November 13, 2009

Q&A: Shaking a tail feather with the Phoenix mascot

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There are just a handful of people—on this campus or elsewhere—on whom a lanky, full-length bird costume could ever be becoming. Third-year Stephen Bonnett, to his great credit, is one of them. Since last fall, Bonnett has been the man behind the University's Phoenix mascot, boogieing along the sidelines at football and basketball games in a threadbare, maroon-and-white suit that you wouldn't figure to be a phoenix unless you asked (and many do). Blending physical comedy with hip-hop dance moves of his own invention, Bonnett delivers a performance that could do Young B or Foghorn Leghorn proud. This week, he talked to the Maroon about his big break, his artistic vision, going pro, and the guilt that can rack a mascot's soul.

Chicago Maroon: How did you break into—I don't even know what to call it. Is it "mascoteering"?

Stephen Bonnett: I knew someone in my house—and I'm a very expressive person, physically and otherwise—so on the hallway there was someone who was in the pep band, and she saw how energetic I was, and she expressed that the person in charge of the pep program was feeling around for a new mascot. That's probably the wrong terminology to use, but you know what I'm saying.

So she told me to e-mail the coordinator of the pep program, who also [coordinated] the mascot, and I did, and it turned out they were interested based on what [my hallmate] had told them. So they ran some dates for the football season by me, and I've been it for the past year and a quarter.

CM: Was there any sort of tryout? Did you have to give them a portfolio?

SB: I didn't. I wrote them an e-mail saying, "You've heard about me through this person, and I enjoy dancing and having fun and being energetic. And I can make these dates of the home football games."

CM: Do you practice? I've noticed you've got a really impressive rapport with the pep band. It seems like that couldn't just be spur-of-the-moment.

SB: I don't practice. I've come to expect certain things of their songs, and sometimes I'm close enough to hear the direction their director is giving them about when they're going to wrap it up. But I often am wrong, and I often will continue to do something one time after they've stopped. Or the cheerleaders will be leading a cheer and I'll be doing it along with them, and they'll stop and I'll do it one extra time, then figure it out.

I don't practice with either [the pep band or the cheerleaders]. I've intended to get to their respective practices to coordinate more. Now that the pep band is doing more actual dance stuff, as you may have been impressed by their "Thriller" on Halloween, then I may need to coordinate more with them ahead of time. As of now, I just kind of roll with it and move how it comes naturally.

CM: Do you get dance moves from someone else? From music videos or anything like that?

SB: No, I get them from my own crazy world. I've been the only person who dances the way I dance for the entire duration of the time that I've been dancing. You know the song "Chicken Noodle Soup"? "Let it rain, clear it out. Let it rain, clear it out"? It's an East Coast thing. Anyway, that song is about this person that dances so crazy that whenever they start dancing, everyone clears out of the space they're in, for fear of getting injured. I've been doing something that has that effect since high school, and at every high school dance I would be there early, getting things started and getting people moving.

I've just kind of taught myself and moved how I felt like moving.

CM: Wow, totally self-taught.

SB: There's even one move that people named after me. I don't really do moves that much in general, I just move, but there's one thing I can do that people have told me they haven't seen anyone else do, ever. It's like a jump-twist thing, except I land exactly how I started. It's a corkscrew thing that I can do. It wouldn't pick up on the recording [gestures towards voice recorder].

CM: If nobody taught you, do you have any inspirations?

SB: How loosely do you want me take that?

CM: I'd love to hear whatever you've got.

SB: Everyone who knows me even a little bit will be amused to hear that my inspiration is the one-and-only Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige. Because she's awesome. And actually, in my life, I was not always open and expressive and bubbly. In middle school and through ninth grade, I was kind of introverted and afraid of human beings and all that. University of Chicago students can relate.

Then in 10th grade, there were a whole lot of changes going on in my life, and I was opening up to a lot of things, and her breakthrough album was coming out at that exact moment—fall of my 10th grade. And so it was just a really meaningful album for me, that fit exactly what I was and who I was at that time. And so I've been her biggest fan ever since, and I'll often listen to her stuff to get energized, or to pick me up when I'm down.

