Johnathan Lee Iverson Ringling Hershey
Johnathan Lee Iverson was the youngest and first African-American ringmaster in the nearly 140-year history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Ringling's Legends will run through Monday at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Feld Entertainment)

Standing more than 6 feet tall, with a commanding voice and charismatic smile, Johnathan Lee Iverson is hard not to notice when he takes the floor. The flashy outfit and dazzling top hat don't hurt to grab your attention either.

The sequins come with the territory when you're the ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Iverson joined the circus in 1999 and became the youngest - and first African-American - ringmaster in Ringling's nearly 140-year history. He says becoming the "voice of the big top" at 22-years-old was a "happy accident."

Iverson grew up in Harlem and began his performing career with the Boys Choir of Harlem. He always knew he wanted to sing and trained professionally as an opera singer. While auditioning for various things, he caught the eye of a scout for Feld Entertainment, which produces the show. The circus was looking for a ringmaster who could sing - they found an opera singer who could lead.

"You begin the show, you're the voice, you set the tone," Iverson said. "The audience has submitted their imagination to (the circus) - that should be honored, respected."

Iverson said he can't imagine doing anything else. He took a brief hiatus to travel with other performing arts shows, but he said he couldn't resist coming back.

For Iverson, he said, it's the people that drew him back to the big top.

"People, relationships, are what matters," he said. "With each other, with the audience; I couldn't leave that."

Iverson said his role as a leader isn't constricted to the circus ring - he frequently travels to organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to talk about bullying with children.

"You have to have a thick skin to be in the public eye," Iverson said.

He uses his experience to talk to children about having confidence and standing up to bullying. He said he encourages kids to "Be what you were built to be."

"Step out and be yourself," Iverson said. "Do what you're ordained to do by nature."

- Reach Amy Peiffer at apeiffer@yorkdispatch.com.

Send in the clowns

Ringling Bros. Clown College is giving clowning hopefuls in central Pa. the opportunity to audition to become part of the World Famous Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley.

Performing artists can showcase their physical comedy and slapstick humor for Feld Entertainment talent director David Kaiser between 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Giant Center in Hershey.

More than 4,000 people per year apply to join Clown Alley - of that number, approximately 14 are selected, according to a news release.

Ringling Bros. Presents Legends will play through Monday at the Giant Center. Showtimes and ticket information are available through the box office at (717) 534-3911 or www.giantcenter.com.