Any way my life was measured, from my adolescence to my early thirties, I was destined, not to be a voice actor, but a singer. A recording artist. A "star." I was singing in church at the age of 9, performing in public by 12, and winning national singing contests by 16. I had a “demo deal” with CBS Records at age 19, replete with songs written by a hugely successful writing duo, a Grammy winning producer and Grammy winning music director; a demo deal which ended unceremoniously when that music director sexually assaulted me. In my wildest, most naive dreams, I never saw that one coming.
Not surprisingly, I set music aside for several years and began to pursue a career in acting. Forget those Grammys. I’ll set my sights on the Oscars! I was a big dreamer, for sure. I headed to Los Angeles to attend acting school, which I abruptly left after two years. Panic attacks and debilitating anxiety had gotten the best of me. I spent the next couple of years in a cocaine-induced haze, waiting tables, smoking too many cigarettes and, as the country song goes, looking for love in all the wrong places. Somewhere along this otherwise dark and lonely path, voiceover work fell into my lap. It came into view on the side screen of my life and didn’t really rack focus until further down the road. I thought little of it, frankly, except to hope that one day I might make enough money at it to stop waiting tables.
In my late 20s, after having gotten my proverbial sh*t together, I began to pursue music again - this time as an artist in the burgeoning Christian music scene where Amy Grant was all the rage. I began to write songs and collaborate with writers in Nashville, the epicenter of Christian music. My writing and singing appeared good enough to garner the attention of both Amy Grant’s booking agent and her producer. Finally, I felt like I had found my feet again and was on my way. But as it often happens, those writing connections and that producer's interest quickly waned. It's a frequent occurrence, any artist can attest. The music business moves fast and is fickle as they come. So, I began submitting myself and my songs to various Christian music competitions (oxymoronic, I know.) Wherever I submitted I was accepted. Wherever I performed I had glimpses of success, which kept me hopeful. But after losing yet another grand prize at what turned out to be my last entrance into those ubiquitous and depressing competitions, I reviewed very carefully the written evaluation of my performance by one of the adjudicators. In it, he said “while Kay is a good performer and her songs are somewhat catchy, she will likely never rise above ‘local ministry’ (read mediocrity.) It is doubtful she has what it takes to become any kind of star.”
I Was Pissed. Indignant. Infuriated. How could I not “have what it takes” when everyone - since I first opened my mouth to sing - said I do? Don’t they know who I am? Don’t they know this is my destiny?
I have since learned that anger and self-righteous indignation are common covers for those debilitating psychological siblings: sorrow and shame. In truth I was heartbroken. Defeated. Dejected. And I felt like a total fraud. In the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty, it’s abundantly clear: a career in music - Christian or otherwise - let alone becoming an Oscar winning film actor, was not, in fact, my destiny.
So, why am I sharing this seeming sorrowful tale of struggle and defeat? Well, I am often asked questions by voice-actors I coach like “How do I know if I have what it takes to become a successful voice actor? How long do I go without a booking before I should give up? How do I know if I have enough talent to be competitive? What do I do if I know in my heart-of-hearts voice-over is my destiny, but nothing seems to work out for me?” And, as much as I’d like to, I can't answer them. It was near impossible for me to answer them for myself. I know brilliantly talented actors who have never found commercial success. I know insanely gifted singers and songwriters whose talents far surpass mine who never landed a record deal, and still others who did but whose dreams of commercial and financial success never came to fruition. I also know successful actors and voice actors who can’t act their way out of a paper bag. We all see recording artists gracing the cover of Rolling Stone whom our dogs can out-sing, who are nonetheless cha-chinging their fine selves all the way to the bank. I also know that one adjudicator all those years ago – who’s name I can’t even remember - was just expressing his solitary opinion; an opinion in which I put more faith than I did anyone else's - including my own. Who knows? Maybe I did have the goods to have been a contender. But that doesn't mean I'd have been successful, because talent comes with no guarantees. Put another way: Life isn't fair. And it never will be.
We all know this, of course. But it's not what anyone asking pressing, existential career questions wants to hear. We want answers. We want assurance that our endeavors are not in vain. We want a steady path and a concrete timeline. We want our dreams and our talent and our lives validated. We want our efforts to pay off with a guaranteed, on-time arrival at the finish line with the Grand Prize waiting for us, gorgeously wrapped, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. But that’s just not how it works, and I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
When I arrived at my mid-30s, I was in rather desperate straits trying to figure out what to do with my life. Time was "running out," I thought. So, like many of us do in times of desperation, I had a long overdue chat with The Man Upstairs. "Where is all the fabulous goodness I was promised if I used the gifts You gave me?" I queried. "I’ve done my daily affirmations. Where's my prosperity? Time's a wastin' for me Mr. Creator, Sir, and I’ve got nothing to show but a Clear Blue Easy TV spot, some promos for The Bold and The Beautiful, and way too many years under my belt serving cocktails to lascivious drunks. What about my record deal? What about my Grammy? Nothing is working and I'm running out of time. I don’t want to be just another nameless failure in the logbook of life. Please help me. Please. Help Me."
