Part entertainer, part wild man, meet the professional fan
Cameron Hughes gets paid by teams all over country to rile up the crowd
Hughes sings, dances, screams and does just about anything to bring crowd to life
At U.S. Open, John McEnroe said Hughes was more entertaining than the match
He's 40 years old and he makes a handsome living being less than handsome. He swabs his sallow, sagging face with poster paint, dresses in the clashing colors of the local tribe, screams like a victim in a B-grade horror movie and dances like an ecstatic in a voodoo ceremony. Singing? Yes, he does that, too. Sometimes even on key.
Redheaded and soft around the edges, he's not the sort of man you'd describe as telegenic. But there he is, all over the tube, sometimes getting as much face time as the athletes on the field or the floor below him. Like them, he is a professional. Otherwise, he's an original on a planet of seven billion: the only man or woman known to be paid to be a fan.
Although he has the energy and flair of an all-star, he was never much of an athlete. In high school in Canada he was 6-feet tall, yet he got cut from the basketball team four straight years. Since then he's found a way to stand out from the crowd while standing in it. Who would have thought there was a six-figure income in this?
He's cheered for teams from the minor to the mighty: the Guelph (Ont.) Storm, Missouri Mavericks and Bakersfield (Calif.) Condors of minor league hockey; the Coyotes and Devils of the NHL; the Thunder, Cavaliers and Knicks of the NBA; the Dodgers and Blue Jays of Major League Baseball; and both sides in the gold-medal hockey game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. To date he's been paid to attend 1,010 games in 36 states, five Canadian provinces and four countries. More than 10 million fans have seen his work.
As a result a certain glamour and notoriety have come his way: travel, free gear, the affection of fans who love the games as much as he does. Last year he got a trip to Barbados to see if he could get a cricket crowd pumped up after tea. The game was deadlocked, the crowd was dreadlocked, and within minutes he'd won everyone over. Fans rushed to stand within throwing distance of him as he ripped off each of the sweat-soaked team T-shirts he was wearing. They clapped and cheered and jockeyed for position like single bridesmaids at a bouquet toss.
He's not a mascot, a species he regards with scorn. The Canucks' Green Men are covered from head to toe in Spandex. He doesn't need such a gimmick. Plus, his physique is more George Costanza than George Clooney.
He is Cameron Hughes, and this is the story of his accidental career.
Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York City: The thought of the U.S. Tennis Association hiring a professional fan to pump up the crowd seems counterintuitive. Is there any other sport in which the public address system loops, "Quiet, please"? But here is Hughes at the U.S. Open on Sept. 3, 2011, for a third-round match between Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the world's Number 1 player at the time, and Russia's Nikolay Davydenko.
Hughes finds an empty seat in the upper mezzanine and sits as if he were a regular spectator. He's wearing a peach-colored button-down shirt, blue jeans and a pair of flashy sneakers. Underneath that button-down are 10 I love NY and U.S. Open T-shirts layered one over the other. Clark Kent ran into a phone booth to become Superman. Cameron Hughes goes to Row 7, Seat 3 to tear open his shirt and become Superfan.
As Djokovic rests in his courtside chair on a changeover, wiping the sweat off his face, a sudden roar from the crowd makes him look up. He watches Hughes jump down five rows of steps, grab an attractive female spectator by her hands and do an odd version of the Irish jig. Call it what Hughes calls it: Good bad dancing. "You have no idea how hard it is to dance badly well," he says, "especially on concrete stairs."
Still, it's hard to believe that much focus is required: Hughes' moves can best be described as flailing hysterics, with more spasms that you see in a chiropractor's office. The jig devolves into a PG-rated striptease as he takes off T-shirt after T-shirt and tosses it to the increasingly animated spectators. The Open has alerted the stadium cameramen, and Hughes is on the JumboTron.
"I thought, It's amazing for someone to have such a good time, such positive energy," Djokovic said of Hughes after the match. "I think it's a great privilege to make your living from something you love. This is what Cameron and I have alike."
When the TV broadcast of the match resumes, CBS commentator John McEnroe says, "The changeover is more entertaining than the match." Then he directs a plea at Hughes: "Just don't take off that last shirt."
Ottawa Civic Centre: It all began on Jan. 8, 1994. It was a cold day in the Canadian capital, a city with a hockey passion as rich as its poutine gravy. Hughes, a native of Ottawa, had just been kicked out of college because of dismal grades, leaving him plenty of time to keep up with the national pastime. His beloved Senators were losing to the Winnipeg Jets, and despite the Civic Centre's notoriously hard seats, the crowd was sleeping soundly. Hughes got angry, and he decided to show he wouldn't stand for it. By standing up. And dancing. Wildly. He pointed his index fingers at all those guilty of cheerlessness. He jumped onto his seat and hollered at the home fans to get their heads out of their Labatts and into the game. He was only a regular guy in blue jeans and a denim shirt who looked like he'd just come from tapping a few maple trees, yet he was acting like a maniac. As he continued to jump, yell and gesticulate, the arena awoke to the performance, which was certainly more entertaining than the action down on the frozen floor.
"Everyone was thinking I was the crazy guy at the wedding and wondering, Is that funny or ridiculous?" Hughes remembers. "By the end they thought, That's funny. They were clapping and cheering and totally into it."
The buzz from the crowd echoed all the way up to the owner's box, where Senators front-office types couldn't help but notice. Then, Hughes says, "a team representative came up to me, asked me who I was and said they wanted to talk."
Hughes thought he already had the dream job for a Canadian. He was making $6 an hour cleaning an ice rink. "The next day," he remembers, "I went to my job at this little rink, picked up the newspaper, and I was on the front page of the Ottawa Sun sports section as the highlight of the night: dancing redheaded bandit steals the show at senators game. "So I said, This is what I want to do."
He took this opportunity and, well, danced with it. "I met with the Senators the next week," he recalls. "The first year they gave me free tickets and jerseys and signed merchandise. And the next year they paid me. Two hundred fifty dollars for my first game. I did 15 games that year."
Word began to travel through the NHL, and so did Hughes. The Toronto Maple Leafs wanted him on board. Weeks later word crossed the U.S. border, cleared customs and made its way to the Washington Capitals, who hired Hughes immediately. Then came his foray into the basketball arena, with the Washington Bullets.
Hughes had found a unique niche. For many of us, the ultimate dream is to get paid to play the games we love. The next best thing must be getting paid to watch sporting events. At work Hughes is not confined to a drab cubicle, sitting in front of a computer screen under fluorescent lights, like many of his contemporaries. His chair has a number (and sometimes a cup holder). Fluorescent lights? Try the bright lights. Confinement? He's paid to bust confines.
Arthur Ashe Stadium: It's 12:37 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2011. Thirty minutes ago Djokovic was picked up by a polished black Lincoln Town Car and taken back to the plush comfort of The Four Seasons in Manhattan. The masses have made their way through the Ashe Stadium exits and up the ramp to the Number 7 subway platform.
Hughes is lugging his gym bag outside the stadium, now desolate except for a lone Town Car. He peers up at the empty subway platform. He looks back at the Town Car, whose windows are so tinted you'd think it was waiting for a foreign dignitary. Hughes steps toward the passenger door. Just then, the window lowers to its midpoint. Hughes bends down and asks, "How much?"
A lonely ride on the subway wasn't in the cards tonight. Not after that performance. It's only fitting that Hughes be chauffeured to his destination: the apartment of a friend in Brooklyn.