From Madison Avenue to Gramercy Nightingale — Celia Berk Interview
Tell us about the HR career you had for over 30 years. Why did you choose that career path?
I don't know that I chose it. I think it chose me. I got an undergraduate degree in theater, and I came to New York City with the thought of becoming a stage actor. Then, a few years went by and I actually got a national commercial. And I thought, I’m not a starving artist anymore! But the next day, I had to start looking for work again and I had a sobering realization: is this what life is going to be? I had graduated with the fantasy of being a performer, not someone who had to look for work every day. But I couldn’t tell myself I wasn’t going to be an actor, because I really, really wanted to do it.
So, I thought I’ll take a year off and just get some work. I went to an employment agency and they literally pulled a job out of a recipe box folder. It was for an Administrative Assistant at the Commonwealth Fund. When I went for the interview, the Fund was in a mansion on Fifth Avenue —which was tremendously appealing — and they also said they provided lunch every day. The combination of working in a mansion and free lunch proved irresistible. I was there for three years.
By the time I left, I was the Administrator of their Harkness Fellowships program, which in retrospect was the beginning of my career in HR. I was working with students who came to the US to study and was responsible for helping onboard them and guide them through their tenure. Then, through a series of serendipitous introductions, I ended up at Reuters.
I stayed at Reuters for 10 years, at first doing the jobs no one else wanted to do, making order out of chaos, taking minutes in the executive suite (an excellent exercise in honing listening skills BTW) and it served me well. Not only did I meet all kinds of interesting people including sitting next to Rupert Murdoch at a Board dinner, I also had exposure to what it was like in the executive suite. I continued to be promoted at Reuters, managing projects like the integration of acquisitions, and ultimately becoming a Senior Vice President with responsibility for HR. But the Reuters landscape was changing and I knew it was time to leave.
Which brought me to my 20+-year career on Madison Avenue. First as Managing Director, Human Resources Worldwide at the iconic public relations agency Burson-Marsteller and finally, as Group Talent Partner at the world’s largest marketing communications holding company WPP.
What was most fulfilling about your career? And did you reach a point where it was no longer fulfilling?
Well, in HR it was different every day and fascinating because you’re dealing with people. It’s mission critical if you do it correctly. And you can make an enormous difference in people’s lives. I’ve had a number of people over the years tell me ‘you really made an impact in my life’ and they would recount conversations I honestly sometimes didn’t remember. And perhaps working in an agency environment, filled with creative people, the workplace seemed to somehow fit with my own creative side, the side I had left behind.
But there did come a point where people were moving on. Taking new roles at other companies and I admit to having felt a bit jealous. I looked up and thought everything’s changing except me.
I looked up and thought everything’s changing except me.
What do you miss most about leaving that career behind?
Well, I miss the paycheck for sure. . . it’s very interesting to have 30 years of a paycheck and all that it makes possible. How much it feels like a measure of one’s success. I miss the identity. Being part of a senior team and identifying with a company. I miss my office and the professional markers that go with it. In my case, when I left my office, I had memorabilia from back in the Commonwealth Fund days and it was my professional identity in a very physical way.
Let’s jump to the present. What prompted you to switch from a career at the top of your field in Human Resources to doing something as dramatically different as becoming a cabaret singer?
Well, I had that conversation with myself back before I went to the Commonwealth Fund about not living the life of a starving artist. But also keeping the door open by convincing myself I would only be taking a year off. Once I got to the corporate world, I felt I was never going to perform again. I told myself that I had given up that dream. However, despite my reckoning that it was all behind me, what I failed to notice, and am still shocked by this, was that I continued to take voice lessons every single week for 30 years.
The voice teacher I had would look at me some days as I came to my after-work lesson totally stressed out and she would say ‘You must want to do this very badly’. And really, I couldn’t imagine not doing it, but in my head I said, ‘Oh no, I gave all of that up.’ And everyone I worked with had this dim awareness that I would go off and sing. They would see an opera score in my briefcase or pieces of music sticking out. And they would say, ‘Are we ever going to hear you?’ I would go, ‘Absolutely not!’ And my voice teacher would occasionally ask me if I was ever going to do anything with this. And I would go, ‘Absolutely not!’ But I literally did not notice that I had never stopped singing.
I literally did not notice that I had never stopped singing.
