How do you meet career demands while still staying true to yourself?


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The Singer (#70326)
By: CC BY 2.0
I am a young (woman) musician embarking on a career in music performance. So much of the job, particularly for women, involves looking sexy, getting dressed to the nines (including heels, makeup and hair), and pleasing the crowd with your visual performance as well as your music.

While I'm pretty optimistic about my musical ability, I am not (and never have been) a makeup-wearing, hair-spraying, short skirt-wearing seductress. My personal style might be described as "hipster librarian," and I am also an introverted person who is dealing with quite a bit of social and career anxiety (making me even less inclined to "put on a show").

Those of you in similar positions, how do you conform to the industry expectations of how you should look and act without making yourself uncomfortable? How do you meet the demands of your career while still staying true to yourself? -Rose

  1. What is timelessly, agelessly sexy is a polished look–clothes that fit well and look amazing. You can build a simple wardrobe of pieces that are polished yet bold. I don't know your genre–but some suggestions include a simple black sleeveless cocktail dress, a bold pair of leather pants, or a bright tuxedo-style coat. And makeup doesn't have to be super-showy either–keep it simple except for one pop of drama, like a bold lip color or bright eyeshadow.

    I work an office job, middle management, and my personal style is to dress either like a ten-year-old boy or an aging lesbian hippie. Neither Converse sneakers nor broomstick skirts are quite right for my workplace; but I compromise with colorful ballet flats, jeans that fit well, and either drapey sweaters on casual days or blazers on dressier days.

    Hipster librarians could wear fitted pencil skirts, T-strap chorus shoes, or sheer blouses with dark shells underneath. This is sexy but not revealing. (Not quite the same vibe–but if you want some style inspiration, watch a few episodes of the TV show Nashville and see how the character Rayna James always looks polished and put together–sexy but not showing a great deal of skin.)

    Bottom line–find ways to incorporate your style into your performance wardrobe, and you can start to build looks that you feel confident in. Good luck!

  2. This year I was fortunate enough to snag an interview with Crystal Bowersox who was runner up on Season 9 of American Idol. The thing that impressed me the most about her is that all through the show (and her career since) she has stayed true to herself and didn't let the producers of the show push her around and make her into what they wanted her to be. During her run on Idol, she was rocking long, beautiful dreadlocks and a very "hippie" style. She did her own hair for the show and let them pick out a few outfits, but held her ground and stayed true to herself. The dreadlocks are gone now but she is still 100% herself, and still successful.

    YOU can do the same. Be who you are. I am not a performer, but I would think that the more comfortable you are, the better/stronger your performance will be on stage. If you're worrying about tripping over heels, you'll be preoccupied and it may show in your performance. For me, I can tell when artists are being themselves or trying to be what they think everyone else expects them to be. _I_ appreciate the ones that hold to their core. Think back to Gretchen Wilson in the early 2000 country music scene she stayed her "Redneck Woman" self and did just fine. So many artists have tried to be what everyone wanted and washed out or had break downs shortly into their careers. The ones who knew who they were and fought for it had staying power.

    BE YOU. Be comfortable and confident and let people love you for your music and ability, not because you bought a good brand of mascara.

    • Thanks for your suggestions, sherryrose. I hope I can follow your advice without suffering from being compared too harshly with other women in the industry.

  3. I have no experience with music, but I used to be a ballroom dancer. And competitions involved not only the gowns, but makeup that can be seen from 50 yards away and hairdoes glued in place with gallons of hairspray. In normal life, I wear jeans, no makeup and my hair straight down. There was honestly no other solution than sucking it up. It started to feel less weird with time, it was just part of it. It had nothing to do with my personality, I mean, it didn't change who I was if I was done up like that for a day.

  4. I am not a performer, but I love live music, and I've seen so many wonderful female musicians who exude confidence and style (and, most importantly, who create good music!) without overdoing sexiness. My personal favorite in this regard is Lyndsay Pruett, an Asheville-based fiddler. She doesn't have a typical look, but she really holds her own on stage. If I was a performer, I'd want to be like her. Suzanne Vega is an example of a much more widely known musician who has been around for a long time and who really has her own distinctive look that doesn't really conform to expectations. You might also consider that everything is performance to a certain degree. So which version of yourself do you want to be when you are on stage?

    • Hey, maryr! Thanks for mentioning Lyndsay Pruett – I've never heard of her before, but I really appreciate seeing a performer who still looks like a regular human being. I can really relate to her style.

      Regarding your final question "which version of yourself do you want to be onstage?" This is one of the hardest parts of the struggle for me. The past 3 months have changed me into a nervous, anxious, sad, depressed version of myself, and I honestly don't know how to overcome that… I just try and fake it for gigs lately (but that only works for a few hours, and after I reach my end point, I need to go home – NOW).

