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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part I

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Six months paid vacation a year, a starting salary higher than anyone dreamed possible, traveling to all seven continents via all the seven seas on my employer's dime -- these were just some of the perks that came with my dream job. I was hired in a whirlwind of a rush to work as the Female Vocalist on the world's smallest and most coveted cruise line. The number of people on God's green Earth who hold this job title at any given time are fewer than what can be counted on one hand. The perks of this position are well known in the cruise entertainment world, making it a very competitive job to nail down. Typically, only captains get to enjoy benefits like that.

I didn't know any of these perks when I sent in my audition materials during February of 2014. I was still in the middle of my first contract on my first ship, and had learned that my current production company had lost its contract with said cruise line, so in a few short months I'd be out of a job. I worked from Asia putting together a video and cover letter, then emailed it all to my dad, who graciously volunteered to print hard copies of everything, burn the video to DVD, and mail it to their Los Angeles head quarters -- they weren't accepting online submissions back then.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving week of 2014 -- I was in the midst of my last voyage before disembarking for my first vacation after beginning my ship career in August of 2013. My cast mates and I were in a café in Punta Arenas, Chile, eating muffins and drinking coffee so the barista would share the WiFi password. We sat in silence on our devices, as crew members are known to do. The contract had been trying for all of us, each for our own individual reasons, and all we wanted was to talk to our loved ones ashore and make plans for when we got to go home.

I waited for my email to load while distracting myself, when finally my inbox populated with new messages. One was from the elite cruise line, inquiring about my availability, and wondering if I was still interested in the position! How lucky -- right before I was supposed to be unemployed and didn't know what I was going to do!

I thanked the lady enthusiastically, and explained I'd be disembarking on December 4th in Buenos Aires, and as an avid, religious Argentine tango dancer, or milonguera, I had made plans to stay in the city for as long as my crew visa would allow. I'd be available after that.

The next day I got a response, requesting that I film myself singing a list of nine songs for my audition -- I explained that I wouldn't be able to send in anything until I was back at home with my studio set up to record, which would be on December 9th, at the earliest.

I spent my tango-cation, when not at milongas or saying goodbye to fellow crew members, learning the new music and memorizing the cuts they'd put in tunes I already knew. Thankfully I flew home from a time zone two hours ahead of East Coast time, so I felt like I'd gained two hours of sleep on the plane before my crash course in filming began.

In less than five days, I unpacked my studio, completed all nine videos with satisfactory quality, and submitted them. They requested to fly me to LA after Christmas for an in-person audition, so off I went, after not even two weeks of restful vacation time to recover from my 16 straight months on board a ship.

I nailed it -- it was one of those moments that validated me, showcasing my life's work and purpose. The dance audition was a little messy, but in the short cramming then testing session, I was confident, and it was fun. They interviewed me and asked how I worked: I stated that my brain memorizes faster than my body, so after rehearsal, I'd have to do something completely irrelevant to let the information marinate, before coming back to study the material. (I didn't know it at the time, but it's the same technique Albert Einstein used to solve problems: when he got stuck in physics, he'd take a violin playing break to give the other side of his brain a chance to process.) Along with the perks of the job, which blew my mind -- which also included a solo cabin with a queen sized bed and porthole -- WHAT?! -- they explained that I was being hired at the last minute to replace a lady who'd gotten pregnant, and the timing of everything was so warped that I would have three weeks of land rehearsal instead of the usual six, and one voyage of put-in rehearsals instead of the usual two. Things would be rushed, and once my performance contract began, they were installing and teaching a show from another ship, and they were also creating a brand new show from scratch, which would premier before I went on vacation. All the work I'd do before I disembarked for my first paid leave would be nothing but cramming.

It all sounded good to me -- you will never find a more dedicated work horse, nor a person more grateful for gainful employment. For the first time in my life, I'd have free time and money to pursue my goals. Gone were the days of worrying where my next paycheck would come from. I'd be earning my salary every year, and on top of that, I'd have six free months that allowed me the opportunity to work on my own artistic endeavors and earn even more money! So whatever they needed me to do, I'd do gladly, with figurative (and sometimes literal) bells on.

