Career, Issue: First Job
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6 Things I Learned Tracking the First Jobs of Famous Folk

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Everyone gets a start in the working world somewhere. So, as the Money editor at Reuters, I thought it would be interesting to use the monthly jobs report released by the U.S. Department of Labor as a springboard talk to notable people about their very first gigs. (For non-financial types, the jobs report is by far the most closely watched economic gauge of the U.S. economy’s health.)

After all, no matter how famous or powerful they have become, all of us remember the first moment of bringing home the bacon.

Here is what I’ve learned from editing three years’ worth of first job stories:

1. Many people got their start delivering newspapers

It sounds so old-timey, but the list includes MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, baseball legend Ron Darling and financial wizard Warren Buffett. However, so far no one has mentioned being chased by a dog.

2. Many more of them worked in restaurants

Fredrik Eklund of Million Dollar Listing New York, Olympic gold medalist Carmelita Jeter, football star Damien Woody, Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, comedian Tom Green, to name a few.

I especially love this tale from Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, who worked as a busboy at his mom’s restaurant in Ohio:

“Family restaurants don’t always obey minimum-wage laws, so I think I got around a dollar a night. My mother was a terrific cook and guarded her recipes like the CIA. She was especially known for her dinner rolls, a recipe she took to her grave. Later on I found out she just used a whole lot of butter.”

3. Some had dismal first jobs

The very worst first-job story I’ve ever read about thus far is by Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook. He worked as a roofer during the summer in Philadelphia, often in searing heat:

“There was one particularly cruel day when a radio reporter said the city of Philadelphia had pulled all horses off the streets because of the heat-wave. Six stories closer to the sun, and with no shade in sight, we all looked over at our foreman. ‘Back to work,’ he said.”

4. Camp counselors rock

A recent New York Times article making the rounds among my peers is about the value of working as a summer camp counselor instead of getting office experience. It resonates with me because I was a camp counselor for three summers in college.

I especially like talk show host Katie Couric’s story about working at a summer camp for blind children:

“It taught me a lot about responsibility, and how to make a fun summer for those kids. We did all sorts of things you might not think of for the visually impaired, like bowling, swimming – even forming a band. I played piano.”

5. Celebrities meet other celebrities before they are famous

Pundit Chuck Todd had to get Janet Reno “fresher milk” when he worked as a grocery bagger. Comedian Kathleen Madigan encountered Dolly Parton while working at a Holiday Inn.

But the best tale thus far:

Wink Martindale, the host of Tic Tac Dough, was the deejay at a Memphis radio station that played ‘That’s All Right Mama’ by a truck-driving singer called Elvis Presley. After the switchboard lit up, Martindale was tasked with finding the singer and bringing him to the station for an interview:

“…I called up his mother. She said that he was so nervous about his record being played, he went to a double-feature Western down at the movie theater. So she drove to the theater, walked up and down the aisles until she found him, brought him to WHBQ, and we put him on the air.

“It was his first interview ever, and the first time his record was ever played. And I just happened to be there.”

6. Dancing for work is fun

My most favorite first job story comes from actress Amma Asante, whose first gig at age 12 was dancing in the Culture Club video for “I’ll Tumble for Ya.”

Aside from shimmying in a shiny blue outfit, her main role was to keep her fellow Boy George fans from passing out.

Tumble away!

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