Bianca Betancourt, founder and editor-in-chief of CIRCUS Magazine, sits in the magazine’s 18th Street storefront. A neon CIRCUS logo casts her curls in electric blue light while Cherokee, her eight-year-old German Shepherd, greets passersby with howls.
CIRCUS, which aims to cover “the trending and the undiscovered,” is based in Pilsen but has a large readership on the West Coast, in London, and in Central and South America. Betancourt is hard at work on CIRCUS’s second print issue, aims for a fall release, and hopes to “keep creating and being able to tell more stories.” In the meantime, she tells us her own.
I’ve been doing CIRCUS now for four years. I started it when I was nineteen, when I was still at Columbia College. I’ve always loved magazines; when I was growing up I’d always get a stack full of subscriptions in the mailbox. But as I grew older through college, as I became a little more educated, a little more aware of how publications and media are made, I got really frustrated because when I was spending a lot of money on the really gorgeous cover of a magazine, the content would be really lackluster or it would be all ads.
I was in the midst of figuring out my voice as a writer and was surrounded by a lot of creative people and artists, so I was like, “How can I bring these people together to make something new?”
There’s a lot of websites and publications that cater to the creative and say they’re featuring up-and-coming artists. But I feel like CIRCUS goes beyond who’s cool and what they’re doing. We really want to figure out their story, what inspires them to create and why they keep creating and the hardships they have while creating. I always want to make sure the profiles we do, no matter how big or how small the person is, are relatable to our readers.
How did you get the idea to open a CIRCUS space?
I was in a spot a year ago where I was really ready to move, was very ready to leave Chicago. I tried to get jobs postgrad. Everything was like, “Oh, you don’t live in New York, we can’t hire you.” Or jobs here, I would get an interview and I’d never hear back. It was so immensely frustrating, and I was just like, “What I can I do to make myself happy?” And then one of my best friends came to me and she was like, “You shouldn’t move, you should just push through with the magazine a little more and I think you’ll reap the rewards.” I really thought about what would make me happy, and the idea of the studio came about.
It was a really frustrating process. I tried to get a business loan from two different entities in Chicago and they were stringing me along for months saying my idea was great, my business plan was great, but when it came time to ask for money, they were like, “Oh, this seems really risky.” I was really grateful that I had a friend who had an inheritance come through and was willing to help me out, so I had a very small personal loan that basically paid for the security deposit for the space, which only left me with a little bit. People tell me all the time, “You built this space out of nothing,” but I really did, because I couldn’t get loans from anywhere. So because I made this happen, when we have events and have people coming in I’m just kind of shell-shocked that it worked, that somehow it happened.
[During the CIRCUS space opening event in June] we had music, people were checking out the clothes and the fashion presentation; we had some drinks going, and art on the walls. It was really nice to see people really interacting with the art, being interested, asking who the artists were, and what their story was. I feel like you don’t get that at a lot of art shows, you just have people coming in and chugging a PBR and being there because it’s cool to do. We’ll do events more sparingly if it means we’ll have them curated better, so they don’t become that. I want people to be interested, to be able to reach out to the artist and talk to the artist, to be curious about their story.
I’ve consistently had the artists that I’ve put in the studio or in past events we’ve had always tell me that the shows we do are the best shows they’ve ever been in—I think because of that interaction. Art showcases and gallery shows are more than just slapping an artist on the wall. What story are you trying to tell? What is your intent with these images? Why these people?
You describe yourself as a “writer but woman first.”
I feel like women writers and women journalists are always told that in order to be taken seriously we need to put our emotions to the side, to put our feelings to the side, basically to write like a man or think like a man. My pieces that have had the biggest responses from people have been personal pieces or been stories that had a personal touch to them. If people just want to read a hard news story, that’s what the newspaper is for.
It’s really important for me to be authentic as a writer, which is why even though I have a journalism background and am a trained journalist, I kind of step away from calling myself a journalist now. I feel like the era of being a writer but not stating your opinion is slowly dying because in this day and age, in the Trump administration, all we have is our beliefs and our opinions.
What stories are you most proud of?