I was hired on the spot, then flown home to pack for the contract. I was floating on Cloud Nine. For the first time in my life, I had the financial structure of a normal working adult, in any industry. I was almost done paying off my debt thanks to my first two contracts, and with this one, I'd pay off my student loans by March and be debt free for the first time! Then I could really begin to save -- maybe I could buy a house. But where? Who cares! The world was my oyster -- all I needed was to be near an international airport to make traveling to and from work more convenient. I reflected to my mother while repacking my stuff that I would have to get used to not panicking over unstable income, that I would have to learn how to live a secure and relaxed life.

"How wonderful," she said. "I guess I never realized that's what your whole adult life has been like. So paranoid. No wonder you were constantly anxious and full of frustration."

I returned to LA for my three weeks of intensive land rehearsal in less than four days. I had six complex shows to memorize, the shortest being just under 30 minutes, the longest being over an hour. Our rehearsal space was a standard dance studio, which was larger than the stage on the ship, and also a different shape, so it was difficult to know exactly where my marks were. And it was strange learning choreography that was supposed to involve nine other cast members when there was no one there doing it with you but the instructor. Each show (except the LED lights dance show) involved multiple costume changes from head to toe, from my wig to my bloomers to my ballroom shoes. Each had intricate backstage traffic patterns that couldn't be taught until I was on board, and my vocal track came with a team of Filipina dressers who had their own "choreography" for changing me in and out of costumes at high speeds. On land, I learned all my music and I memorized all the steps. Learning the music was no problem; learning the choreo wasn't quite as flawless of an achievement, but it wasn't the hardest thing I've ever done either. But there was still so much left to be memorized once I embarked.

My teacher Caroline was lovely, so nurturing and respectful of my need for space to drill the material without getting notes, until I declared I was ready for feedback. Occasionally she'd have performance videos to show me, that she couldn't get to play on her MacBook. I'd help her learn to convert files, use other media players, and rip from discs onto her hard drive. Then she'd take me out food shopping and around town for costume and shoe fittings. It was a mutually symbiotic relationship, where she treated me like a daughter, and we became quite close. Our three weeks of rehearsal boot camp flew by happily.

I was ready to join the ship. I had learned all I could, yet I knew there was still much more to be crammed once in the actual venue. I was joining the ship in Singapore, and the jet lag wouldn't help -- psychologically I prepared to power through.

The week before my flight, it was announced that Caroline would be traveling with me, to assist with the rushed put-in rehearsal process. Also during that 12 day voyage, we would have to go through the costumes in on-board storage to find ones that would fit. There would be no rest for the weary, but I was relieved to have Caroline's reassuring presence with me for support.

We arrived at our gorgeous ship, after a confused taxi driver couldn't find the new ship terminal and tried to take us to the old one in a colossal, and locked, shopping mall -- at 2am. The check-in process seemed to take even longer. I was escorted to my cabin and collapsed on the bed at 4am. Then the phone rang!

It was 8am -- how could that be? The lady over the phone was my line captain, and she instructed me to report to HR's orientation for embarking crew by nine o'clock.

Quickly -- remember which suitcase your casual dress code clothes are in! Then paint makeup on so as to be considered appropriately dressed for being seen in a public area -- make a good impression on your first day! I was dizzy.

At the meeting were both of my line captains, Orynko for the gentlemen and Marynia for the ladies. They were gorgeous, and well-rested after vacation, ready for a crazy contract of installing me and learning new shows. And when the rest of the cast greeted me at rehearsal, they were all also breathtaking. The women looked like exotic runway models, and the men, like they'd do print work for the packaging of Haynes His Way.

