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Do give up the day job

Most ‘overnight sensations’ in the arts have toiled for years to become the success they are today. Sue Conley talks to nine stars about the slog

Overnight sensations: they're the darlings of the media. The latest theatre artist or musician, for example, to hit it big is perceived as having sprung entire from the head of Zeus. We don't know that Athena was, perhaps, driving a mortuary van or dishing out chips just to keep body and soul together in the run up to her arrival as the goddess of wisdom, war, and champion of justice and civil law -- but, surely, she had bills to pay before she took on the protection of Athens? Consider our own goddess of tunes, Imelda May (left). When she hit, it was as if she'd come out of nowhere, when in fact, prior to taking the stage at this year's Grammys -- as big an outing as any singer could hope for -- the Liberties native had been gigging it for years.

It makes you wonder about the humble beginnings of some of our other art-makers; below, some of them share their tales of how they paid their dues before they started living the dream.

Loughlin Deegan is the director of the ulster bank dublin theatre festival, and reminisces about being a chambermaid in the US.

i was sleep walking through DCU's Business degree in 1990, unsure of what I was going to do with a qualification that my mother constantly described as "no load to carry". My second choice had been hotel management. They sounded like the most neutral degrees on offer at a time when I had no strong sense of what I wanted to do with my life. I had only one career goal at that time: not becoming an accountant.

One student summer, two friends and I blindly followed another group to the Deep South on the promise of work and accommodation from an uncle, who was an Irish priest based in Atlanta, Georgia. Both friend and priest proved less than Christian, so in the days before mobile phones and credit cards, we were homeless and jobless, and too proud to admit defeat. On the day our resources had dwindled to three return Greyhound bus tickets, we gave ourselves a deadline of lunchtime before heading back to New York and money transfers for flights home.

I swear the head waiter in the Embassy Suites Hotel in Cobb County was played by Morgan Freeman. When he told me he had no shifts to offer me, I collapsed in a blubbering heap at his feet. That gorgeous man, to whom I remain eternally grateful, took me by the hand to lead me to the head of housekeeping. She told me I had a job as a chambermaid if I answered the following question correctly (in a heavy southern accent): "Loughlin, do you make a good bed?" I hesitated briefly, convinced it was a trick question. It wasn't.

I made many good beds that summer and even better friends. I was the only white and only male member of the housekeeping team. When I was leaving to return to university, a pregnant colleague asked if she could call her baby Loughlin if it was a boy -- she said she liked the name. I often wonder if there's an 18-year-old black kid back in Atlanta somewhere with an unpronounceable Irish name. I hope he's studying to be an accountant. It's no load to carry.

Tessa Giblin is the curator of the project arts centre's art gallery, and in her native New Zealand, went door-to-door selling cookies.

I came to Ireland to apply for this job; I had already moved from New Zealand and was working in Amsterdam as a curator, and had heard great things about Project. Three years ago, I arrived in Dublin to take up what has been the best job of my life.

Cookie Time is quite a well-known and very entrepreneurial company in New Zealand. It produces big cookies for supermarkets and small shops, and as part of their product range, it also produces buckets of Christmas Cookies. Imagine a costume close to looking like a Smurf, pounding the pavements of Christchurch, New Zealand, going into every door I could find to take orders for buckets of cookies. I still remember the hilarious things I would tell them: use the lid as a frisbee; make sandcastles at the beach later; it's not just a bucket of cookies, it's a whole entertainment package.

It was the most extraordinary experience. Over the duration of six weeks, I was suddenly running a small business, employing my younger sister. I remember her sitting on the living-room floor surrounded by money that she had to count, and have to this day never seen her look so serious. I made about $8,000 I think, which set me up for a year while doing my BFA at university.

Of course, there's a cringe factor in these memories, but the truth is even the most embarrassing jobs, as long as they are challenging, leave their marks on the professional person you are going to become. Christmas Cookies was not only about the discipline and determination needed to pull off a job, but it was also my first taste of unrelenting work and total responsibility. And that is basically what it's like to work as a curator -- you decide that you want to produce an ambitious exhibition, book, or lecture, and then somehow you have to find the way to do it. You hustle.

There are two other things I've learned that still relate to my work today: behind any crummy door I could find a warehouse full of possible customers, and in the most bizarre places or far-flung regions you can find the artist who is key to your programme. And the thing that applies just as much to cookies as to working in the artistic industries is that "no" doesn't necessarily mean "no". It just means try harder.

John Scott is the artistic director of irish modern dance theatre. He tells us all about getting on his bike, back in the day.

I was an apprentice to Dublin City Ballet. I supported myself by distributing posters for all the theatres in Dublin -- I took a dance class and rehearsed 10am to 6pm in the studio, then walked around every pub and restaurant sticking posters to the walls.

I carried a huge rucksack filled with posters. It was hard, heavy work; killed my feet and back. I had to put up with drunks and getting rained on, but it was still part of the performing world. When Dublin City Ballet had evening performances, I would put up the posters by day, reversing my schedule. I also cleaned offices.

