Jolene Van Vugt: Nitro Girl
Meet Nitro Girl! No, that’s not a new Marvel superhero, it’s Jolene Van Vugt – the sole girl repping on the daredevil Nitro Circus crew. For the unaware, the Nitro Circus team are the daredevils putting their bodies on the line in death-defying stunts and crazy hijinks. With a hit TV show under the belts, the guys (and girl!) are back with Nitro Circus The Movie 3D, their first full-length feature film and they’ve packed it with some of their most insane stunts yet. High Risk. High Octane. And No Safety Nets Allowed. To get the scoop on what it’s like to be the first female to backflip a full-sized dirt bike ramp to ramp, be Catwoman’s stunt rider in The Dark Knight Rises and other such crazy shenanigans, we caught up with Jolene Van Vugt aka Nitro Girl in the midst of a day full of backflipping and motocross riding at Nitro Circus founder Travis Pastrana’s house. Did we mention that Johnny Knoxville is scared to death of her? Van Vugt means business.
Nitro Circus The Movie 3D is in cinemas November 15 for one week only.
Be sure to head over to our competitions page to enter our Nitro Circus The Movie 3D competition! There’s DC Shoes T-shirts and double-passes to be won. ENTER HERE.
First off, I want to say that I’m absolutely fascinated by what you do. It’s not every day you get to talk to someone who does motocross and stunts for a living. What was it that first made you interested in this?
My dad was a big influence when I was younger. Him and my brother raced motocross while I was growing up, so I was at the racetrack with them every weekend playing in the dirt. It was a family thing so we all went and watched. When I was 11, I asked if it was something I could join in on. There weren’t a lot of girls riding at the time, only a few older women, so I just kind of thought to myself, “Why aren’t there any young girls riding?” So dad got me a bike and got me going on it.
So your family were pretty supportive of your decision to race?
It definitely runs in the family. My dad is 67 and he still races. He’s such a proud father, having had a daughter who’s had such unique opportunities and made such an interesting career for herself.
I read that at the age of 14 you were given a bit of an ultimatum where you either had to give up motocross racing for good, or give it a serious go. Were you thinking long-term back then?
At the time I was just thinking I don’t want my dad to sell my bike. One of the reasons he was a little bit hesitant at first of giving me my own motorcycle and all that kind of stuff is because it is expensive. As everyone knows, dirt biking isn’t a cheap sport, so having to buy all the gear and the maintenance for the bike and the money to travel and go to the races, he said off the bat, “Ok, you can do this, but you’ve got to commit to it” and I was one of those kids that, I mean, I wanted to try everything and I’d get into it and be like, “Nah I don’t wanna do this anymore”. I always wanted to give up on it, and dad went, “You can’t do that with this this time” and I was like, “No I promise I won’t!” and a few years in I didn’t really like going to practice, like I liked going to the races but I didn’t like practicing, so I’d always make up excuses of why I couldn’t go and all that type of stuff, so when I was 14 he finally said, “Listen, I was serious when I said you’re either gonna do this or you’re not gonna do this” and I was like, “No, I really like it, I don’t wanna not do it” and from that moment forward, I went practicing every week with him and raced every weekend with him and we started travelling all over the place.
Was it a natural progression to get involved with the Nitro Circus crew?
No, I mean that was just being in the right place at the wrong time with Travis [Pastrana, Nitro Circus founder], as we like to joke around. Him and I met when we were teenagers through motocross and then a bit later on in life, I was just kinda hanging out at his place just on a visit in between races. I was racing the women’s professional circuit in the US with a couple of my friends and his house just happened to be in between two of the events. So we thought we’d just swing on in and hang out for a while. He was trying to teach a girl to do a backflip at the time and he was just kind of like, “Ok, there’s more girls in our house. You. Do you wanna try?” and I was like, “Sure I’ll give it a try. I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ll give it my all” and I got to get right in there and he taught me firsthand how to get it all done and I became the first girl to ever backflip a full-size motorcycle from it. I took my bumps along the way of learning, and he saw how durable I was and how committed I was to just getting it done and I think that to him stood out right away as Nitro Circus attributes and it snowballed from there. Eventually I kind of got crowned as the queen girl in Nitro Circus, first girl ever in the boys club type of thing.
I feel like you and other women in the rock world might have a bit in common; what’s it like being surrounded by dudes all the time?
[Laughs] To me, it’s very normal. It’s kind of my element. I’ve always been a huge tomboy. Growing up I was always in the dirt, always getting beat up or beating up boys, I played hockey growing up and rode motocross, so it’s very natural for me to always be around guys. I’ve always had a lot more boys around than girls around. On the street there was always five guys for me to play with and no girls, so I was always out there getting in trouble. They take very good care of me, let’s put it that way. I’m like their sister and they’re very protective, so to me it’s just my life and my family and I love it.
Apparently Johnny Knoxville has nothing but wonderful things to say about you, because he’s scared to death of you.
[Laughs] I laughed so hard when I saw that! That’s a pretty big compliment I have to say. With the stuff that Knoxville does, for me to actually put fear into him, that’s pretty funny.
Do you consider yourself a role model? Or better yet, have you had many girls come up to you and tell you that you’re an inspiration?
