Imagine the terror of performing in front of a gaggle of six-year-olds, queasy on birthday cake and hyper from high jinks. Not a pleasant prospect is it? But such a scenario holds no fear for Nicola Cunnigham, who has been keeping children entertained at parties and events for six years as her alter-ego FizzWizzPop.
The 28-year-old from Belfast is much in demand across Northern Ireland for her imaginative show which is jam-packed with magic, fun and frolics.
A passion for entertaining is at Nicola’s very essence and from an early age it was clear she would not follow a conventional career path. A dull desk job definitely wasn’t on this colourful character’s radar.
‘‘I was very artistic as a child. I used to love Art Attack on television. My mum and dad came home one day and the kitchen was covered in paint because I was practising the flicking method. They knew I was destined for weird things,’’ she laughs.
‘‘And I was dead accident prone as a kid as well. I was constantly breaking collar bones, arms. They did have their hands full with me.’’
She traces her love of magic back to Sooty, side-kick of Sweep, the mischievous yellow bear with a penchant for magic tricks and water pistols.
‘‘I used to remember sitting on a Saturday morning watching Sooty, head glued to the television screen - I absolutely loved it.
‘‘ I saw one of my first ever proper magic tricks on the show and that was probably always in the back of my head I suppose.’’
Before FizzWizzPop burst onto the children’s entertainment scene six years ago, Nicola did a HND in drama at Belfast Metropolitan College.
Whilst studying she secured work experience with Belfast-based theatre company Cahoots NI, which specialises in children’s theatre, and it was during this time she had a sort of epiphany about her future career.
She says: ‘‘It was through working with that theatre company that I realised actually this is what I really want to do.’’
And the work experience also resulted in another happy outcome.
‘‘I met a magician there called Caolan McBride, who is currently my boyfriend, he has taught me everything that he knows in magic as well.’’
Indeed it was Caolan who spotted Nicola’s natural aptitude for all things hocus pocus.
‘‘He knew right away that I was into magic, because he showed me a few flourishes with a deck of cards and I was able to do it right away. It had taken him months to learn how to do it.’’ she laughs.
But after Nicola finished her degree she says ‘‘there was literally no acting work whatsoever’’.
‘‘I found it very difficult, but I thought I’m not just going to sit around and do nothing about this.
‘‘So I decided I was going to come up with my own magic show for kids. I taught myself balloon modelling in my bedroom for a month, and I taught myself how to face paint, I was very lucky to work with another girl called Christina Nelson, she got me working in the Beat Initiative in Belfast, so I got to do a lot of carnivals with kids.’’
She adds: ‘‘Basically I took it from there and came up with the company name FizzWizzPop in my bedroom while I was blowing up one of my balloons and little did I know that six years down the line it’s now a company and I am doing what I still love.’’
Today FizzWizzPop is a vision in yellow wellies, pony tails and glitter, all bright colours and big smiles.
‘‘When I started I decided I wanted to make FizzWizzPop unique.
‘‘I wear a red jacket, big puffy skirt and the wellie boots. It takes me anything up to an hour to get ready. It’s more about the make-up and the hair.
‘‘Over the years I’ve tried various hairstyles, but actually the one that’s stuck with the kids and myself, is backcombed hair in two big massive ponytails. That’s my look.’’
And in terms of make-up, ‘‘glitter everything up’’ is her mantra.
‘‘Glitter your hair and face, kids love it!.’’
So, with outfit and sparkles on FizzWizzPop is ready to perform.
‘‘My show is very interactive - it gets all the kids involved, they’re constantly coming up and down throughout the show - it is just very visual and magical for the kids and very funny.
‘‘A lot of kids come up to me after the show and say ‘you’re very funny’ so they really do it. My motto is really all about the kids having fun.’’
But as any parent will admit it is often difficult to capture the attention of one child, let alone a roomful, so is it difficult to maintain their interest?
‘‘They are your harshest critic,’’ concedes Nicola.
And she admits there has been the occasional kiddy heckler.
‘‘You would get the odd kid maybe shouting out something during the show. But what’s amazing is that you get very good at dealing with things so that your show always goes to plan.
‘‘One thing being a children’s entertainer has taught me is that you have to very generous - it’s all about giving your time and being patient with kids.
‘‘There may be shy kids, there may be kids with loads of energy, but it’s your job as a children’s entertainer to really bring out the best that you can with your show for those kids at that particular time.’’