Did you have an aha moment, where you decided that maybe you should pursue this more professionally? Did the universe tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘now’s the time?’
Well, about 15 years ago my younger brother died very suddenly. And it was like a nuclear bomb went off in everybody’s life. It just left this incredible destruction everywhere in my family. I remember thinking, this either leaves a hole or a space. And thinking it has to be a space or I’m going to lose my mind.
I remember thinking, this either leaves a hole or a space. And then thinking it has to be a space or I’m going to lose my mind.
At the same time, someone sent me a gift. A paperweight that said ‘What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?’ (First of all, the grammar makes me crazy, but that aside. . .) I remember opening the box, seeing the inscription and within a split second I thought, ‘I would sing’, which surprised me. I didn’t say ‘I would act’ even though my degree was in theater and not music. And I thought, that’s interesting because it was at that point, and only then, that I realized I had never stopped singing.
So, I went to my next voice lesson and it was one of those days. My voice teacher was very concerned. She knew my brother. She knew my family. She was just taking care of me at that point. But she did one of her periodic, ‘Are you ever going to do anything with this?’ check-ins. And for the first time I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And she said, ‘Thank God’.
Tell us a bit about the road from that epiphany to where you are today, as a lauded recording and performance artist.
I asked my voice teacher to help me find a vocal coach. He encouraged me to sing in my speaking range. I had been singing in a higher, ingenue register. When I finished singing the first time in the lower range he said, ‘that’s a really beautiful sound.’ Then he asked me if I’d ever sung with a microphone. I hadn’t. So he set up a microphone, told me to lean in and sing to the mic in my lower range. We picked a song. I leaned in and sang. When I pulled back he said ‘Huh!!’ and I went ‘Huh!!’ I felt like the secret of the universe opened up; like this is what I should be doing. The microphone and I understood each other perfectly from the very beginning.
I felt like the secret of the universe opened up; like this is what I should be doing. The microphone and I understood each other perfectly from the very beginning.
From there I found an arranger/music director. After singing for him for the first time, he looked at me and asked ‘Who are you?’ Again, in something that had become a pattern in my life, the arranger asked ‘Are you ever going to do anything with this?’ I said I didn’t know what to do with it, so he suggested we go into a studio and record. After we had recorded for three hours the owner of the studio came out and asked, ‘Who are you?’ And at the end of the session he said, ‘I expect to hear great things from you.’
The next challenge was overcoming my fears of performing live. I was terrified, absolutely terrified. So, I found a sports psychologist to help me overcome my performance terrors. From there it went to recording albums and then, because people want to hear you sing those songs in person, to live performances.
What happened next was overwhelming, but in a good way. After my first album, I picked up endorsements from the likes of Michael Feinstein. I got generous reviews in the cabaret world and started to win all these awards. It was almost too much too fast with just one album out and one cabaret show. So, I recorded another album and the show built around that material got reviewed in the New York Times. From that point on, it’s just become more and more central to my life.
Finally, what has been the emotional impact of returning to the dream of performing, albeit musically vs. being an actor?
Perhaps it’s best summed up by the experience I had when I went to see if I could reinstate my Actor’s Equity card. I got it when I was first starting out but it had, of course, expired. When I called to see what I had to do to get it back, they said, ‘Oh, you’ve just taken a leave. If you just pay the dues forward and a re-initiation fee, you can be part of Equity again.’ I went in, paid the dues, and got my card back. When I came out holding my card I sat down on a bench and cried like a baby — and I am not a crier. But the card was a physical representation that I had come full circle. I did it. The card triggered a flood of emotion. I just sobbed. It was then I realized I had been holding it in — holding that dream in — all these years.
Celia Berk’s career in Human Resources has spanned over 30 years, often within highly creative environments. She continues to work as an HR consultant and also serves as a Trustee of a small philanthropic foundation. Celia is also an award-winning vocalist whose recordings have attracted listeners around the world. She has made memorable appearances at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Birdland Theater, among other iconic venues. Celia has been praised by some of the most prominent champions of The Great American Songbook. Rex Reed calls her ‘One of the best singers I’ve heard in a long time.’ And Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times ‘Ms. Berk makes you feel about New York the same way a Cole Porter song makes you feel about Paris.’
Celia’s recordings are available on Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora and other major platforms. They are released by Gramercy Nightingale Music Co. For more visit celiaberk.com.