I make light of my desperation, but I really was at a crossroads. We all find ourselves there at one point or another. And sometimes, by holding so tightly to our expectations, we find ourselves backed into such a tiny corner we can't see any other path.
What came next was pivotal; an experience I was not expecting, and one which might sound a little too "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" (as my friend Keri says) to be taken seriously. But I hope you will take it seriously and bear with me, dear readers, especially those of you who aren't believers in any sort of benevolent God-like Being. I humbly implore you to suspend your disbelief for a moment (as we actors practice in our craft, and as we consumers of film, tv, and written fiction often must.) If you do, and even if you don't, there might be something you can take away.
All of those questions I asked were part of a journaling exercise I undertook at a spiritual retreat I attended one weekend in the mid-1990s in search of "answers." In this exercise, I was to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God as I understood God. Once I finished with all my questions (and apparent complaining) I was to “listen” for God’s reply and write it down in my own hand as it came to me.
Here's the answer I *received.* The original is handwritten in a journal dated August 1997 and remains in my bedside table drawer:
Kay. My Beloved Kay.
Here's what I want you to do: Love.
Love everyone who crosses your path. Whether you like them or not. Whether you agree with them or not. When it's easy, and when it's not. All the souls who remain in your life, and all those who leave it. Everyone whose eyes meet yours. Love them. Find a way, and just love them. You don't have to do the big things. I've got that covered. Just the small things.
See. Listen. Hear. Affirm.
If you love, you cannot fail.
The Grammy. The Oscar. The Accolades. None of it really matters. None of it makes you worthy. And none of it would make you happy without love. Nobody brings those things with them in the end, anyway. But all that love? You’ll not only bring it with you, you’ll also leave it behind. And you’ll have made the world a better place by making a difference to the people you loved. It's what all artists want, isn't it? To make a difference? Don't worry about all the other stuff, how you'll make a living, how you'll move ahead, whether you'll "be somebody." Trust me.
Okay. Wow. Got it. No pressure, there, Supreme Being. That was my first thought after reading the words on the page. But reading it again I felt a shift, a sense of relief, like some burden I'd carried since childhood had lifted. I can do that, I thought. I am totally capable. I know I am.
And so I began.
After that quiet, life-altering revelation, my life came into focus, and it is the life I now live. It's quite an imperfect one to be sure, as I am still learning how to love. And I certainly haven't done a great job loving everyone who's crossed my path. But it's a life the purpose of which I understand clearly, and which requires action over which I have total control. I’m no longer looking for love in all the wrong places. I do not live to be validated by or find my worth in my work. I keep at it with diligence and gratitude for the opportunity that comes my way, to be sure. But whether it's my family, my daughter, my friends, my colleagues, my clients, my neighbors, the mail carrier, or even my ridiculously anxious, pain-in-the-ass dog (who's really quite sweet if you just leave her alone) I've set my sights on figuring out how to love whoever enters my life in whatever way I can.
So, what does all this other-worldly, spiritual hoo ha mean for those of you still waiting for answers to your questions? Well, those answers will ultimately and rightly come from you and your life experience, from the still, small voice that lives inside you. But here's what I've gleaned over the years. Maybe it will help as you do your own gleaning:
First, know this: You are loved. Deeply loved. And, if you don't know it already, you have value and purpose so far beyond a career in voiceover, it's mind blowing. Second: Look for and walk through the doors that open to you. Yes, you may have to knock on occasion, and yes, you may have to knock twice. You might even have to humble yourself and ask a good and willing friend for the key to help you unlock it. But if you find yourself trying to kick those closed doors down and they still aren’t budging, might I suggest you look around for an open door? Or perhaps an open window, one beckoning with a new and beautiful vista? What’s that silly saying? "Go with the flow." Follow the path of lesser resistance. I even do this when I’m driving. If I have the choice of two paths while on the road, I go where the light is green or the turn is easiest to make, even when Waze tells me differently. It’s the same concept. It makes driving in LA a whole lot more pleasant, and it's also a pretty good metaphor for life.
Maybe with time and diligence you’ll bring to fruition the voiceover career you desire. Or maybe, you’ll walk through a different door... and become a recording engineer. Or a copywriter. Or a home studio designer. Or an audiobook editor. Or a designer of vo websites. Or a casting director. Or a vo agent. Maybe you’ll climb through an open window and become a provider of resources or encouragement to other voice actors. Maybe you’ll create an entirely new product or service based on a need you see that begs to be satisfied. If you love the world of voice-over, you’ll find a way to be in it. It just might be in a different capacity than you first thought.
Take it from a former Oscar dreamer. Take it from a could-have-been recording artist who, come to think of it, does record her voice almost every day, but who never dreamed she’d do it how she’s been doing it for 35 years. Take it from someone who chose to walk through a different door, and who's ended up loving the life she never expected.
Trust and Be Brave,