Before games, I listen to "Shake Ya Tail Feather," by the one-and-only Nelly. That never fails.

CM: To get you hyped?

SB: Yes. Yes, it certainly does.

CM: You say it's sort of how you feel like moving that dictates what you do, but do you have anything new planned for the upcoming basketballs season?

SB: I don't. Every once in a while I think about learning new stuff, but when it's a commercial—not a commercial break—when it's a timeout and I only have about 30 seconds to do something, then I'm just going to act, instead of thinking. So I don't have new things officially planned. I am always on the lookout for things that aren't too inappropriate and look fun.

CM: Would you say there's been any artistic growth during your time as a mascot?

SB: I did think of one cool thing that I didn't start out doing. When I get there, and the game hasn't started yet and people are still filing in, I'll do this thing where I'll "stretch out." Which is a good thing to do, anyway. So I'll touch my big, enormous white shoes, and I'll stretch my wing, and all that kind of stuff. I've been told that it looks amusing. That's the only thing I've come up with that is really fun and that I think works, that I didn't start out [doing].

CM: I definitely noticed you doing that at football once, and I said to my friend, "Look at the Phoenix, he's stealing the show!" The stretching is great.

SB: One other thing that I've picked up, too. I can't ever see how I look, so I rely on other people telling me, "By the way, you look kind of like this." So my parents were here for Homecoming this year, and told me that I looked really tired every time I wasn't dancing. And then they and I figured out together that it was the fact that the head points itself downward most of the time. And when the Phoenix is looking downward, he looks kind of slumped over and tired. And so I'm working on that, trying to look up, even when I'm not, to counteract how the suit naturally looks.

CM: More about the suit. How hot is it in there?

SB: It's actually not bad. What's difficult is the breathing part, rather than the temperature part. Because in the football games outdoors, it's helpful and I'm never really uncomfortable outdoors. And at the basketball games, the gym is not really that warm, so it also is fine, temperature-wise.

The big thing is that the mouthpiece, which I see through as well as breath through, is not really at the right position for either one. So I'm breathing up and seeing down, and it's all kinds of fun stuff.

CM: And what about the smell?

SB: They have gotten better about washing it during my time. And that's been appreciated much by me.

CM: Do you know how often it's washed?

SB: I think now, they're trying to do it after every time I use it, which is really ideal. When I was first starting out, they were like, "Oh, we'll try to get to that." It was kind of difficult. The head they clean less often, and that can get sweaty, definitely. So that's difficult sometimes.

CM: What do people around campus say when they hear you're the mascot? Or is your identity known?

SB: I tell many people. I don't tell everyone I know, just because I don't know how people are going to take it. But people who get used to me, in general, as someone who has a lot of energy and is outgoing and full of pep and jazz hands and stuff, those people, once they are used to that, I will often tell.

Some people will be like, "Do we even have a mascot?" And others of them are like, "Wow, how'd you get that?" Because it isn't something that's advertised on “Campus Jobs.” Or it hasn't been.

CM: Do opposing fans ever give you grief?

SB: Oh yeah. Not too major a thing, but there will often be opposing fans, and they'll taunt me. Most often it will be, "What are you, anyway?" And they'll start throwing random bird names, they'll start squawking like a chicken. Sometimes they'll talk about eating me, frying me up. But I'm used to that by now.

CM: Is there any give-and-take there, or are you hands off?

SB: I can't speak in the suit, of course, so what I'll often do is I'll turn around and shake my tail feather at them. Or I will make hand motions that indicate that I'm not impressed. Wing motions, I should say. That's pretty much all I can do.

CM: Recently it was in the news that Goldy, the University of Minnesota mascot, got reprimanded for religious insensitivity. Do you have any directives from above about how to behave?

SB: I think the University of Chicago is full of intelligent people. And an even more outrageous statement on my part: I think the University of Chicago is full of people who use common sense, in general. So I haven't been given any, "Do this." Just out of basic common sense, if someone wants to take a picture with you, you take it. If someone is mocking, you kind of mock them back. If the opposing coach is being really amusing in some way, you imitate them to get a laugh. To me it seems pretty basic, what to do and how to go about it.

