What is a Starving Artist? What You Need to Know About the Stereotype

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I was in the fifth grade when I decided I wanted to be a professional actor. It was the closing of our one-night-only production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at my elementary school, and after a brief celebration following the final bow, I went home and spent the rest of the evening in tears.

“This was the best day of my life,” I cried to my mother. “Nothing will ever be as good.” (Clearly I had a knack for drama.)

But it did get better. About 10 years later, I became a professional actor and had the chance to enjoy humbling performance opportunities on a regular basis.

In between those euphoric career highs, however, I battled a certain darkness. It was a suffering I’d been warned about from the moment my artistic aspirations began.

The starving artist stereotype

The narrative of a career in the arts has been inextricably tied to a life of struggle for as long as I can remember. Even stories of millionaire movie stars are accompanied by a cursory mention of their years waiting tables and eating ramen. And so in my own moments of struggle, I never sought an alternative. I simply pressed forward, keeping my head down until the next gig, accepting my own starving artist status quo and hoping that someday, I too would experience my own life-righting break.

It was one of my audition coaches and earliest mentors that introduced me to a new narrative. His recommended reading included entrepreneurial classics like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and “The Millionaire Mind,” touting concepts of financial freedom and empowerment I had previously regarded as reserved for normal people. You know, the ones with “real” jobs.

I soon learned that empowerment was not dictated by career path and didn’t require the permission of some external “big break.” I was capable of constructing my own thriving lifestyle without sacrificing artistic pursuit.

Transcending the starving artist myth

As I sought out a new, sustainable approach to my career, I kept finding myself coming back to one thing: money. Namely, not having enough.

Like many of my fellow artists, I had dismissed finances and mathematics as something for accountants and bankers, not artists like myself. But increasingly, I was finding that money was something I couldn’t afford to dismiss. After all, it was having enough money that would afford me the freedom to continue pursuing my artistic endeavors. It was a tool that could aid and empower me, if I could learn to nurture it with the same care and respect as the other tools in my professional arsenal.

And so, slowly, I began training myself in how to use that tool effectively, reading personal finance literature on the tour bus, tracking my spending on spreadsheets after rehearsals, and checking my investment portfolio in between auditions. Within a few years, my career was no longer characterized by “feast or famine,” “starving artist,” or any other defeatist artistic stereotype. Instead, it had evolved into a fulfilling, sustainable professional and personal pursuit.

My financial resolve changed my life without sacrificing a shred of my passion, and I know that pursued responsibly, financial education has the power to do that for every one of my fellow artists. But the shift must start with belief. Belief that the “starving artist status quo” is indeed a myth, belief that finances can be a force for good, and belief that artists can and should thrive.

Where Do I Begin?

To ditch the starving artist quo and build a more constructive reality, Amanda Clayman, director of the Financial Wellness Program at The Actor’s Fund, recommends gathering information about your financial life. “Get a comprehensive picture of ‘what is,’ ” she says. “Sometimes it’s bigger in your head. We project our emotional baggage onto what we don’t know about our financial pictures.”

When you unpack the emotional baggage and see the numbers on paper, your overwhelming “brokenness” may have a solution as simple and tangible as making an extra $200 per month, or finding $200 in monthly savings.

The grounding of financial reality can prove surprisingly empowering, even for “broke” artists. Eastern Regional Vice President of Actors’ Equity Association and founder of The Biz of Show, Melissa Robinette experienced it firsthand. “Once I learned that I was not in fact bad at math, money was not my enemy, and I was worthy of making a good living, my confidence grew,” says Robinette. “Now, I love to pay bills, whereas before, they’d just pile up. I balance my checking account two times a week and track every penny. It makes me happy and I’m in the driver’s seat. My art is better for it and I’m better for it.”

The Thriving Artist

I still shed a few tears when I close a show, but it’s no longer for fear that the best is behind me and I’m facing an imminent threat of financial collapse.

There is an exciting and prosperous alternative to the starving artist stereotype, and all actors deserve to enjoy it. Don’t wait to be happy until you’ve “made it.” Thriving artists are born with tools as simple and mundane as a spreadsheet. I should know, I’m one of them.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Stefanie O’Connell
Stefanie O’Connell is a millennial finance writer, author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life: Small Town Budget, Big City Dreams,” and founder of the blog, The Broke and Beautiful Life. Her work has been featured on Forbes, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Yahoo! Finance, and Business Insider.
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