Going Full Stilt
updated 05/20/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/20/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Since then O'Neill, 30, has discovered one needn't be an actress to really stretch. For the past eight years she has been appearing as part of the Los Angeles-based circus trio Girls on Stilts. Clad in striped pants, crinoline bustles and platinum-blonde wigs, the Girls juggle pins, perform choreographed dances and eat fire—all while perched on 10-ft.-tall stilts. "You start off really wobbly," says the 5'7" O'Neill. "Now I can jump rope on stilts. I feel really comfortable on them."
Not that the on-the-job training was easy. "I went through a period with the juggling where I kept knocking myself in the face," she says. "After I got a black eye I started wearing goggles like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's in rehearsals." Says the troupe's creator, Roy Johns: "It was like a boot camp, but she survived and she's doing great."
Acting took less getting used to. The daughter of Thomas, 69, an L.A. construction company owner, and Virginia, 59, an art school director, O'Neill began auditioning for TV roles at age 10. "My brothers and sister were doing commercials too," says the Pacific Palisades, Calif., native. "We'd pile into the van after school and head out to Hollywood." (Siblings Katie, 32, and Hugh, 26, now work for their mom's art school; Barry, 23, is an astronomer; Casey, 37, works in construction.)
After a string of guest spots on TV shows such as Night Court and Family Ties, she won a recurring role as a runaway teen on the CBS soap The Young and the Restless in 1986; a year later she was cast in Honey. "My favorite memory," she says, "is when I went to see Field of Dreams with my friends. I walked in and saw my face in the preview [for Honey]. It was great."
But her passion for acting soon waned. "After I turned 22," she says, "the parts I was getting I didn't want to do. There was nudity and I didn't feel comfortable being that girl. I'm old-fashioned that way."
When she ran into Johns, 51, a childhood friend, in 1994, she found her new calling. Johns had already created several circus-style entertainment troupes to perform at events, and O'Neill was intrigued by the athleticism involved and "to see somebody hone a craft like that," she says.
Having toured Asia and the U.S., the troupe is now performing in L.A. "I love the look of wonder in the audience's eyes," she says. "And traveling with the girls is like being in a band. It's fun and glamorous." As for a return to acting? "I would love to get back into it," she says.
Her offbeat career has made dating hard. Although she longs to someday have a family, "my life is literally a juggling act," says O'Neill, who currently lives with Johns and his girlfriend in L.A. "I want somebody who is not intimidated by it." Until then she abides by a personal mantra she picked up in her movie days. "When I'd go on the publicity tours and sign autographs, I'd always write, 'Think big and stand tall,'" says O'Neill. "I still believe the same thing."
Kevin Maynard in Los Angeles