CM: I ask because it's not just Goldy—the Stanford Tree is in hot water from time to time, and our own Benny the Bull has had run-ins with the law. There was a misdemeanor battery charge at Taste of Chicago one year, there was a lawsuit where he tore a fan's bicep with an enthusiastic high five. You ever think, "Maybe this could get a little more wild and crazy"?

SB: Well, maybe I could, and then I would be arrested. I haven't really thought that I'm not wild and crazy enough. I guess there's a notorious brand to live up to.

CM: Is there any one really good story that stands out to you from your time as a mascot?

SB: Not particularly. There's a bunch of kind-of related stories. Most of the most fun times involve kids, because their sense of wonder at the world is pretty fresh and real still. And so often the best interactions are little kids who—during the basketball games they'll play the "Cha-Cha Slide" at halftime and I'll do it—and usually a few kids who I've high-fived in the first half will come out and try to do it with me, which is precious, or they'll hold onto my legs while I'm doing it, which is even more precious.

There are a few times when some of the kids get a real close bond with me over the course of the game, and every second that I'm anywhere nearby, they'll scream and wave, "Hi, bird!" Whenever a kid gets really into it, then that's one of the happy times, definitely.

CM: Is "U of C Phoenix Mascot" on your résumé?

SB: Yeah.

CM: Have you ever gotten a comment on that?

SB: There's a lot of things on my résumé; I'm a very active person. I was applying to be a tour guide last year and they were like, "Whoa, now." So it is often something that is impressive and definitely strikes people, and it's not something they'll see on most other résumés. But I haven't actually applied for many things in the past year.

CM: A lot of mascots have that padded, burly look, but the Phoenix is pretty lean. You ever think about some shoulder pads, bulking him up a little, make him a little more imposing?

SB: That is a good question. A lot of people will say, "You need some meat on you, Phoenix." That is something that I've definitely heard enough that I'm thinking about it. It's been a pretty constant struggle to get it repaired. If you remember last year, there were enormous tears through the seam of the legging, the tail was falling off, and the shoes were out of whack. I'm pretty happy with how it is now, compared to how it was at the beginning of last year, and the end of last year especially. That is something that, if there were a next thing on my wish list, it would be getting a little more bulk in the shoulder region.

CM: What about other aspirations? Are you going to keep doing this throughout your time here, and could you take it to the next level?

SB: Wow. I definitely do hope to keep it up throughout my time here. And I hadn't thought much about it as a career, in part because I don't know much actual dance. It's more the kind of spontaneous stuff that might fly in minor league baseball, but not much else. But I'm enjoying it so much, that I would definitely be interested and willing to do it for some minor league baseball sometime.

CM: I've wondered, does the Phoenix have a name?

SB: Yes. His name is Phil.

CM: Phil the Phoenix?

SB: Mmhmm. I've said to a few people, when I felt like being creative, he enjoys long walks on the faces of the opposition, and being engulfed in flames.

CM: And it's really "Phil the Phoenix," that's not just something you made up?

SB: No, that's not something I've made up. That's his nickname, but that's the only name he goes by.

CM: Any other stories to share? Surprising things about being a mascot that you didn't expect going in?

SB: Not that many. Every once in a while, I do something and I feel really bad about it, because in the costume, if I make a mistake—if I accidentally hit someone; or if I'm getting a drink of water after a really exhausting performance, and my head is off because I can't drink through the head, and then people are walking down the hallway, so I'll throw a wing up to cover my head, but it'll be too late and they'll get really freaked out—I feel bad about it, but I can't apologize, because I'm not there.

So that always makes me feel bad, because normally I do like to be nice and apologize when I do something wrong. So I feel bad when that happens.

There's one guy, and I'm ashamed that I don't know his name, but he's in one of the frats, but he's a really enthusiastic guy, he's at all the football and basketball games. He's an older guy, he also works at the Reg… He has so much energy and so much enthusiasm… I don't know who he is, but I know that I love him immensely, because whenever he's there, he shows me love, and whenever he's there, he definitely brings it for us.