One was called “To My Future Daughter” and I literally wrote it at two in the morning crying over my high school boyfriend, who was a terrible person. I was just crying and I was recalling a conversation I’d had with my mother time and time again when I would come home crying because of something he said or did. She told me very simply that young girls deserve to be happy.
That just really stuck with me. I never really talked about my personal life with my parents—it’s just how we are—but when I was in college by myself in a new city far away from my family I remembered my mother saying that to me, and so I wrote a piece about that. I published it at two in the morning, not expecting anyone to read it, and woke up the next day to dozens and dozens of comments, [to] messages of people I knew and people who didn’t even like me being like, I needed to read this, I’ve experienced this, thank you for being honest. I think that’s a common comment I always get from people, thank you for being honest.
So there was that one, and there was also one called “Another Hair Think Piece” that I did, talking about when I moved to Chicago, and between having internships and school and balancing my life, I was so tired of straightening my hair every single day, so I just started to go natural. [And I was] dealing with feeling insecure about that and trying to become this new person—my mother very much wanted me and my siblings to assimilate to American culture as much as we could growing up. I wrote about being with my new boyfriend at the time, and how when he saw me for the first time with my curly hair, he just smiled and said that it looked like who I was meant to be.
How is CIRCUS responding to the current political climate?
I feel like having alternative media in this time is so important, and it’s so important to reflect what youth are thinking and what millennials are thinking because we are the ones inheriting this mess of a world. Even when you look at mainstream companies, it’s every day we find out that some rich social media head is in correlation with Donald Trump. It makes your stomach sick. God, it’s so nice to have these other platforms where you can be free to criticize and you can just be who you are, and you’re not going to be scrutinized for it. I feel like CIRCUS just existing in and of itself is kind of our form of rebellion against this administration.
What is CIRCUS’s relationship to the Pilsen neighborhood?
The clothes I sell here, because they’re all handmade and because they’re all made by very young, independent artists, they’re a little more expensive than other things you’d find in the neighborhood solely because they’re not mass-produced. If someone were to come to me and say, “Your clothes are too expensive,” or “What are you trying to promote for the neighborhood?” honestly all I can say is that one hundred percent of the artists in here are women, queer, or people of color, and all of the price points are what the artists decided themselves. Everyone’s welcome here just to hang out, just to talk, you don’t need to come in and buy something, that’s not the point of the space.
I feel like there’s a big divide: we need to find the balance between financially bettering the neighborhood and keeping in mind who’s been here for decades. How do we find that balance, how do we make it a better neighborhood for everyone?
What’s the story behind the “hype ain’t shit” mural?
It’s funny because I was arguing with a friend who was helping me open the space and he was like, “Why are you going to put that on your wall front-and-center? Hype is everything.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not.” It’s so easy to build a brand these days, you just need a logo, you need some Instagram content, you need some followers, then you have a brand, quote-unquote. As a writer and a media maker I can see right through it all, because I know if you’re not a storyteller, I know if you’re not a writer, I know if your heart isn’t into what you’re doing.
I feel like everyone just wants their fifteen minutes right now, so they decide to make a magazine or decide to make a brand or to make some T-shirts. It’s so easy to gain hype, but then what comes after it? My brand advisor Javier Suárez directed me to this really cool muralist who does a lot of text-based art, and I was like, screw it, let’s see what this looks like. We’ll eventually switch this out, probably in a few months, but for now I think it’s the perfect statement.
What do you hope for CIRCUS’s future?
The next issue is heavily featuring women in music. So I would love to do some sort of celebration of that issue, a big show filled with the people that we feature, the singers, the DJs, the producers, everything. I feel like it would get an amazing crowd, I feel like it would be super successful; it’s just the matter of having the right venue and resources.
If we were to get bigger, I would want to stay in Chicago just because it’s what inspired us in the first place, it continues to inspire us, and there’s no other, in my opinion, publication that’s featuring these young creatives in an authentic light. The magazines in Chicago are a little antiquated and bought out by big companies, or all about ads, or [really] thin. It’s really nice to keep this happening and be a voice for voices that are unheard.
Did you like this article? Support local journalism by donating to South Side Weekly today.