How I Found My Voice In The City That Never Sleeps

“Excuse me!” I called out from across the room, “Excuse me, Ms. Minelli?” My heart was palpitating and my mouth felt like cotton. The one and only Liza Minelli turned to face me, her rich, brown doe eyes sparkled with charisma. I was speechless as I drifted away for a moment, and thought about the first time I saw her perform Maybe This Time in Cabaret. It literally changed my world. There was a pause.

For God’s sake, say something “Can I ask you a few questions about the honor you received tonight?”

We were backstage at the Tony Awards and she’d just won a trophy for her latest show, Liza’s At The Palace… Camera flashes went off in a swarm of madness. With all the celebration, press agents seemed to be MIA, so if you wanted an interview, it was every man for himself.

“Of course, darling!” she said, unphased by the mania of press vying for her attention. When she spoke, she was light and buoyant, just like her Cabaret character, Sally Bowles. I wondered what she’d think if she knew I’d religiously imitated her until I’d gotten the choreography to Mein Her just right.

As we discussed her show, I soaked up every moment. Soon after, Liza’s people ushered her out of Radio Music Hall and across the street to a party in the Rainbow Room. I watched out the window as she shimmied away in her show stopping sequin dress. I’d just interviewed my idol, and had somewhat kept it together. I felt a swell of pride, as I realized a few short years earlier, I couldn’t secure a job as a production assistant.

Being a shy, twenty four-year old, others often overlooked my abilities, which made me feel like an outsider in the entertainment world. In a male-dominated Radio Arts college program, my feminine perspective was considered fluffy. Later, as a tv reporter at a small cable station, I was passed up for most of the good stories. As my loud, extraverted boss put it, I “wasn’t enough of an alpha female.” But, deep down, I knew I was capable of contributing something great. I just had to find my voice. Sticking around a small town wouldn’t cut it. I’d have to go straight to the source. Perhaps it was my penchant for the classics, like All About Eve and Breakfast at Tiffany’s but what city could embody the centre of it all more than New York?

One dreary morning in early 2005, I boarded a plane at the Nisku airport. As it taxied on the platform, its wheels screeched and it disappeared into the clouds. I peered out the window at the orange sunrise and an electrical current shook my body. I was almost nauseous with excitement. Some friends  had told me I was clinically insane to move to New York by myself. One colleague from the tv station warned me, “Canadians are eaten alive when they try to make it in New York.” But I couldn’t listen. For once, I decided not to overthink it. I was moving to Manhattan to pursue the thing I’d dreamt about since I was a fetus. Showbusiness.

“How long are you here for?” the homeland security officer barked, when I passed through airport immigration.

 “Ah…yeah, um, six months,” I replied awkwardly. Note to self: must figure out work visa situation. But that was tomorrow’s problem. Today  I would soak up everything, and find a way to tame this beast of a city.

When my taxi departed La Guardia airport, the Manhattan skyline shimmered in the distance like a desert mirage. This particularly warm April was a great introduction to my new home. The Elm trees were sprouting back to life along Central Park’s reservoir.  The cloudless sky marked the end of winter’s bitter frost. Restaurants and parks were buzzing, as relieved New Yorkers soaked up the rebirth of the season. I was in love.

I moved straight into an all-female, roach infested dorm, where the food was inedible. It also happened to be on fourteenth street. As I discovered the nooks and crannies of my new Chelsea neighborhood, I fell into a fantasy. I’d finally found a place unique enough to understand my eccentricities.  

But, as real life unfolds, things are never that simple. Being Canadian, I couldn’t legally work in the U.S.  Even though I had a few years of reporting under my belt, I’d have to go back to square one to prove myself. I found an internship at a tv production company that created shows for Discovery and MTV. Luckily, it turned out to be more than coffee runs. I connected with one of the producers, who took me under her wing to assist with casting pilots. Thankfully, after a few months of long hours, and living on vending machine snacks, the company granted me a work permit, so I could stay in New York for the year.

