportive partner and knew that my smart planning (financial and mental) would get me through it. I was in bed for three months. I never thought that I would be able to do that, I generally don’t sit still for very long at a time, but when you know you have to for the healing process, it’s amazing what your mind can do.
Holly: What mistakes have you made and what have you learned?
Lori: I like to think that my mistakes so far have been more of almost mistakes or could be pending future mistakes if I’m not diligent and/or lucky. I don’t get stiffed very often by my perspective clients. 99.9% of the time I require a signed contract and a 50% deposit before I formally accept the engagement. A lot of companies plan for a certain amount of money that will never even hit the books. That would be devastating to my business. I work too hard. I have extraordinarily clear and timely communication leading up to the party and use a mapping program the day before to make sure I know where I’m going, which can lead to potentially problem #2, which is walking into a party late, that is while it’s in progress. Timing is a very important part of the client’s social event. I have a time slot. Since I’m usually driving within a 60 mile radius, and a lot can go wrong and out of my control. I need to make sure that I put the mother’s or father’s mind at ease. She or he has enough to worry about. They shouldn’t have to worry about the entertainer.
After the party, I follow up and call all clients on parties where I am not working to make sure that it went as planned. I want the client to know exactly what is going to happen. Clear and concise communication is important. I follow up with a thank you note afterwards on all bookings.
Holly: How do you balance your professional and personal life?
Lori: I work hard to be able to play hard. That has always been my motto. I am an athlete and workout regularly early in the morning when business doesn’t take place so that I am on a consistent schedule.
Most entertainers work when everyone else is off, so it’s a balancing act to balance relations with others. I am working on weekends and holidays.
Holly: What artists or people have you looked up to, respected, and/or admired?
Lori: I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of Jim Jensen to help me get started in magic and in high energy dances and games with the kids. I am like the little sister at my magic club. Everyone there goes out of their way to help me, being the only female in the club. It certainly couldn’t possibly be because of my dynamic personality!
Most recently two very important girlfriends, you, and Karen Burris came over to help me craft a dress for an event where I was recognized for volunteering 20 years at the Shedd Aquarium. The dress turned out adorable, if I do say so myself!
I am very fortunate to have a huge network of friends that I would call good friends and not just acquaintances and they have always encouraged me when I’ve been down and recognized that I’m not a quitter and always try to make things happen.
Holly: How do you refresh, recharge and stay motivated?
Lori: EXERCISE and VOLUNTEER! I am an avid swimmer. I do interval training with a masters swim team and I swim at the health club and in the lake (editor’s note: The Lake, as in Lake Michigan!) with others in the summer. I got my first open water swim in May this year. That’s a record!! I ride my bike for transportation when I can since I live in the city and I scuba dive every week at the Shedd Aquarium.
I love my volunteer job at the Shedd. Last year I hit my 20 years of volunteer service and 8500 hours. I dive in the Caribbean Reef tank and feed the fish, give a public presentation (in scuba gear within the tank) and clean the habitat (also underwater). I also dive in the evenings after the aquarium is closed in the dolphins and beluga waters. Their habitat needs to be cleaned, as well. Sometimes we are surprised and get to dive with the animals, but usually it’s to clean their house while they are visiting the habitat next door.
I have many long lasting friends that have seen me through everything there. I wouldn’t give that opportunity up for anything. My dive partners are everything to me. It’s like a weekly support group. We get to dive and get great support from each other.
I have the best volunteer job anywhere. Where else can you dive every week all year long while living in Chicago?
Holly: What inspires you?
Lori: The gorgeous, beautiful, joyous, thousand-watt smiles from the children’s faces. Whether it’s handing them a simple balloon, a balloon guitar that actually plays, or a balloon ball to play with. How many people can say that they go to work every day and everyone is jumping up and down and happy to see them and cry or are sad to see them leave? There are a limited number of jobs where you can say that about and really mean it.
Children know me from event to event and year to year and greet me with a “Hi Lori”. I greet them with “hi, I remember you” when they yell out my name, even though I may have no recollection of them since I meet so many children each year.
Holly: What advice might you have to someone starting out in your profession/ avocation?
Lori: Come up with a unique business name first. Develop your choice and style of marketing materials. Forgive me if this statement doesn’t sound too humble, but I’ve heard this from others that I have one of the best websites for others in this industry. I have an awesome graphic artist that I use for my marketing materials. (I’m not that creative) I have found a printer that does unbelievable quality for the cheapest price imaginable (mail order). I have not scrimped when it comes to paying for the design and technical aspects of my website or print marketing materials. I often receive comments on how nice they look, and how helpful they are, not to mention colorful and eye catching. It’s a fun industry, so marketing needs to match. It makes me look that much more professional and bigger than I really am.
I am fortunate that I stay pretty busy. Last year I booked over 300 parties. Yes, that’s almost one per day. Every year my business grows a little bigger and bigger. I pride myself on my good reputation.
Where I would like to work harder on my business is through the active promotion through the Chamber of Commerce’s and neighborhood organizations. I have recently added the “like me:” link to my email signature and the QR code to my business cards and thank you cards so that the next generation who is very QR and smartphone savvy will get the message the way they want.
Holly: In what ways do you develop awareness of your business?
Lori: ‘Be persistent’, ‘don’t quit’, and ‘follow your passion’. Do what you love and the money will follow. I will never be rich doing what I do, but I make enough to live a decent lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I live in a modest condo. Build a network of friends that can help you.
Holly: Have you ever had a particularly funny or embarrassing moment, and if so, please share it!
Lori: I was a princess at one of my parties and the kids asked if I was the queen of England, how many castles I had, servants, etc. When I had the keys in my hand as I was leaving they asked why I was driving. I said that I was just holding on to the keys to give to my driver. They said that it was probably so that the paparazzi’s wouldn’t find me. They wanted to know if they went to Facebook if they would find pictures of my castle. Then they asked how the birthday girl’s mother found me and one of the girls said that she was pretty sure it was through Facebook. (I guess that’s where we are going) They really believed this and I had to live this part or role the entire time. It was so cute and innocent at the same time.
Also, my logo has a propeller on it and I wear a colorful hat with a propeller on it. I am frequently asked if I can fly. That conjurors up a lot of fun!
Another funny thing is that I have worn two different balloon dresses that I have made. Often, I’d be complimented on the beautiful dresses, then asked what I was wearing underneath. My straitforward reply, “Why, thank you. And, perfume, of course!.”