Now, I'm fully aware that I will never win a bikini contest (and not just because I'd never enter one), but I'm very comfortable with my stature and it serves me well. On my last ship, I was the skinny one. This would be a very different dynamic -- these productions were driven by the desire to showcase dancers rather than vocalists. And on this stage, next to all these Calvin Cline models with their twelve-packs and thigh gap, I was going to look like a porn star. Well hey, it takes all types -- and somebody's gotta have cleavage up there.

The following days were jam packed with new crew training, put-in rehearsals, and costume fittings. We rummaged through the costumes of the expecting lady that I'd replaced. I was taller than her with wider hips, so not all of them worked. We continued to dig through the storage unit, where we found the costumes of the vocalist that had come before her, who was a mere 5'2". So then we had to go ashore and shop for the pieces we were missing. The only things that fit were my shoes, because they'd never had a female vocalist with a size 10 foot before, and had purchased all new ones. But for the rest of the wardrobe -- why didn't they have all that worked out already? While still in LA, we'd driven to a fitting where a costume designer took my measurements, and we'd dug through the shore-side warehouse and kept a few items -- whatever became of that? We took the garments that could be modified down to the ship's tailor and had to wait until they were ready.

Then there were the wigs! And they were the worst of all. Some were new, to match my natural hair color, but most were old. Some were caked in a decade worth of hair product. Each wig sat upon a Styrofoam head, and those heads populated the shelves of the dressing room and gave me the heeby-geebies. There was no wigmaster for this company, so we had to do all the care and maintenance of the cheap synthetic fibers ourselves, which is a skill set in and of its own. As Female Vocalist, I was responsible for almost two dozen wigs, completely by myself. But most irritating of all was that none of the wigs fit my head -- and they had taken those measurements while we were still in LA. Why didn't at least the newly purchased wigs fit?

In addition to the large circumference of my skull, I have a scalp of long, thick, sleek hair. Tying it down for the purpose of hiding it under wigs was something I'd never had to do before, and proved to be a time consuming, product-emptying process. Caroline was flustered by this obstacle, and decided to schedule extra time to glue my hair down herself. I knew ahead of time that neither my time nor my thoughts would be my own during this contract, but I thought at least I'd have control over my own body. Not so. She showed up at my cabin an hour before rehearsal and shellacked my hair into a helmet. After several days of this, when I finally told her I understood the process and needed to practice it on my own, she was reluctant to let me do so without her supervision. Please let a performer get ready on their own -- the pre-performance ritual is a very important one that shouldn't be intruded upon.

Must be par for the course, I thought. It was a hassle that buried up my practice time, but I was so thankful for the job, I went along happily, knowing that one day soon it would calm down and I could get my footing. Well, not during this contract...

Meanwhile, I didn't have costumes to rehearse in, nor could I practice changing into them. I stepped into rehearsals with only my costume shoes to help me get acclimated, and we walked through the numbers, mark by mark, of each show -- to learn which spike marks to stand on for the light specials, to memorize the dance spacing between myself and others, and to choreograph movement around set pieces. Their shows were even more lavish and intricate than I thought -- and I'd already seen the video footage of each one!

Separate rehearsals were called with myself, Caroline, the current Female Vocalist Kikka, and the Male Vocalist David, so they could teach me the logistical concerns of accessories, props, costume change locations, and where to store it all when you were done so it would be ready to go when that show rolled around next voyage. I scribbled notes on every piece of paper I could get my hands on.

Marynia met with me to teach me to style wigs and clean the costumes that couldn't go down to laundry. My jet lag was wearing off, but my head was spinning more than ever.

Finally it was time for my sitzprobe -- the first time singing with the live band and not just the recordings the band played along with. Finally I'd get to sing -- I was sick of being dolled up like a dressage horse for the costume fittings, and frustrated with trying to remember which spike mark was for which scene in which show. I am a singer, first and foremost, and at last it was my chance to feel like myself.

