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?
VIDEO: Hughes in ActionVIDEO: Hughes and Novak Djovic dance-offPHOTO GALLERY: Hughes' memorable performances
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.
Like his job, the life of Cameron Hughes is anything but normal. It's a road trip that never ends. An iPhone tethers him to the rest of the world. On-the-job injuries such as sprained ligaments, a concussion and dehydration have hospitalized him without workman's compensation. His knees are shot, and his pretty good tenor voice now sounds like the back end of a '68 Dodge Dart. He reminds himself that he performs for the love of the game and the affection of the fans, and the money isn't bad either. But while the Knicks paid him a pile on Christmas Day 2010 to act up during a game against the Celtics, he would have preferred to be at home with his family -- if he had a home or a family.
He has neither a fixed residence nor a car. If the team that hires him doesn't cover his lodging, he finds a motel or a friend's couch. All of his possessions fit in a couple of oversized hockey bags.
When he was 17 he watched his mother lose a brutal two-year battle with breast cancer. "What do you do when you lose the closest person to you in the world?" he says. "You get up. You take what they taught you and you figure it out."
He went from one therapist's couch to the next and was in and out of his high school guidance counselor's office. By the next year he'd decided it was time to make a change, to try to fill the emptiness his mother's death had left. So he ran for senior class president. And won. But to him the position meant more than having veto power over the new chicken patty recipe in the school's cafeteria. It meant he'd gained the approval of his peers.
"My mother's message was about how to connect with people," Hughes says. "I care a lot about people. I want everyone to like me, because everyone liked my mom."
Prudential Center, Newark: The New York Liberty has hired Hughes to rile up its fans in a game against the Indiana Fever, the Liberty's last before the WNBA playoffs. It's Sept. 4, the night after the Djokovic match at the U.S. Open. A sparse crowd of some 6,000 is scattered throughout the Prudential Center, the home of the New Jersey Devils and Nets and, while Madison Square Garden is being renovated, the Liberty.
A Devils maintenance guy recognizes Hughes as he walks in. "Hey, you coming back this year?" the man asks. "We need you. It was like a funeral in the stands this year, bro."
The Liberty's senior dance team, the Timeless Torches, has occupied Hughes's dressing room, so he is left with a folding chair and a collapsible banquet table in a room where screaming children run circles around him. In prioritizing the night's talent, arena managers bumped Hughes in favor of the AARP-card-carrying hoofers. Fuming, he opens his gym bag, which is stuffed with multicolored Reebok Pumps. "I have about 20 different pairs," he says. "I try to coordinate with the team's colors." Like any sports professional, he's got a shoe contract with Reebok. Well, kind of. A company rep saw him years ago and put him on the freebee list.
Hughes wraps Ace bandages around his tender ankles. He puts on headphones, blasts music into his ears and sinks to the floor. He takes deep breaths and then starts shaking violently. It's Lamaze class meets P90-X. The breaths become louder, a cacophony of grunts, as he does pushups and sit-ups, shifts into a downward dog pose and then starts shaking and squirming on the floor like a man in epileptic shock. Sweat puts a shine on his face. Now he's in front of his vanity mirror, watching his reflection as he runs in place, his fists shooting into the air as he screams in time to the music. Soon he's out of breath, and the game hasn't even begun.
Finally Hughes slips out into the arena and moves incognito into position. In minutes he is on his feet, and, as he did the night before, he puts the crowd in his pocket. For the next couple hours he has kids keeled over in laughter. A 300-pound woman gets up and shakes her groove thing, and Hughes shakes his own while wearing a Liberty T-shirt tied tightly around his forehead: Carrot Top meets Rambo. Just as the game draws to a close, Hughes unties the improvised bandanna, ceremoniously wipes the sweat pouring off his face and tosses the shirt toward a middle-aged man accompanied by his wife and children. The drenched garment lands smack on the man's face. He and his family laugh for the next 15 minutes. Their night is complete.
As entertained as Hughes makes most crowds feel, not everyone has given him a standing ovation. At a Devils game last winter, a man upbraided him for wearing a Devils sweater not out of allegiance to the team but for the $2,000 Hughes is paid per game. If security hadn't rushed in to restrain the belligerent man, he and Hughes would have come to blows. More threats came from other Devils fans later in the form of obscenity-laced e-mails, some threatening Hughes' life.
"The diehard fans, after they realize I'm getting paid, get a little upset," says Hughes. "[But I'm like] Bono or Chris Martin touring; one night they're in Cleveland and next night they're in Boston, and they put on the Cavs jersey one night and the Bruins jersey the next. What's the difference between me and a board that says, make noise? At least I'm a human being.
"My allegiance is to the fans. The better I perform, the more likely the fans are to have fun, the more likely the team is to make money, the more likely they are to bring me back ... and the more likely I am to not have to get a normal job."
Canada Hockey Place, Vancouver: So the Liberty in Newark was not Hughes' career high point. No, it was 3.2 beer; the vintage champagne was the 2010 Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee lined up Canada's native son to perform at 25 hockey games, both men's and women's, including the men's gold medal showdown between the U.S. and Canada. Despite his nationality, Hughes was supposed to be impartial. He was to unleash his inner Switzerland.
"I was like an athlete," he recalls. "I had a nutritionist help devise a plan for me to be in top shape. We focused on snacks, breathing, water, exercise and sleeping. I was on a vitamin regimen. I didn't drink alcohol for two months. I was so focused. My goal was to make it to the gold-medal game no matter what happened. And I did."
Martin Brodeur, the goalie for Team Canada and the Devils, has become one of Hughes' biggest fans. In Vancouver during timeouts, Brodeur watched through the bars of his mask as Hughes sprinted up and down the arena stairs, pulling fans out of their seats to start synchronized clapping. Despite the diverse nationalities of the fans, Hughes proved that the language of cheering is universal. To Brodeur, Hughes' act was as infectious as it was endearing.
"That crazy guy has always brought a special smile to me and my kids' faces," Brodeur says. "He always adds to the atmosphere and the experience."
After the gold medal game all of Hughes's hard work was validated near the players' locker room. "I was out of breath, dead tired," he remembers. "Marty saw me keeled over on a bench and came up and told me I was one of the MVPs of the game. I'll never forget that night."