Personal Stories of America at Work
The Career Gypsy
Singer/artist/designer Phoenix Normand opens his next act after calling it quits on YouTube
“Phoenix Normand often has two careers going at once and sleeps four hours a night. His resume captures an eclectic mix of positions as executive assistant, graphic designer, singer, dancer, songwriter, actor, office interior designer, and real estate agent. A self-proclaimed gypsy, he says until recently he attracted new opportunities as if by magic. He posted a YouTube video, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of my life…today I am quitting my job, in the middle of a recession.’ Phoenix’s most compelling question at the moment is what to do with his life.”
- Chronicler Sherry Jordana
A hot mess
My professional realm is a hot mess right now, and it would be so nice to get back on track. I’m getting a little long in the tooth and floundering, to be honest with you. I’m starting to question myself. I can’t figure out what it is. Maybe I’m in a midlife crisis.
Right out of college I was with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in New York City as a summer intern, and then a junior member of the company. After about eight months, we were scheduled to go on a national tour, and I decided not to continue. I didn’t want to deal with the politics and drama involving dancers and their worries about seniority and position. Also, I was sick of having my feet hurt (we danced barefoot).
I came back home to the San Francisco Bay Area and started working for the first of many investment banking firms as an executive assistant. I love this business because of the energy and rapid fire pace, and having to learn things quickly. But out of the blue I was contacted by a friend to audition as a backup dancer for one of the top pop stars in Korea. I went to the audition and got the job. I flew to Korea the following Saturday!
This pop star did all kinds of things—concerts, cable TV shows, variety shows, award ceremonies. They called him the Korean Michael Jackson. We were always on television, in the newspapers, the tabloids. It was my first experience with having a little bit of “celebrity.” Fans recognized us on the street. Someone would call out, and instantly a mob formed; parents would thrust their babies over the crowd in order to touch you for good luck. It was a little freaky for me.
That lasted a little over a year. I had the option to go back for the next round of shows, but I’m a big fan of lots of experiences. You get one life—it’s OK to do something twice, three times, but if you’re not getting something new out of it, it’s a waste of time.
Try finding a cranberry in Cabo
I came home to the Bay Area and got a job in another investment bank. It was the advent of the dot-com era. In my role as an executive assistant, I brought in an unusual graphic design element to the standard presentations and spreadsheets. I also worked on corporate events designing place cards, menus, and even wine labels commemorating the occasion. In a short time I was promoted to be corporate events manager and was on airplanes 75 percent of the time for the next three years.
The investment bank would take a company public, make hundreds of millions of dollars, and as a thank you, we would take top brass and their families on expensive vacations for four days anywhere in the world. I planned trips to Antigua, St. Barts, France, Barcelona, Japan. My job was to make sure everyone had fun. I created fireworks with logos in the air, excursions, entertainment, everything. I arranged all the lodging and meals and dealt with crazy dietary restrictions. Once someone told me, “I’m on a diet this week. I’m only eating cranberries.” I’m like, “We’re in a foreign country, and you’re only eating cranberries? Try finding a frickin’ cranberry in Cabo.”
Business by day, singer by night
I eventually moved to another firm as an executive assistant again, but this time the dot-com industry was going bust. I got laid off and decided to start my own graphic design company. I called every contact I knew and ended up getting lots of work right off the bat. I don’t really take no as an answer for anything. It probably comes from all those years of auditions and rejections. You have to get past the “no’s” to get a “yes.”
Even with these regular jobs, I have always sung and written songs for a band called Ledisi. I held my day job, and then sang at night until 2 a.m., and then I’d go to work the next morning. I did that for eighteen straight years. I am always busy. I’ve always been that way. If I’m not busy, I feel weird and depressed, like I’m not doing anything with my life.
We had regular gigs in San Francisco and played live music venues like the North Beach Jazz Festival and Fillmore Jazz Festival. We started getting popular and won a couple of awards. I loved it. I think that was the happiest time of my life. It allowed me to feel relevant within the business community, and also have something that was 100 percent my own: my music.