That summer, I began auditioning, trying to get back in front of the camera. Again, I was hit with that old, familiar feeling. I was still standing on the fringe of things, peering in on other’s lives. I didn’t look like the other girls who had been working as models and tv hosts for years. They knew how to play the game. Most were rail thin with razor sharp cheekbones. I listened as they rattled off their intimidating resumes to each other at castings.

Yes, that was my hair in that commercial, I was Scarlett Johansson’s stand in…Leo is very sweet! He was great to work with, such a flirt…Well, the Gucci campaign only paid ten thousand, but I did it for the exposure…

On top of that, my new commercial agent seemed to be fixated on the heroin chic thing.

 “Can you do me a favour and lose ten to fifteen pounds?” he casually asked one day, when we sat down to a meeting in his office. “The waif look is back again.”

“Uh…sorry?” Perhaps he was joking.

“Uh, huh,” he said, now distracted by his phone, “It would really help your chances in this town!”

The request rolled off his tongue as if he were asking me to update a typo on my resume. Perhaps I wouldn’t fit in here either.  We finally parted ways when I could no longer ignore our different agendas. I wanted to host shows and interview interesting people. It appeared his goal was that I develop a body image disorder.

Over the next couple of years, I took on a series of odd jobs to make ends meet. I freelanced as a production assistant for tv ads, modelled on morning talk shows, passed out flyers, and waitressed part-time at a French Bistro.  I was even the princess at FAO Schwartz for a summer. I’d lost my direction, and like many New Yorkers who needed to pay the rent, I’d stepped onto a rollercoaster of randomness. One day I was pampered on the set of the The View, where I appeared as a Penelope Cruz “lookalike”, wearing a knock off of the dress she wore at the Oscars that week. The next morning, I found myself standing on a street corner handing out coupons to passersby who mostly ignored me. It was a surreal way to live, but it paid the bills. I knew my heart was still in reporting, but somehow, I’d drifted even further away from my purpose.

 In 2008, I worked on a commercial shoot for an energy drink, with a producer who was from Montreal. Always excited to meet a fellow Canadian, I broke the ice with him, as we discussed the little comforts we missed about Canada, like poutine and ketchup chips. He mentioned an upcoming web show where they were casting a host to interview stars at Broadway shows and press events. Do I dare ask?

“Are you still looking for someone?” I said, trying to sound casual, as we stacked chairs and cleaned up for the day.

“Send me your stuff, and I’ll take a look,” he said, handing me his card.

I knew this song and dance pretty well, and it sounded a bit too good to be true. But, I decided to email him my demo reel that night. Within a week, he invited me to come along to the red carpet opening of the Broadway play Boeing Boeing to “audition” for the hosting role.

By this point, it had been a few years of hard knocks and unmet expectations. That evening, as I walked towards the midtown Longacre theatre, I consciously decided not to get worked up about it. That is, until I interviewed Kathleen Turner…then, Cameron Diaz….then, Meryl Streep.

A few hours later, I stood nervously with the camera man, knees shaking, and peered at a red carpet full of A-listers I had no trouble recognizing. I took in the irony that again, I was on the edge of other people’s lives looking in. But, this time, I belonged. Now, I was exactly where I should be.

“Howard! Howard!” a strange force took over my usually quiet demeanor as I called out to Howard Stern. “Are you excited to be here tonight?”

After getting his typically edgy response on how “Broadway shows are a bit cheesy, but this one’s cool, because it’s not a musical,” we departed the theatre and headed to the afterparty at Nikki Midtown to interview the show’s stars. After years of struggle, this one night had surpassed all my expectations. I was finally doing something I loved. Talking to the world’s top artists, and discussing the work they made.

After that night, I was hired on full time to produce, write scripts and host segments at Broadway openings and press junkets. In the past, when I’d heard people gush that they’d found their “dream job,” in my cynicism, I’d suspected they were being cheesy or embellishing. But, now I knew exactly what they meant.