  5. My advice is kind of in the opposite extreme, so it may not be up your alley. On your non-paid-musician time, try doing something crazier with your look. By that, I don't mean dress in clothes that make you uncomfortable to go to the grocery store. I mean try burlesque. Try pole dancing classes. Try something that requires you to get down and sexy with your bad self. Take the sexiness as far as you can go. It'll be weird and uncomfortable at first, but just like with any kind of performance, you'll learn the difference between "This is first-time jitters" and "I'm actually not okay with this." Going that far may help you gain more confidence in using your body as part of your performance when you're a paid musician, and it will also help you know where your boundaries are.

  6. I agree with most of what was noted before, that sexy does not mean one thing and you can maintain your style and be successful. I would just point out that a lot of times in performance driven fields make up isn't just about the sex appeal or expectations of a woman artist. From the stage, especially with lights on you, having some make up on allows the audience to see you, your facial expression and increases their chances of being able to relate to you and the emotional tie you have to them and the music. Make up doesn't have to be a mask that leaves you looking unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

    • Hi Kerry,

      I agree with your point about makeup being necessary for most venues for the audience to see the artists clearly, and I've actually been having quite a bit of fun with makeup for gigs lately. Perhaps I could have phrased my question a little clearer. The part that's harder for me is the personality-related challenge of being bubbly! and sexy! and dancing! and doing the industry thing of pretending like I'm super confident and comfortable and not at all anxious or dealing with low self-esteem. Any advice for a lady on that tip?

      • This might sound strange, but there's some anthropology behind it. When apes spread their limbs wide and make themselves seem larger, they are treated with more respect and act with more confidence. When they hunch down or curl in on themselves, they are treated more tolerantly, but rank low in the pecking-order, and act with less confidence.

        So, experimenting with this on human beings, they found that expansive postures increase confidence and contracted postures reduces it. This even happens when the posture precedes acting normally. Putting your hands on your hips, or sitting with your arms spread out on the back of the couch, or stretching, or anything like that, before a job interview will actually increase your odds of landing the job even if you act normally at the interview.

        So my advice would be that, right before a concert you stand, sit, or move expansively. Sprawl all over the furniture. Stretch in all directions. Do a little twirling dance with your arms flung out. Or do jumping-jacks. Whatever suits you, just so long as it expands. Then go on stage and knock their socks off!

        (If you worry about rock star inflation, you might do the reverse after a concert, curling up all cozy with your knees tucked under your chin, and settle down with a good book. This could ground you.)

  7. As a feminist and human who likes listening to music, I am always pretty excited to learn about female artists who make their art and choose not to cater to the male gaze while they do it. I think it's nice to see a variety of women making music – with a variety of personal expressions.

    If you don't want to be the next Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj, you can still be a musician. Fans will find you and stick with you because they love your art; not every fan out there is into big sexy stadium shows. You can be your hipster-librarian-musician self and still be successful!

    • Hi Gabrielle,

      Thanks for your comments. I really hope you're right, and that I can be successful as myself without being judged against the other glamorous women I share the stage with.

  8. This may be weird advice for the question, but I feel like for a lot of performers, they specifically aim to be not themselves on stage because the music they make is not who they are day-to-day, at least not completely. I think especially for someone who is a bit introverted, developing a stage persona may be somewhat freeing. I don't think that persona necessarily has to be a sex kitten, but I think ideally should be an extension of the music you create. (And for a lot of music, sexy might be wildly inappropriate and kind of weird!)
    And you can absolutely be yourself. But I suggest really bringing forward the facets of yourself that match up to the music you're presenting. And if the music is sexy, bring forward what sexy means to YOU. If the music is soft and friendly, bring that out in your dress and demeanor.

  9. There have been a lot of good examples posted already, but one of my favorite bands to come out of the last few years is Alabama Shakes, and their lead singer is a curvy black woman whose style could accurately be described as "hipster librarian". No mini skirts or high heels there.

    I think it's interesting that you cite being an introvert as making you less inclined to "put on a show." My dad was an introvert and a theater kid, and I was an introvert and a theater kid, and he always told me how he felt introverts were drawn to the theater because they could express themselves without incurring judgment – after all, what's on stage is just a character, not you. Most successful musicians have stage personas that allow them to bigger and more charismatic when it matters, and separable enough that they can leave that persona behind and go back to being a normal person after the show.

    I love comic books, so I can't really end this comment without bringing up the fact that there's been a modern comic book adaptation of the 80s show Jem and the Holograms. It's about a girl whose stage persona is created using future-sci-fi-tech-babble holograms since she's too shy to perform as herself. It's really good! And the art is done by a transwoman! And it's relevant to your situation??? Sort of? Not really? Haha, ok, nerding over.

