Not Their First Rodeo
Meet some of the colourful characters that make Queensland’s Mount Isa Rodeo such an entertaining and thrilling spectacle.
TrueBlue - April/May 2018
Words by: Riley Palmer | Photography: Ant Ong
Cliff ‘Hollywood’ Harris feels at home under the spotlight: he has a flair for showmanship and delights in making people laugh. A rodeo clown for more than 30 years, Cliff is still as passionate and excited about clowning as the day he first encountered it — a day that stands out distinctly in his mind. “When I was four years old, my dad took me to the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo,” he recalls. “He was in the cattle business and he managed a feedlot, and the guys that worked for him were clowns and bull riders. So we went to the rodeo to watch them clown, and then when it was over and everyone was exiting, Dan — one of Dad’s workers — got on his bull. But he still had his clown face on, and I remember it clear as day. He had one of his hands in the air, and I looked at my dad and said, ‘Dad, is Dan waving at me?’ and he said, ‘I think he is, kid.’ And I’ve loved the rodeo ever since.”
“I looked at my dad and said, ‘Dad, is Dan waving at me?’ and he said, ‘I think he is, kid.’ And I’ve loved the rodeo ever since.”
— Cliff ‘Hollywood’ Harris
Even through his thick American accent, you can hear the smile crinkling the edges of Cliff’s mouth as he tells this story. It’s rare that any of us pursue our childhood pipedreams, but Cliff is one of the few who has. “I am very, very, blessed,” he acknowledges. “I will never be rich, but I’m wealthy in many other ways.”
One of the opportunities Cliff’s job affords him is the chance to travel, and just last year he made his first appearance at Queensland’s Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo. “It was a real lot of fun,” he says, reflecting on his short stint. “And I tell you, the people were so, so nice.” It goes without saying that the rodeo-goers loved Cliff, too, as he entertained them and made them laugh throughout the weekend.
However, Cliff wasn’t seen performing any of the athlete protection duties that used to fall under his jurisdiction as a rodeo clown when he first began in the industry. “I do miss doing that,” he says. “I miss that sensation of being able to slide in when you want and just manipulate the bull.” He pauses briefly before adding: “I don’t miss getting run over, though.”
In 2009, Cliff suffered a career-worst injury, when a bull hooked onto his clown pants and thrashed around while he hung upside down for 50 seconds. “It snapped my leg and dislocated both my shoulders,” he says. “It wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure.” Asked how he found the courage to go back to work, he says: “Getting back in the arena was really no big deal, but coming back from the injury was hard. It took a good two and a half years and two surgeries — I had to have my ankle fused, so I don’t have use of the joint in my left ankle.” I can’t help but think the use of his left ankle might be helpful in the event that he ever has to run from a bull. Confirming my suspicions, he says: “It’s pretty tough to run. In my mind, I’m still really fast. But when I try to run I’m not fast at all anymore.”
“It snapped my leg and dislocated both my shoulders. It wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure.”
— Cliff ‘Hollywood’ Harris
Despite the risks that come with his chosen career, Cliff wouldn’t change a thing. And his proclivity for clowning clearly runs in the family; his son Brinson James is already being heralded as one of America’s most promising rodeo clowns. Now in his 20s, Brinson made his first rodeo appearance at the tender age of two, and has had the crowds in the palm of his hand ever since.
Working as a father-son duo at a rodeo in Quebec, Canada, earlier this year, Cliff had a bit of a revelation: “We were in the arena together — I have the old-school clown look and he has the new-age clown look — and I realised I can’t even keep up with him anymore,” he beams. “I actually had to get out of his way and say, ‘This is your crowd, buddy, you take ’em and run.’ I’m so proud of him.” The genuine delight in his voice is heartwarming, but ever the funny man, Cliff quickly adds: “He has more energy than me, but he’s not quite as funny as I am.”
Cliff will once again be entertaining the boisterous crowds at this year’s 60th anniversary of the Mount Isa Rodeo. Disappointed he “never even saw a kangaroo” last year, he’s looking forward to staying in town a little bit longer, to take in the sights and learn more about the Australian Outback and the people who call it home.
The 2018 Mount Isa Rodeo is taking place 9–12 August.
Champion cowgirl Jo Caldwell is a veteran on the rodeo circuit. She’s won her favourite event, barrel racing, five times at the Mount Isa Rodeo, and is hoping to win her sixth title at this year’s event. True Blue spends five minutes with Jo and learns what it takes to compete at such an elite level.
How do you prepare for an event like the Mount Isa Rodeo?
The main priority is to have my horses fit. I exercise them every day, and make sure they’re feeling good by giving them HYGAIN feed and supplements. I try to stay in shape, too, but I’ve got two little kids, so I definitely don’t as much as I used to.
What kind of a relationship do you have with your competitors?
It’s pretty much the same people at all the rodeos, so even though we’re competitive, we’re all pretty close friends. It’s such a good family environment; we camp during the week between rodeos, and all the kids get to play together — it’s a little community.
Do you remember learning to ride?
My dad bred horses, so I remember he’d go and muster them and we’d sit up on them. That was when I was only one or two years old — I’ve been riding from a young age. We’d always have a pony in the backyard, and my brother and sister and I would get on the horse bareback and ride around the yard. Mum would always laugh; she says she’d look out the window and one minute there’d be three on, and the next there’d be one, then none.
Do you have a favourite horse?
Country Roc is my main horse — he’s the one that’s won Mount Isa five times — and he’s definitely my favourite. He’s really one of a kind — not the kind of horse I’d take on a gentle, pleasurable ride, but he loves his job as a barrel-racing horse. He’s 22 now and he’s a fast, strong horse. He’s got a heart of gold, so hopefully we’ll get one more year out of him at Mount Isa and then he’ll probably be ready to retire.
Will you be teach your children what it takes to be a barrel rider?
They’re riding already. Georgia’s just turned three and she’s riding my old barrel-racing horse. She’s still on the lead, but she rides with me and I lead her off another horse. Georgia’s had some barrel-racing runs already, with me riding around in front of her — she absolutely loves it.