In the summer of 2009, the Tony Awards were approaching quickly. I’d researched every show, reviewed my questions for each nominee, and made bets with the camera crew about who’d take home the top honors. What I didn’t prepare for was getting stuck at the border.

Like clockwork, every year at the beginning of June, I renewed my visa at the U.S. port of entry. Having seen my work history in New York, immigration were always cooperative about it. I assured my producer I’d be back in the Big Apple in time for the Tony’s on June seventh.

 This time, as I entered airport immigration, little did I know, I’d get the wrong guy on the wrong day. As I approached the booth and pulled out my signed letter on company letterhead, along with the other documents, a short bald man wearing a scowl and a name tag that read “Elmer” gave me a sinister stare and led me to a small room with metal walls.

“I’ve never heard of this type of visa before! What is this? Where are your college transcripts?” he interrogated. My what?

Was this his first day on the job? I’d never been asked, nor did my lawyer state I’d ever need college transcripts. I was speechless.

“This is not a real visa!!” I flinched as his booming voice shook the tiny room. “Come back when you have the right documents!”

I ran out as quickly as I could, so Elmer didn’t know he’d gotten to me, and sat in the Nisku departures area, sobbing like a child. Everything I’d worked for was about to be snuffed out. I finally stopped crying out of self consciousness when a lady came up and asked me if I was okay. There was no way to explain this tangled web to anyone.

I went back to my parents’ house and called my lawyer, but got her voicemail, so I left a disjointed message. Then, I crawled into my old bed, and fell into a deep sleep. I was officially exhausted, and it looked like the beast of a city had finally won.

When I awoke, it was twilight and my parents’ answering machine was flashing red.

“Ms. O’Callaghan, I’m sorry to hear about what happened today. These guys are tough. Not much we can do sometimes. But, let me make some calls.. I’ll get back to you.” My lawyer.

I sank into the old, familiar couch. It was June fifth and The Tony’s were two days away. It seemed like a long shot. Should I call my producer and tell him to find someone else for the job? Or should I just take a chance and hope for the best? So much was out of my hands.

That night I helped my mom cook dinner in the house I grew up in. She was making a roast chicken, just like it was Christmas day. She was even making her famous stuffing from scratch. I suspected she was trying to create a distraction.

Caught in my own world of limbo, I tried to focus on the task of peeling potatoes, as she got started on the carrots. After a moment of working in silence, she turned to me.

“You can’t control everything that happens in your life, but you’re still the same person, no matter where you go.” My eyes welled with tears as I dropped the peeler in the sink. There’s nothing like the comforting words of someone who knows you inside out.

“Thanks mom, I just really wanted it,” I said weakly, as I felt hot tears stream down my face.

“Look at everything you’ve done already,” she said as she wrapped me in a hug. “No matter happens, you’ll find your way back.” I knew she was right. 

Two days later, as I watched Ms. Minelli make her grand exit from Radio City, my eyes welled up again. My lawyer had come through and gotten the visa renewed at the last minute. It had shaped up to be an emotional week. Preparing for a big career opportunity, then losing it, losing the life I had come to know in New York, getting it all back, then meeting my childhood hero.

For some reason, I thought back to some of the well meaning people who’d warned me not to begin this journey. What if I’d listened to them? What if I’d let my fears keep me in one place, never having these life changing, and sometimes heart wrenching experiences? I didn’t feel any sort of resentment towards them. I felt empathy. Life can be scary, and a lot of the time, other people are just trying to protect us from pain.

Everyone has their own wealth of experience to draw from, and sometimes we’re all just bumping into one another, trying to help, when perhaps, we need to stand back and let others learn on their own. Cautionary tales can be helpful in the right circumstances, but many times, I’ve realized after the fact I should have reached through the static noise and found a way to decide on my own.

Standing on that red carpet, watching a legend disappear into the crowd, I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore. I’d begun to think for myself. On the noisy, crowded New York streets, I could finally hear my own voice.

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