Backstage at the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, Tyler West applies black pencil underneath his blue eyes.
He’s wearing only a diaper and a pair of fuzzy blue slippers. In a moment, he’ll put on a curly brown wig and a crown of leaves, strap on a pair of angel wings and head out to perform as Cupid with a handlebar mustache.
West is used to being looked at.
Born with dwarfism, he is 4-foot-3 with a boisterous laugh. West started performing in high school, working after college in retail and food service to pay the bills. Now, at 27, he’s a full-time professional clown. He makes his living performing in circuses, cabarets, nightclubs, and hospitals — including performing for sick children at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on the Upper East Side.
“Being a little person — I thought I could hide from it in the beginning and just prove to everyone that I’m a funny person,” West said before the show. “And the more I’ve gotten into the work, the more I’ve realized I can’t hide from that. I have to make the joke first before someone else can make a joke of it, you know?”
Tonight, West and James Habacker — dressed as a centaur — are the emcees of the Slipper Room’s burlesque show. The moment West steps on stage, he’s rattling off double entendres and cracking jokes:
“I’m half the size but double the fun,” he says. “But for you sir,” — West points at a man in the audience — “I’m half the size but double the price.”
He likes to address the elephant in the room first, he says — state the obvious, “and then let’s just get to the funny bits.”
‘Captivates an Audience’
West grew up in Tucson, Arizona, the son of Larry and Roxann West, a dentist and dental office assistant. West has a half-brother and sister on his father’s side, both in their 50s, but grew up as an only child. He is the only person in his family with dwarfism.
West became captivated by clowning after his parents took him to see a touring production of the Cirque du Soleil show “Saltimbanco.”
“I just became obsessed with them,” he says. “I researched them as much as I could, practicing in the mirror, dressing up at home and stuff like that.”
In high school, West mostly hung out with the nerds and the theater kids, he says.
“I already knew I was an outcast,” he says. “So I just embraced it.”
West was one of 15 students accepted after auditioning for the acting program at the University of Arizona, where he performed in “The Tempest” and “The Merchant of Venice”— as Launcelot and Trinculo, the clowns.
He started networking as a teenager, introducing himself via email to Cirque du Soleil performers, asking what he should do to become a professional clown and if they would meet him for coffee. Some said no, but many said yes. By the time he was ready to move to New York, after graduating college and serving for nine months at a Tucson Applebee’s, West had a web of performers waiting to guide him.
In January 2019, he moved with a former classmate into a basement apartment in Astoria, where they paid rent in cash every month and lived underneath an apartment of three identical triplet girls. (“They were wild,” West says.)
In the second act of his Slipper Room performance, West changes into a top hat and glittery red bowtie and lip syncs to Nat King Cole’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
In another piece that he performs regularly, he dresses in a sperm costume and recreates the conception process on a human-sized scale until he emerges, naked, as a baby through a giant handmade vagina.
“He really does captivate an audience, and he’s got it,” says Julie Atlas Muz, a performance and burlesque artist whom West considers a surrogate mother. “I think that he has it, the unquantifiable it. Whatever it is, he’s got it.”
Muz, a performer since the early 2000s, met West backstage at The Box, a burlesque club on Chrystie Street, in 2019, when she brushed out his tangled wig.
“Then the next thing I see is it’s on the floor, and then I chew him out,” says Muz. “And ever since, we’ve been friends.”
In December 2022, West starred in “Dick Rivington & the Cat,” a musical comedy directed by Muz and her husband, actor Mat Fraser. He appeared as Tommy the Cat.
“West is tireless as Tommy—watch him chase a plastic bag—and manages to always be in the moment, reacting to whatever everybody around him is doing without coming across as obnoxious,” wrote Elisabeth Vincentelli in her New York Times review.
‘Just Want to Live My Life’
After two hours onstage, it’s midnight, and West, in a black sweatshirt and jeans, rides the M train home to the Bushwick apartment he shares with a friend. He leans back against the seat, looking nowhere in particular, but people’s glances linger on him for a moment too long.
West says he’s often photographed on the subway or walking down the street. People on FaceTime calls will turn their phones towards him to show their friends. Sometimes he’ll make a face, look directly at the camera and ask, “Did you get it?”
After the show, when other performers take off their makeup and costumes and return to anonymity, West is still himself.
“There are times when I’m on stage giving you permission to laugh and look at me and gawk at me,” he says. “But there are other times that I just want to live my life and not be seen.”
West’s energy falls a bit. He’s had a long day and he has to wake up early in the morning to perform as a hospital clown for children through a program called Healthy Humor at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on the Upper East Side.
“It didn’t really hit me until recently. I was just like, ‘Oh wow, this really is a big part of this world’ —that we’re always the butt of the joke in the sense of, you know, someone gets sawed in half and then the guy comes through and it’s a little person that comes out as the bottom part of the body or whatever,” says West.
He recalls a time a few months ago when a group of middle schoolers threw a football at him on his way to the laundromat. As the ball hit him, they laughed.
“But there’s power in being onstage,” he says. “You have that power. This is me, this is who I am. Look at me.”