I have actually. On a daily basis, somebody says something to me that just makes me smile and warms my heart. It’s such a huge compliment for people to tell you you’re an inspiration, or that they really look up to what you do or, “I started riding motorcycles because of you” or stuff like that. I truly blush when I hear that stuff because I just can’t believe it. I’m just another girl out there trying to get through life and have fun and hang out with my friends and make a living and do what I love, and if I can inspire anybody to go out and push their limits or follow their dreams or do something really cool, then I’m just truly honoured.
Okay I’m a bit of a geek at heart, so one of the coolest things I read about you was that you were a stunt bike rider on The Dark Knight Rises! How did that come about?
That’s pretty cool for me too. It was sort of a dream come true. I got a phone call and I’d been scouted to do the doubling for Anne Hathaway in the Batpod for Catwoman, so when I got that call, I honestly thought somebody was playing a joke on me. You know, I do stunts for a living and since I was young, I’ve always wanted to do Hollywood movies and do Hollywood stunts and then I got into Nitro Circus and we do our stunts a little bit differently, and then all of a sudden Hollywood came knocking on my door and I couldn’t believe it and I got to double this amazing actress. Like, Catwoman? Are you kidding me? How amazing is Catwoman? So it was really, really cool to get on that Batpod and get to represent such a bad-arse character.
Are those bikes as cool to ride in person as they look in the film?
Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. It is a large piece of machinery. It’s very heavy and very awkward, and not so much like a motorcycle, but so cool. When I got the opportunity to go out and test the bike, it took a little bit for me to get going on it and feel it out. I was the third person in the world to ever drive it and the only female to ever drive it, so it was really cool and a huge honour to get to be that person.
Speaking of films, Nitro Circus The Movie 3D is being released here this month. With making the jump from the TV series to film, was there a feeling that you had to go more “all out” with the stunts?
Yes, definitely. I mean, we had to step it up. We always try to do the best we can and do world firsts or something that no one’s ever thought of or go bigger and better than anything else ‘cos that’s just sort of Nitro Circus and the way we work, but a feature film is so much different to TV and you’ve gotta pull out all the stops. The cool thing for us though, because we’re always thinking on that level anyway, we had a long list of stuff that we’ve wanted to do for many years from the TV show and the DVDs but they were on too grand of a level or we didn’t have budgeting and stuff for it, so that actually played out really well. When we finally got the film, we were finally able to do all of these stunts that we’d been wanting to do for many years.
With devising stunts, who’s the brainchild behind it? Do you all pitch in with ideas?
There’s many different ways the stunts come into play. Sometimes it’s an idea that somebody comes up with and then it snowballs into something else just from floating around from person to person and that type of thing, but we are always throwing out ideas or emails are going back and forth asking, “Hey, what kind of stunts do you guys want to do?” or “What do you want to perform?” or “What do we want to put out there?” and everyone comes up with different ideas. Sometimes those ideas stick just as they are or sometimes they snowball into other things, but we are all joined in together in working out what we want to do. One of the rules that we do have in Nitro Circus is generally, if you come up with the stunt, you’re gonna be the one doing it first, so that kind of keeps it on a realistic level so that people aren’t throwing out these really crazy stunts that aren’t feasible and then stepping back and saying, “Well I’m not gonna do it”. That’s a no-go in Nitro Circus, so if you’re gonna put a stunt out there on the table, you’ve got to be prepared to do it first.
I read that because of an injury, you’re not in the film as much as you’d like to be. What happened?
Unfortunately we all take our turns getting injured in Nitro Circus and have to sit on the sidelines and I just happened to have really bad luck and have an injury happen just a couple weeks before we started filming the movie. So we were on tour and I crashed pretty badly, messing up my shoulder and I had to get a full shoulder reconstruction done, which is very rare in somebody my age, to completely tear almost every part of your shoulder, so it was a pretty intense injury that I was told at the time would take eight months to heal and that I wasn’t allowed to do anything in that time. I wasn’t allowed to ride a motorcycle, I wasn’t allowed to do stunts, I wasn’t allowed to do Nitro Circus… I looked at the surgeon and I smiled and I nodded and I walked away and said, “Yeah right, I’ll show him!” [laughs]. Four weeks later, after surgery, we were filming the movie and unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of the bike stunts that we had planned because of the injury, but that just means we got a little creative. I got to do some tricycle stuff, I got to do some car jump stuff… different things like that. You just kind of work with what you have and on a few of the stunts in the film, you’ll notice that my arm is literally duct taped to the side of my body and that was so my shoulder surgery didn’t get destroyed in the mayhem. I couldn’t sit on the sidelines for this. This is something we’ve worked really hard for and at any moment in time that I could put myself in a stunt, I did it. In the Freedom Flyers, that’s one of the most noticeable ones. I’m at the bottom of the tier there getting hit by Eric and you can see I have black duct tape all around my orange jumpsuit. It’s pretty funny.
Just finally, you’ve obviously sustained a lot of injuries in your line of work, but do you feel there’s any one injury or anything that would ever make you stop and be like, “That’s it. I am DONE!”
I don’t think that’s something you can judge, you’ve kinda just got to take it day by day and if something that crazy happens, you kind of deal with it at the time, but I love what I do and I do get hurt a lot, but it’s part and partial to me having an awesome life where I get to travel with my friends, I get to ride my motorcycle, I mean, making a living riding a motorcycle is a very unique thing, especially for a female, so the fact that I’ve been able to do that, I’m over the moon and I would not change any of it for the world.