For the JC August 29 2019
I’m in a members’ club in Soho and the staff are behaving in a way I have rarely seen in such spaces, running up and downstairs, cooing and making happy little faces.
The object of this behaviour is not an animal or a pretty baby, but a petite woman gorgeously attired in a 1950s-style summer sundress. This is Miss Ballooniverse, in real life Natalie Haverstock, who is a balloon artist and has brought several of her imaginative creations to show me.
Here is Elsa from Frozen, her long hair consisting of two white balloons twisted gently at the back. Here is a monkey, whose image may or may not be suitable for a family newspaper. Here, inevitably, is a unicorn. But here also are two giant balloon rings for the hand, one of which has a centrepiece which lights up and which is immediately pounced on by one of the club staff.
Their enthusiasm is genuine and unforced; all the world, it seems, melts in the face of balloons, and there is nothing, says Haverstock, which cannot be made out of coloured latex, twisted and tied and titivated.
To prove it, she shows me a picture of her in a truly incredible dress, made by a balloon artist friend. It consists of scores of white balloons, plaited intricately together, with a clear panel of balloons down one side, and what at first sight looks like a metallic gold and silver sculpture at the side of the dress — but which proves to be uninflated balloons with wire inside, individually painted with glitter and then cunningly woven into an abstract design.
As with so many success stories, there is a happy accident on the way to the top. Haverstock was born in Kilburn and her father was a violinist, Adam Haverstock, who appeared in one of the wedding scenes in the film of Fiddler on the Roof. “I think that makes me Jewish royalty, don’t you?” she smiles.
Haverstock herself, who has an extensive family in Israel, attended Hebrew classes as a child but says her upbringing was “very non-observant — though my dad played at a lot of Jewish weddings”.
After school, aged 18, Haverstock set up a business offering a “one-stop shop” of brochures for the London rag trade, where she would provide the models, the photographer and the printing. It was very successful, she says, but it was her decision to take an evening class in something different which changed her life.
“I took a drama evening workshop — and I had a really inspiring teacher. There were people there from all walks of life and the teacher asked if anyone was doing the class because they were applying for drama school. A few people put their hands up, and I thought, wow!”
Some weeks later the teacher and Haverstock were walking down the corridor and the teacher said, “You’re one of those applying for drama school, aren’t you?”
She wasn’t — but she did. A year later she was at the Rose Bruford Drama School, training to be a professional actress, and ditching her eight-year-old business.
Haverstock and acting were an instant good fit. Already blessed with a cheeky cackle, dark good looks, and an instinctive gift for comedy, she took classes in improv which have since stood her in good stead in her life as a balloon artist.
She performed at the Just For Laughs Festival three times, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, produced plays, directed, appeared in commercials, and had a number of small TV roles. She calls herself a “jobbing actress” — but that was about to change.
“I always did crazy jobs on the side just to pay the bills. Balloons was just meant to be one of them.”
About 11 years ago, during London previews for an Edinburgh play which she was producing, Haverstock met another Jewish actress, Becky, who announced that she had just bought a balloon agency. This meant she was someone who would be approached by organisers of, for example, a black-tie dinner, who were seeking entertainment for the guests. It might be someone who was doing close-up magic — or it might be someone who could do extraordinary things with balloons.
“She had a stable of people but she said she was looking for new talent, and she thought, that with my background in comedy and improv, that I would be good at balloon art”. This is because much of Haverstock’s remarkable act is interactive patter with her audience, as she inflates and twists the balloons — and they wait, open-mouthed, to see what she is making.
Haverstock’s immediate response to Becky was positive. “I loved the sound of it. I didn’t know if I could do it, but, you know, getting paid to go to parties? Why not?”
Round her neck she wears a giant pink poodle, the traditional symbol of the first thing almost all balloon artists are taught to make. “It is the classic balloon dog. It does give you joy when you make one, and you immediately want to make another one”. But, actually, it is not something Haverstock or other international balloon artists make in public, “because it is too easy. If I am at a party and I am asked to make a dog, I ask for the breed, and then I make a chihuahua, or a bulldog, for example”.
It turned out that Haverstock and balloons went together extremely well, though she was very nervous to begin with. The turning point came when she was asked to do a corporate event and was taught, by Becky, to make six definite balloon sculptures to carry her through the evening. This was a hit: and so Haverstock began to learn as much as she could about balloon art, travelling to international balloon conventions and, in particular, becoming a disciple of the over-the-top balloon milliner Monsieur Sigrid, who taught Haverstock to make astonishing hats of crazy proportions.
So, now billing herself as “Miss Ballooniverse”, Natalie Haverstock has a team of 14 people, including one zoot-suited man, who go out and entertain the masses with their incredible balloon creations. It’s decidedly not just children’s parties, since the wonder and joy of balloon art is thoroughly appreciated by adults, too.
These days she has a balloon kit in which she carries every conceivable size, shape, and colour of balloon, together with a hand pump or an electric pump for rapid inflation. “Mouth inflation”, she says, “is somewhat frowned on these days.” That’s for health and safety reasons, though she then cracks: “it ruins your lipstick!”
Amazingly, the balloons used are the kind you can buy in any party shop. But balloon art has led Haverstock to some challenging situations.
Besides all her commercial work, she does a great deal of balloon work in hospitals — including some in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israel has a long tradition of clown art as therapy for very sick children, and Haverstock has volunteered to take her balloon work to hospitals there and in the UK.
Sometimes she will gown up and go and sit by the side of a child’s bed, talking and joking and making something pretty or amusing out of balloons. Even sick teenagers, the ones who are “too cool for school”, will, at first grudgingly and then with real pleasure, succumb to the cheerful power of Haverstock and a few deftly arranged pieces of coloured latex.
She reckons that she has about 300 different designs which she holds in her head. “It’s like a form of engineering, really. I adapt.” If, for example, she makes a lion such as Simba — she works a lot with Disney films to render their cartoon characters as balloon promotions — it’s not that hard for her to turn him into a tiger, if required.
But Haverstock’s real passion is now balloon costumes, which she says have the “ooh factor”. You can sit down in her spectacular balloon dresses, or dance the night away in a towering abstract hat sculpture, often attached to a headband for extra versatility. She says her ambition is to create a balloon dress for Lady Gaga or even Dolly Parton, both of whom, I feel sure, would wear a Miss Ballooniverse creation with panache and style.
“As soon as you’ve made them, they start to shrink. If you wore a dress and then took it off, you wouldn’t be able to wear it the next day.” Ah, but the sheer evanescence and mayfly-life of a balloon is part of its delicate charm — and Miss Ballooniverse’s delicious ability to make, as it were, your eyes pop.
Natalie Haverstock’s life as Miss Ballooniverse is now a film made by David Cohen. Miss Ballooniverse is available on DVD (£8.99) or download (£5.99) from firstname.lastname@example.org