The guys in the band were so laid back and fun, compared to the production dancers, and it felt like coming home to get to be with my own species. It was fun and invigorating. We worked with the sound engineer to get levels correct between the prerecorded backup vocals, the live instruments, David's vocals, and myself. I moved around the stage to check the monitors in every location. The levels were adjusted, my EQ was finalized, and the settings were saved. It sounded fantastic, everything was smooth and rich and spaced properly. At least that aspect of the show was completely under control. Sadly, that sound engineer was going on vacation the day my performance contract started. Hopefully his replacement would be able to find the saved settings.

As predicted, there was no rest for the weary.

Learning my way around the ship was also no easy feat. I have no sense of direction for some reason, so I always left my cabin early to allow time for getting lost before reporting for work. When rehearsals would break for lunch, the cast would decide to go eat at the grill on the upper passenger deck. But this involved changing out of our mandatory rehearsal blacks, into our crew daytime uniforms which were kept in our cabins, going up to eat, then changing back into rehearsal blacks in our cabins, and reporting back to rehearsal -- in 45 minutes. I went with them once before I was issued my daytime uniform, so I just went in my blacks. Oh, the ridicule that ensued from Caroline and my line captains: how tacky for the guests to see me in spandex and workout clothes without makeup! They must never see the cast looking anything less than professional and glamorous. Never mind the fact that our long-term guest entertainer walked around in running pants and sneakers all day long, every day -- we were held to higher standards. Despite my desire to be social, I decided that getting lost four times in one lunch break to change my clothes twice wasn't a good use of my time. I would eat in the officer's mess.

I was running out of toiletries, and needed to go ashore when the ship was in port for more supplies -- especially hair product for those stupid wigs. Shore time, for crew, is ME time. You can wear what you want, dress how you like, go where you need to go, speak whatever language you want besides English, find WiFi to keep track of your land life, and in general, just let loose. We were in Hong Kong, in February -- it was cold like winter in the U.S., so I bundled up in my fuzzy fleeces and headed ashore for errands.

Caroline pulled me aside at rehearsal later that day: "I'm concerned about passengers seeing you in your Uggs. I love Uggs myself, they are great for dancers and taking care of your feet, but they look a little bit...tacky...and that's not the image we want to portray to our guests. It would behoove you to dress a bit more...stylish, even when going ashore."

"But it's winter, I'm trying to keep warm..."

"I know, but perhaps you should buy some different shoes..."

We were in Asia. Women don't grow to be my size in Asia, and their clothing retail market reflects that. I purchased some flats that were a size too small but the largest I'd found, that cut into my heels and left a bloody blister in ten minutes. This obviously wasn't going to work.

I questioned my line captains, whom I had seen going ashore in sweatshirts and jeans, and they comforted me. "Don't worry about it," Marynia smiled. "Caroline isn't used to being on board anymore, and she doesn't always know when to let it go. When you go ashore, it is what you choose to wear. Be comfortable."

"Thank you." I turned to leave.

"Oh, and Jessika," she added. "Try to have fun."

"I'm trying," I smiled glumly.

"Is Caroline getting to you?"

"Kinda," I shrugged. "I could use some space. I have so much to study, but she schedules my time away with all these little priorities, and by the time dinner's over, I'm just wiped and go to bed."

"The cast is getting dinner in the main dining room tonight, why don't you join us? I don't think Caroline knows about it."

"Thank you, I'd like that -- but I have to find time to shower to wash this product out of my hair. That's the real problem with her slicking it down every rehearsal, is that I have to shower before going into guest areas, and I don't have enough time for it to dry."

"Oh...I didn't know she was doing that... Do what you can, we'd love it if you joined us for dinner. You should feel like you're one of us."

It was comforting that at least someone noticed my inner struggle between immense gratitude and fighting for my quickly diminishing freedoms.

Thank God this performance contract was barely two months long.

You ready for more yet? Click for Part II. #thankyouLinManuelMiranda

Click for Part III.

Click for Part IV.

Click for Part V.

Click for Part VI.

Click for Part VII.

Click for Part VIII.

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