A focus on crisis is a mainstay of the literature on contemporary populism. However, the links between populism and crisis remain under-theorized and undeveloped. This article puts forward a novel perspective for understanding this relationship, arguing that crisis does not just trigger populism, but that populism also attempts to act as a trigger for crisis. This is because crises are always mediated and ‘performed’. The article presents a six-step model of how populist actors ‘perform’ crisis, drawing on empirical examples from Europe, Latin America, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. It explains how the performance of crisis allows populist actors to pit ‘the people’ against a dangerous other, radically simplify the terrain of political debate and advocate strong leadership. It ultimately suggests that we should move from thinking of crisis as something purely external to populism, towards thinking about the performance of crisis as an internal core feature of populism.