  10. I am a hairstylist/barber and I sometimes worry that I'm not glam enough for the industry.

    But I dress in my own comfort-zone and I've found that, for the most part, I attract clients who are like me – low-maintenance, easy-going types. Even if their hair is more involved than mine would ever be, they tend to be pretty laid-back in terms of personality and temperament. The one down-side to this is that the money is in the clients who are high-maintenance (who come back more frequently to stay on-point and ask – and pay more – for the premium services) – but these clients are often also my least favorite to work with and not "worth it" in that sense.

    All of this to say, I feel like it depends on what you want and how badly you want it. If the particular niche you are hoping to appeal to will demand this higher maintenance look from you, you have to decide if the trade-offs are worth it to you. But chances are you can dress the way you want and just attract those people instead – if what you get out of that is enough for you.

  11. Some musicians construct a brand of them and their music that are interlinked, high profile artists can use what they wear to shock or start conversations and to increase publicity and extend their brand and sales.

    I have a set of dressy work clothes and company branded safety wear. When I wear these I am in work mode, where I'm more professional and use more of my work traits that I don't when I'm at home. Create a uniform for shows, Matilda Kahl dresses in the same outfit everyday for work which I think is great (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a10441/why-i-wear-the-same-thing-to-work-everday/). I'm currently listening to Kasabian, Sergio Pizzorno wore the same trousers for tours and promo for 48.13 album.

  12. Hey Rose,
    I feel I can relate to where you are at. 6 years ago I was terribly uncomfortable and anxious every time I stepped on stage. I am not super girly, I don't wear more that a little mascara and I only wash my hair once a week. I always felt so under done at shows. A little about me, I am a full time touring musician in a nerdy electro punk band with my husband. We are simple jeans and tshirt wearing folk (photo of us with a friend after a show in Lincoln NE: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=336132273223135&set=o.194900856270&type=3&theater ) Over the past 6 years so many people have told us to dress like our music, have more sex appeal or be edgy. We honestly thought for quite a while we were failing in some way because we always just wore what we were comfortable in. In the end, I am so happy we didn't confirm but stuck to being us! Be you, find confidence in being comfortable with yourself and people will appreciate you for it. If you ever want talk more about music and what nots, I'm here for you! 🙂

    • Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for your comment! I clicked the pic and now I'm listening to Crunk Witch. You and your hubby are so cute! (There was two guys in the pic, but they're both cute, so, you know). And the music's great! I can imagine this awesome music being created either by a band all dressed up in leather and hairspray, OR by a cute nerdy couple on an intimate stage. Thanks for sharing links to yourself and your craft. You've given me lots to think about 🙂

  13. I'm more of an ambivert than an introvert, and I'm fairly comfortable on stage in a variety of capacities, but the times I'm able to lose myself most in a dance performance are when I am in costume, whatever that happens to be. I've been a mad scientist, a mermaid, belly dancer, 40's glam girl, zebra, or just wearing a wig and a ton of glitter. The act of dressing up and putting on a costume, whatever it happens to be allows me to bring out whatever persona I'm going for.
    You can be a different version of yourself, or whoever you want to be on stage, in a costume, even if that costume happens to be just street clothes you've chosen to perform in, but I think it helps if you make it something special, a little out of the ordinary for you, maybe even your idealized version of your style.
    The most important thing is that you feel good, comfortable and confident in it. If you're uncomfortable that will show through in a big way!

  14. Your music might change the way people look at you. Kurt Cobain did not set out to invent the Grunge Look, he just showed up wearing what seemed comfortable to him, and people started imitating him. You might start the Hipster Librarian Look!

    On the other hand, he self-destructed when he couldn't separate himself from the Onstage Rockstar, offering himself to absorb everybody's Shadow projections, so that they could feel like vicarious bad boys without suffering the consequences. We use our musicians hard, and for much more than music. There's something to be said for creating an onstage character who's not actually you.

  15. I think that you would be quite fine to still appear as you normally do on stage, but maybe have some special clothes or accessories just for performing. If you do any tv commercials or super bowls, at that point you might want to separate stage persona from real life, and by that point you can probably afford a makeup and hair artist to do so for you.

    Imho the people who care or make comments about how performers arent dressy or showy enough, are people who aren't into the music and probably not worth your time anyway. But if you want those people to sign you, then think of this all as purelu business and invest in yourself, and create a persona that is you exaggerated!

