If it’s ok with you, let me start by sharing a true story about one of my favourite American idols: Marilyn Monroe and please bear with me if you are not (yet!) a Marilyn fan.
It is 15 March 1955 in Los Angeles, almost a decade before President Lyndon B. Johnson took steps to abolish segregation in the United States through the Civil Rights Act. Black singers were banned from singing in certain nightclubs such as the Mocambo on Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood. A club frequented by the Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich. It was where Frank Sinatra debuted his first solo performance in 1943 and where Marilyn Monroe, like many of her peers, chose to kick back and relax to the sounds of the biggest acts of the moment. In fact, rather than me tell you the story, here it is in the words of the great Ella Fitzgerald, who was at the receiving end of Marilyn’s support:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night… She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
What had Marilyn Monroe to gain from putting her neck on the line for a lesser-known female artist? At that time, Marilyn was fast rising to the top of the motion picture industry, with a list of hit movies under her belt (or taffeta sash, whichever you prefer), a surging fan base and a superhero husband, the much-lauded New York Yankees baseball player, Joe Di Maggio. The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing, except joy in helping to promote the talent she so clearly identified in this shy jazz singer, who went on to be known as the Queen of Jazz and the First Lady of Song.
Having read quite a bit about Marilyn Monroe and her struggle to be treated as a serious actress instead of the blonde bimbo, I believe that alongside the joy she experienced in helping others, there was also a strong sense of equality and fairness. She herself felt misunderstood, mistreated and quite frankly abused. So rather than expecting others to have to withstand the same fate, she instead extended a manicured hand out to those whom she could see were struggling with similar horrors that she herself knew only too well. The fact that by law, singers such as Ella Fitzgerald were routinely denied access to quite literally, the “white club”, the playing field for artists in this case, was from the outset and to put it mildly, grossly uneven. Marilyn spotted the talent and the inequality and she did something about it. By opening up this one opportunity to Ella, Marilyn created a springboard from which The First Lady of Song rocketed into the history books of music and modern culture and not only in her home country of America, but also around the world and for decades to come.
I will now move us on from 1955 and into the 1990s. I was at boarding school in Kent, in the second year of my A levels and deliberating about my UCCA form as it was then known. I was aiming high, but uncertain of whether I might make it into the ivory towers of Oxbridge. Several teachers tried to dissuade me: “University isn’t for everyone Natalie” and “You won’t get over the rejection” were the words I heard before I had even put pen to paper and filled in “Oxford University” on my form. I heard their words, but I chose not to listen. They were not going to hold me back, but I needed encouragement. So I sought out one teacher in particular who had always inspired me to do better and to believe in myself. She seemed to see a spark of potential in me from a relatively early age and I would need her help now. I rushed up to the teachers’ study, knocked politely at the door and requested a quick word with Miss Boyce. Out she came and I spewed: “I want to apply for Oxford. Mr X and Miss Y have told me not to. Do you think I can do it?” I felt that my future was hanging on her answer. She looked at me with every piece of assurance I needed and said: “Yes. You can do it.” Well, that was it. Out came the black biro and off went my UCCA form in the post that very day. Miss Boyce opened the door of opportunity for me. She believed in me, she dealt the cards, we placed our chips and now all I had to do was win the hand. I did win the hand and will always be grateful for her support.
Fast forward a little further and we are in 2015. While my career as an in-house lawyer developed and I was advising the heads of business and risk in my own industry, I was keen to grow further and gain more experience right at the strategic core of the decision-making process in other industries too. I started to look at board positions that I sensed might fulfil these developmental cravings in me. I read about how to be a NED (Non-Executive Director), attended various evening sessions teaching the ins and outs of how to navigate a set of accounts and financial statements, searched online for board vacancies and applied for a handful of those. Nothing. Then something amazing happened. I was at a corporate event in one of London’s swankiest hotels, sitting in a break-out session where we were discussing how to get more women onto boards. A shimmer of aquamarine light caught my eye. It was sitting around the neck of a fellow attendee. Not only was she a very successful lawyer and multiple board member, but she was also a jewellery designer and this necklace was one of her own stunning creations. We hit if off immediately and I continue to seek her wise counsel on many dilemmas. At one of these meet ups, she said: “I have been approached for a Board position. They specifically want a lawyer, but my various obligations at the moment mean that I don’t think I would be able to devote the time that I would otherwise like to. Would you mind if I recommend you? I think they would be very lucky to have you”. Would I mind? I was ready to bite her hand off! She had identified potential in me and opened the door to an opportunity I would not otherwise have had.
I continue to sit on that Board, learning and developing my skills in a different industry from the one that is in my comfort zone, but most of all, I continue to be so grateful to countless successful women like this who spot potential in other women and put their necks on the line for them. There are so many women I could name in my own career, but the word count won’t allow me to include them all. The irony is that these women probably wouldn’t even know that this article is about them, including the woman who encouraged me to start writing articles in the first place. They do not help to be thanked, or for praise or recognition. They help for the mere joy of it and, I firmly believe, to help level out that playing field.
A huge thank you to all of you women, from all of the women like me who have benefitted from your encouragement, support and empathy. You have recognised the light inside us and kept it nurtured to glow even brighter. I rather like these encouraging words from Marilyn Monroe herself: “We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle.”