The long hours, working after a tiring day dancing, were sometimes very difficult. The need to do this kept me humble and realistic, and made me determined to succeed. Sometimes I learnt things from being away from the cocoon or ivory tower of art for art's sake. I always had one foot in the real world, which still feeds me as a choreographer.

Most great artists started without money. In New York, most talented dancers, choreographers, actors have two or three jobs beside their art.

If you want to make art, find a way. Vision and determination will carry you through, but ultimately, good work and artistic maturity needs financial support. The money is a tool, but you have to have something to say and be ready to fight to say it.

Oonagh Kearney has a background in theatre arts. She's now a film-maker and casting director ... and has worked in any number of venues

When I was teenager, I wanted to get a job, probably just to prove I could. The problem was I had no experience. I tried to get a job in Henry's nightclub in Cork. I was meant to be collecting the glasses, but they put me in charge of cleaning the toilets. I was 15 and it was surreal: all these girls coming in, crying and falling over, spilling their cleavages and life stories. That was the interesting part. The cleaning of the toilets was the grossest job I've ever had. After one night, I quit.

I ended up casting The Wind That Shakes the Barley. An actress friend heard a Ken Loach film might be happening in Cork and suggested sending off our résumés. I did and a few months later I got a phone call from Ken.

I had never worked on a film before and as far as I was concerned, I was just helping out. Only gradually did the truth dawn on me. Ken was and continues to be a really positive mentor. We devised a strategy for building up the cast. We met everyone from Cork we could. He was really open to that.

Nowadays, I will only clean my own toilet. But in order to work in the arts, I had to work throughout my 20s. I was finding my way slowly, opening various doors and looking at the contours of the rooms.

Right now, and for the past few months, I've been focused on writing and directing for the screen. It's precious. Like having time off that you've earned.

Imelda May is a singer-songwriter from the Liberties.

Everybody's favourite rockabilly rebel really hit the big time earlier this year when she played for an international TV audience of millions at the Grammy Awards in LA. But Imelda Clabby -- her maiden name -- got her first professional singing job on a Findus Fish Fingers commercial when she was a mere 14.

Forbidden by her mum from auditioning for The Commitments, she finished her Leaving Cert and went to study graphics at Ballyfermot College, spending her weekends at blues clubs in the city.

After a while, she moved to London with her now husband and bandmate Darrel Higham. Years of gigging around Camden prompted her to take the plunge, and she formed her own band and got her break on Later with Jools Holland.

Now with a best-selling album, a recent gig at the O2 and a support slot on Jamie Cullum's US tour, Imelda is proof that if you're passionate and persistent, your hard work will eventually pay off.

Aoife Carrigy waited tables and is now the Deputy Editor of Food & Wine Magazine.

Did you enjoy waiting tables, even if it wasn't your dream job?

I loved waiting tables and still miss it today. Unfortunately, it’s not a job that Irish people give much respect to, despite being a multi-skilled role that trains you up with so many transferable skills. I had so much fun working in restaurants, met the best people and had a flexibility that allowed me to travel lots, go back to college and undertake an internship in publishing.

Were you always a foodie?

My granny managed the canteen at the Irish Sweepstakes, my mother trained at Cathal Brugha Street, and all my siblings are great cooks and have all worked in restaurants extensively — so I guess it’s kind of in the blood.

How did you get your big break?

I started writing a fortnightly restaurant column in the Dublin Event Guide with my boyfriend at the time — we’d eat out on the meagre budget and then take turns writing it up. I wasn’t looking to get rich on it, but learned so much. It was another four years before it became a full-time job with Food & Wine Magazine.

Megan and Jessica Kennedy are the artistic directors of Junk Ensemble Company.

What kind of work did you do to support yourself when you were studying dance?

We each did a number of odd-ball jobs. They ranged from working in an environmental office to working as a chef, waiting tables, and we both worked as ushers in theatres.

Was there ever any chance of being seduced by accountancy?

Never! Neither of us would be any good at it; we’d be fired on the first day.

How do you support yourself now?

We run our company junk ensemble, whilst both working freelance as dance artists, choreographers and teachers.

Do outside gigs interfere with your process, or can they help feed it?

Our additional gigs can often feed into our work and can run alongside our other projects. For instance, we performed together for a Veuve Clicquot champagne launch once, dressed all in pink and danced around fancy people in fancy suits. We performed twice at the Electric Picnic, once for a punk band and once in the O2 tent. We squeezed these gigs in between our rehearsals and received payment, champagne and muddy feet.

Valerie Francis is a Singer-songwriter who was recently nominated for a Choice award. She’s still working for a living, however.

How do you support yourself?

I work in a restaurant and a deli. I’m a sound engineer but there is little work for me at the moment. I was working full time before the Choice nominations were announced but then it became too much. It’s hard to keep up with costs. It takes money to make music.

Are your employers supportive?

They’re amazing. In the deli, the manager would joke whenever his phone rang, “Oh, sorry I have to take this”, which are words that often came out of my mouth. I’ve chopped and changed my shifts so much it must drive them crazy.

Do you feel it's important to pay your dues?

You appreciate things more when you’ve worked hard for them. The last two years have been completely consuming. You can’t go after your dreams without some sacrifice. I never thought it would be any other way.