Fifteen t-shirts and dancing shoes are not your standard work uniform, but they are dress-code for Cameron Hughes. While at a Senators game back in 1994, the Ottawa native inadvertently boogied his way into a career of t-shirt twirling and stair-strutting for audiences around the world.
His unlikely path to success as a professional “crowd ignitor” was recently documented in his memoir, King of Cheer: Stories of Showing up, Getting up and Never Giving Up from the World’s Most Electrifying Crowd Ignitor. Read more about Hughes’s recent book release in Apt613’s review.
In our interview, Hughes discusses his humble hometown roots, run-ins with notable Ottawa residents—including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Alanis Morissette, and Matthew Perry—and how he coped with pandemic-induced “cheer-pression.”
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Cameron Hughes grew up in Manor Park, a neighbourhood of Rockcliffe in Ottawa. “My parents were very social,” says Hughes from Victoria, B.C., where he currently calls home. “We lived in a friendly community which really helped me build relationships.”
He says he formed an early bond with classmate and future politician, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“When he’d come over for a playdate, the RCMP would do a sweep of our house… it didn’t faze any of us boys though. We were just kids being kids,” writes Hughes. “It’s cool to see someone that you used to chase around at recess now running the country. I’ve always cheered for his success.” Their friendship appears strong; it’s hard to imagine another person the Prime Minister feels comfortable (affectionately) calling “a crazy nut.”
Sporting events also played a pivotal role for young Hughes. He and his late father “established a tradition of going to [Ottawa Rough Riders] games… there was an energy there, something unseen, yet tangible,” writes Hughes. In King of Cheer, he recounts a formative moment when a rowdy fan caught his gaze: “I was mesmerized by how people were reacting to his antics… I could get the crowd going like that.”
Fast forward to Jan. 8, 1994, when all eyes were on Hughes during an Ottawa Senators home game.
“I was mesmerized by how people were reacting to his antics… I could get the crowd going like that.”
Hughes, then just another face in the crowd, grew increasingly frustrated by the underperforming Sens and uninspired fans. He could feel something brewing beneath his double-denim exterior: “I was angry. I wanted people to come alive,” says Hughes. “The team needed it, the fans wanted it.” What came next would become the catalyst to his 27-year career in cheer.
Without hesitation, Hughes leapt onto his seat and “started to dance like crazy,” the crowd immediately took notice. At the next whistle, he took his antics to the aisle, sending the audience into a frenzy. Pivotally, Hughes says, “I have this career not because I got up once, but because I took that second step.”
The commotion caught the attention of Sens team’s management. A team representative approached Hughes after the game asking him to return for a repeat performance. Hughes laughs, reflecting on that first encounter: “Come back and do what, exactly?”
Hughes received free tickets and signed merchandise that first season. The next year he was paid $250 per night. Once word of the “Dancing Guy” travelled through the NHL, so did Hughes. He quickly filled his dance card at major and minor league venues across North America.
To date, he’s performed at over 1,500 sporting events around the world including the Olympics, US Open Tennis Championships, NHL Stanley Cup Finals, and NBA Finals. He’s also transcended sports into motivational speaking engagements with schools and corporations as well as hosting gigs that include the Just For Laughs comedy festival and “Challenge for Change” with Katie Couric.
Once you’ve come full-circle like that, you’re good. Your soul is full.”
While Hughes turned his calling into a lucrative career (earning upwards of $2,000 per event), it was far from an overnight success. “It took years of struggling… trying to prove to everyone around me that my crazy dream was one worth believing in,” writes Hughes.
Reflecting on his 27-year career, Hughes has a few standout moments. In 2012, he returned for a homecoming best described as “48 hours of goosebumps and gratitude” in celebration of the 20th anniversary for the Sens.
“My first time back [to Ottawa] was a special one,” says Hughes. “I had so many friends at the game and when ‘Stuntman Stu’ introduced me it was such a powerful moment. Once you’ve come full-circle like that, you’re good. Your soul is full.”
Hughes returned in 2014 to perform for his 1000th game and again in 2019 for the 25th-anniversary of his ‘first dance.’ “Ottawa will always be my home,” writes Hughes. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be for my 2000th game.”
Hughes also had a string of run-ins with a notable pair of Ottawa residents, Alanis Morissette and Matthew Perry.
Hughes starred as one of the swooners vying for Morissette’s attention in her viral tongue-in-cheek ballad of “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas. “It was a very fun project, [Morissette] is a brilliant marketer,” says Hughes.
Among guests at the “My Humps” launch party was former Ottawan, Matthew Perry, whom Hughes had met a decade before Perry’s Friends fame. “I’d run into him all the time [at the Rockcliffe Lawn Tennis Club]. As kids, we played tennis at the same time, although he was next-level,” says Hughes. “I’m so grateful for moments like these. It’s easy to be inspired by people who have done great things.”
With such a prolific and unconventional career, it’s no surprise that Hughes put pen to paper for his memoir, King of Cheer. The book chronicles the emotional highs and lows of becoming a professional “crowd ignitor” and answers his most-asked question: “how’d you do it?” (My review to follow).
Hughes began asking himself questions once the pandemic hit and crowds were nixed. “Imagine you’re a painter and someone takes your brush away,” says Hughes. “The uncertainty eventually led to some cool things, like finishing the book, but it was also very challenging.”
Above all else, Hughes says he “missed the connection”. He pivoted to creating personalized videos, crashing Zoom meetings, and hosting virtual events to cope with his self-diagnosed “cheer-pression.”
In June, 15 months since his last in-person appearance, Hughes triumphantly returned to perform at Vegas Golden Knights home game donning a tearaway hazmat suit. “It was one of the most memorable, beautiful, special, emotional moments of my career. It felt like it was okay to cheer again. It was a release for me, for everyone.”
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Hughes is not ready to put away the un-tossed tees and dancing shoes just yet. “I have a laundry list of places I’d like to perform and experience. I’m also going to do more speaking events and maybe work on another book.”
Come spring, Hughes hopes to embark on a hybrid book-tour-meets-cheer-campaign across Canada. Reflecting on the past 19 months, it’s safe to say there’s a nation ready to cheer him on.
Cameron Hughes’s new book, King of Cheer: Stories of Showing up, Getting up and Never Giving Up from the World’s Most Electrifying Crowd Ignitor is available via his website and Amazon.