Josh Daries’ transformation begins on a sunday morning in a stifling trailer on the edge of the rodeo in Clovis, California.
Daries is 26 years old, slim, and has aquamarine eyes. He slips on a jockstrap and wraps bandages around his wrists. He then ties a body protector made of hard plastic onto his upper body and, with both arms fully outstretched, rotates it to check that it’s on properly.
This first part of his transformation is the normal part. For part two, Daries climbs into a pair of washed-out jean shorts. They are three sizes too big for him—XXL—and the ends are frayed. Then he fishes an orange batik-print shirt covered in dabs of russet pink watercolor paint out of his trunk and buttons it up over his body protector. All that’s needed now to finish the job is some makeup.
Daries draws purple circles under his eyes and onto his chin, which he then colors in using white finger paint. He takes a selfie with his iPhone to assess the results … perfect. The transformation is complete. Daries is a gladiator in a clown outfit. His working day starts an hour from now.
Daries, a former bullrider, is a now bullfighter and a bodyguard for rodeo cowboys. You may be tempted to call him a rodeo clown—don’t. The job has now split into two distinct divisions: The clowns are there to entertain the crowd; the bullfighters, although dressed similarly, are there to protect.
When a bull bucks its rider off, Daries offers himself up as a more enticing target, buying the cowboy enough time to get to safety. If things don’t go to plan, the rider could get caught up in the restraining straps binding him to the creature and end up being dragged through the dirt by a 2,000-pound bull. Alternately, he’s lying unconscious on the ground, in which case a second bullfighter has to distract the animal while Daries hurls himself at the cowboy to protect him, hoping that he doesn’t get trampled to death himself in the process.
Bullfighters are the heroes of the day, colorfully dressed men in huge pants risking their lives to save cowboys. The reason bullfighters still wear outlandish outfits today is a nod to their clown heritage, the era when it was standard for one guy to go into the ring to both goof for the crowd and, if required, save the day. “It’s part of our history,” says Daries as he clambers down out of his trailer in his painted shirt and white makeup.
Daries arrived in Clovis, a farming town at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a four-hour drive north of Los Angeles, two days earlier in his Dodge pickup truck. The town of 100,000 people is rodeo mad. Competitions have been held here for more than 100 years, and a cowboy adorns the official seal of the city.
With 20 minutes to go until the rodeo begins, Daries is standing by the side entrance to the arena and stretching his adductor muscles. “Quick legs are my life insurance,” he explains. Daries has to charge at the bull’s rear at an acute angle so that the huge animal will have to turn around before it can take up pursuit. Inches here make all the difference. “If it catches you with its hoof, it can knock you out or break your ribs,” Daries says. In 1989, rodeo rider Lane Frost died after a bull attacked. The broken ribs he suffered severed an artery. Daries has been lucky so far: two knee operations and various dislocated joints. Two years ago, a bull slammed its left horn into his chin. Daries was dazed and could barely stand—but he soldiered on.
Five minutes to go. Daries gets down on one knee and prays. “God, protect me, my colleagues, the rodeo riders and all the animals in the arena,” he says.
There are three bullfighters today. Daries’ colleagues are Tim O’Connor, wearing bright blue, and Eric Layton, in tulip pink. It is the finale of the rodeo: bull riding.
During the event, riders have to stay on the bucking animals for eight seconds with only one hand on the reins. The judges give scores based on how elegantly the riders ride and how wild the bull is. The Clovis Rodeo forms part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association series, and there’s $300,000 in prize money up for grabs this weekend.
On the rodeo ground, Daries and his colleagues have begun protecting the riders. Layton dashes around between snorting bulls. O’Connor drags cowboys out of the danger zone. For the riders, the danger is over in eight seconds. But for Daries there are another 19 riders to go. The sweat ruins his makeup.
A bull called Crystal Deal provides the most spectacular throw of the afternoon. It bucks and stomps hard on the ground. The cowboy holds on tight but it’s no use: He goes flying off the beast’s back after 4.2 seconds. His colorful bodyguards are on hand immediately. O’Connor gets the rider upright. The cowboy totters into the safety of the enclosure.
The rodeo winner goes on to receive a check for $5,696. But what about the bullfighters? “Not as much as it should be considering the risk,” says Daries—the average salary is reportedly $50,000 a year. Daries’ true reward is no one getting injured—and occasionally a cowboy buys him a beer.
Two hours after the rodeo, Daries is back at his Dodge, freshly showered and wearing a neatly pressed denim shirt. He has transformed himself back into the person he was before. What has three years of life-threatening work wearing clown costumes taught him?
“You can’t tell how brave a man is by what he’s wearing.”