  16. I work in classical music, which may be different from your genre, there's not so much of a "sexy" expectation (we are the genre for which you should still show up to auditions with flesh-colored pantyhose, etc, but hell, my legs look nice in 'em!), but appearance still matters, increasingly so. What I found the most helpful is to bear this in mind *You are not defined by your clothes. You are not defined by your make-up. You are not defined by your hair*. You can do things with your appearance without betraying yourself, especially if it helps people receive you better. Obviously, there is a line to walk with this, I think in the performance industry as a whole, there are always people trying to squeeze you into a box or make you like someone else (they will then complain that you are not original enough). When you're in a performance career, you play a role. When I audition or perform in concert, I am the classiest, fanciest version of myself. There are clothes I simply won't wear because they're not me and don't suit me, but I have really adjusted my professional wardrobe to meet my career's specific needs. The clothes, the jewelry, the make-up you wear on stage isn't going to be what you wear hanging out at home, or at a casual get together, and that's ok. I find it absolutely hilarious that, among professional contacts, I tend to be regarded as a classy and stylish person, because I don't particularly think of myself that way, but hey, it means I'm doing my job right. I agree with some other people's advice: figure out what your comfort zone is, and remember that you the performer is not the same as you, the private person, and you'll be able to figure out that balance I think. Another important thing, have people in your life that you trust to give you professional advice, AND people in your life that have nothing to do with your performance career, and will support and accept you whatever you do.

    • Hi diva_mezzo, thanks your your advice. Your last comment really hit home for me – since making a transition from my small university city to a big urban centre, I've only had people telling me I need to do this, act like that, talk to that person, do this, do that to "make it". It's gotten a bit overwhelming at times. You're right, I need some non-music people around me so I can just be myself. If not, I'm always going to be struggling with these problems!

  17. As many others have mentioned, it's always important to be you but many enjoy that they can play with different styles/characters on stage. The one thing I would say is that makeup might not be your thing, but depending on the stage, it's often used so that you aren't horribly washed out. I personally find makeup gross and wear literally nothing on my face in my day to day life, but onstage I'm a lovely shade of 'fishbelly pale' as my husband calls it unless I put on some makeup. I think audiences appreciate seeing colour, but it doesn't have to be all that much – I think just adding a bright colour on your lips or eyeliner works.

  18. Late to the party but here never the less with a pair of cents.

    I like to think success is a self driven thing. Yes the music industry does objectify women and it does a horrendous thing to the minds of viewers. People come to expect a dramatic show they want the dirty news coverage and as Ariel pointed out in a offbeat empire post, even bad news is profitable news. Shows like Say Yes to the Dress thrive on the sheer negativity and drama that the women create and often fake. Show business is about standing out and generally the more revealing (whether emotionally or physically) the higher the ratings or sales. Some of this is obvious and some of it not.

    All that said there are successful people who have completely subverted the show business paradigm. My best example is RUSH a band which may appear to have little in common with your situation. They however faced a similar challenge where rock bands had to have an "image" and they desperately just wanted to go out on stage wearing jeans and t-shirts. What happened to them however was they offered something to the audiences that no one else did. Amazing performance skills with a stick it to the man attitude. They dredged up out of rapidly failing music careers a lifetime cult following with nary a snooty magazine article about how they were raising their children. For the record these three lucked out on getting the following they did. Things could have easily gone the other direction should they have lost their public exposure at the time of the album release "2112." No way no how was their journey easy or relaxing but luck and apparently some begging and pleading played a part. (The documentary of RUSH "Beyond the Lighted Stage" [not to be confused with an album of theirs by the same name] may be worth a watch for encouragement.)

    What any entertainer needs to do is offer something extremely dramatic, sexually appealing, an astounding performance, or be completely different in every way. Often the first two mingle together and create the ultimate sales tactic. The further you stray from sex and drama the harder it will be strictly because producers know that those subjects sell and they can make money from them on almost a guarentee. Most certainly you will be pushed that direction as an easy sell. You as a performer have to sell your talent in a way that makes people see you as a profitable investment. There is nothing crappier than thinking about yourself as a bad investment but to put yourself into the shoes of a producer there's much to learn from what they see. Don't let people compromise your image but certainly let those with the knowledge of success help shape it. If you are bad with setting boundaries then get help! A supportive and industry knowledgable manager that knows who you are and where your comfort zone can be pushed to could certainly help things. Network and surround yourself with the right people.

    I would also say take the time to invest in yourself to and boost your self confidence. Confidence while not everything is a huge key. Maybe get a color draping done and make a signature look that you *feel* amazing in. I have a deep teal scarf and that thing just makes me feel fabulous when I toss it on (even so much as to wear it around the house on the middle of a heat wave just so I can get the dishes done). Learn about who you are and take those corner stones to build your career with. Where are your other strengths? How can you utilize them? Take MBTI or other personality tests (seriously!) even just to learn maybe a few things about yourself and why you do them. Never stop learning and don't let common labels define and confine you. Especially the "female entertainer" label.

    I hope this stuff isn't all terribly obvious. Then again a worried mind can miss the biggest details. I sincerely hope you can launch a successful career in a way that you feel comfortable in.

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