And for my next act…
I gave up the graphic design business after about a year and a half because a job in Japan kind of fell out of the sky. A friend referred me to audition as a singer for a high-end Japanese wedding production company. I auditioned for a guy in a karaoke bar in San Francisco. In Japan, weddings are a full-on production. I would be introduced with much fanfare. “Just for your wedding, our celebrity from America, a black R&B singer, Phoenix!!!” They would go, “We got our own Mariah Carey!” The spotlight. The sequins. They love the glamour of celebrities.
The performing was great, but someone had warned me that as a celebrity singer in Japan, you’ll be tolerated but not accepted. And that’s how it played out. As a non-Japanese person, I felt pretty isolated and on my own. So in between shows, I wrote a lot of music. I got deeply into Buddhism, and spent time in some amazing temples. After about a year, I felt it had run its course. You can only feel invisible for so long. The events of 9/11 had occurred, and really shook me. I needed to come back home.
My proudest moment
Once again, a great opportunity landed in my lap. The CEO of a gaming company hired me to take over administrative responsibilities. My first assignment was to manage the company move. I handled everything from selecting properties, helping to negotiate the lease, managing the infrastructure arrangements and vendors (IT, telecommunications, etc.) and all the enormous amount of detail that goes with a corporate move. They allowed me to choose all of the furniture and design the interior layout, which I did on my own. This was the hardest job I ever had. There was so much riding on it.
I was trying to save the company money, so vendors would literally drop their shipments on the lawn. I carried cubicle parts up into the building and assembled furniture, broke pallets open, and got everyone to take an hour off and help me drag stuff up. I even roped in my boyfriend to help on the weekends.
I found out that engineers are some of the most [pause] unnecessarily exacting people I’ve ever met in my life. They would nitpick and question my design plans, and I got pretty upset. “If you’re coming in here in your Wavy Gravy T-shirts and Birkenstocks, how dare you dictate to me what a certain style should be!”
I painted the CEO’s office a slight shade of off white with pink undertones, which makes your skin look beautiful. There was a super plush sofa with an ottoman. I had these beautiful urns, very Parisian. It felt like a woman’s office. A powerful woman’s office. I would not let anyone see the building until everything was complete. On the scheduled date, people walked in they were just amazed. They were like, “Wow!” It was my proudest moment by far.
Other companies started asking me to do their offices, which I did on the side. Finally, my boss encouraged me to let go of my job and start my own office interiors business. It was great for awhile, but because of the economy going south, clients began having high expectations but low budgets. Finding furniture on Craigslist is OK, but it takes away from what I do. I’m not a bargain designer.
After I’d been running my design business for about a year and a half, Ledisi released its first album and asked me to go on tour. I wound down my company and went. Our first stop was Japan, then the U.S., London, and Amsterdam. We would go out for four days, home for two, back and forth. I did that for a year or so and then got sick of touring, again, and dropped out.
I quit my job on YouTube
I went to another executive assistant job at an engineering and technology company. The CEO and I never really got along. He questioned everything I did and was very controlling. I felt like I was just wasting my time. One day I did a YouTube video and announced, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Today I am quitting my job, in the middle of a recession.”
Within a couple of months, however, I realized that I had been a butt-head. I should have stayed a little bit longer and tried to make it work. It was the worst time to quit my job. And sure enough, it’s been over a year and I have not been able to find a job since. I went on one interview and met with their executives. The feedback to my agency was that I had “too much personality” for their engineering team. That’s a little sad to think you want someone with no personality. But I get it. It’s about “fit.”
I would love to be in a company doing something that inspires me. Or be successful on my own, doing something that feeds me. I don’t think it’s going to be just one thing. I feel like it’s going to be music, plus something else.
Post script: Shortly after this interview, Phoenix got a long-term temporary job at a San Francisco Bay Area apparel firm and loves working there. He is releasing two music albums (Moonchild and Wild Child), sings in his own band (“The Phoenix Normand Experience”), and will go on tour in 2011 with Ledisi for the release of the new album, Loudspeaker.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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