by Bevy Smith, February 27th 2017
Twelve years ago, I was a fashion advertising executive at Rolling Stone magazine, earning a six-figure salary and taking regular business trips to Paris and Milan. It was nothing to sneer at, especially for a Brown girl from Harlem.
But I wasn’t happy.
I woke up one morning in Milan, surrounded by opulence, and that’s when I finally acknowledged that I was, in fact, miserable. I was definitely not living my best life, and it was on me to figure out how to fix that.
While I couldn’t just up and quit my job, I started making some deliberate changes: I decided to go by “Bevy” instead of “Beverly,” also making a point to correct people who introduced me as “Beverly from Rolling Stone.” In order to lay the groundwork for my own brand, I needed to lead with me.
From there, I channeled my talent for bringing people together and began building a business on the side. It started with a private dinner and cocktail series with influencers (Dinner with Bevy) and continued with my Life With Vision events, which are open to the public. While the audiences of Dinner with Bevy and Life with Vision differ, the purpose behind both ventures is to help people tap into their passions and make their life goals a reality – which is exactly what I was attempting to do when I first launched the events.
I continued carving out opportunities to gain new skills that would help get me closer to where I wanted to go, from taking improv classes; to creating a podcast; to appearing on TV as a fashion and pop-culture expert, panel moderator, and motivational speaker. I left Rolling Stone in 2005. It wasn’t easy to walk away from the community and reputation I’d created working in advertising for several decades in favor of a career in which I had to prove myself all over again. But navigating that path was extremely rewarding.
I couldn’t afford a publicist, so I managed my own social media. I took it very seriously, approaching it like a job. I studied Twitter just as it was becoming popular and realized that I could grow my audience by starting my own conversations and leveraging hashtags like #galabouttown. It was as though I could, in some ways, create my own show. When I was a guest co-host on The View two years ago, people were ecstatic for me because they remembered that I’d live-tweeted The View for three years. That’s when I realized I really could build my own audience, have a voice, and be heard.
It took eight years until I got my big break in the form of Fashion Queens, a fashion-focused talk show on Bravo that I co-hosted for three seasons. The show has been off the air for about a year now, but it helped me earn the freedom to work for myself and on my own schedule. Now, I own my happiness and, because I’m in charge, no one can take that away from me. Here’s what I learned while pursuing my goals:
1. Take every job seriously.
As I teenager, I got a part-time job at the concession stand in Midtown Manhattan’s Paley Park. I loved being a part of that workforce, surrounded by the amazing architecture and atmosphere. The mandate to serve those hot dogs with pride came from the owner of the stand, Samuel Paley, who was also the chief executive officer of CBS. In that sense, it wasn’t your average concession stand. Employees had to wear a white shirt and black pants – no jeans or t-shirts allowed. We also knew exactly how Mr. Paley wanted the hot dogs prepared: Each bun was to be toasted golden-brown and brushed with butter. I took it very seriously, learning the ins and outs of customer service. I was part of something, and that was important to me. In a lot of ways, that gig set the tone for my career.
2. Present the best version of yourself to the world.
I grew up in Harlem, where I still live. Growing up, my mother was always superbly dressed, as were the secretaries in my neighborhood. In a way, that made me want an office job where I could dress up like them (and the advertising executives I saw on Bewitched reruns). My mother would take us shopping at B. Altman, a department store on Fifth Avenue. Dressing up gave us a sense of pride. It was also a strategic thing – I knew that if I wanted to catch a taxi as a Black woman in Midtown Manhattan (this was pre Uber!), I’d have a much easier time if I were dressed up. Even now, it boosts my confidence to look fabulous throughout the day.
3. Embrace non-traditional mentorship.
A lot of what I’ve learned about succeeding in the advertising and entertainment industries has come from getting to know my coworkers. I met my earliest mentors through my first receptionist job at the advertising agency Peter Rogers. At first, I thought I was different from these people – I was the secretary who’d sit at her desk reading books, and none them were Black. But certain people saw my talent and commitment. They ended up being hugely supportive of my professional growth. They gave me a career boost, teaching me what a media director does and what skills were integral to success. I didn’t know I was being mentored at the time. But when an art director told me I didn’t belong at the reception desk – that I should be in back with him and his teammates doing creative work – that was exactly what was happening. And when that same art director eventually left Peter Rogers to start his own agency, he took me with him.
4. Say “yes, and …” to new opportunities.
I was in my late 20s working as a media director when I decided to quit my job. I didn’t have another opportunity lined up and the company my mentor, Jeff McKay, had started was a success. But I was stagnant. I felt as if I had done what I could do there and done it for long enough. I trusted that I’d figure things out, and that was important. So, I took a leap. I believe in the cardinal rule they teach you in improv: You must always answer “Yes, and…” Even if you don’t know what’s coming next, you have to be open to unfamiliar opportunities and willing to build on them. Leaving my job opened me up to new avenues and a whole lot of “yes.” In fact, I like to think that my life is a “yes, and…” proposition. Don’t close yourself off to change. Embrace opportunities, even if you’re not always sure where they’ll lead.
5. Aim to become the true you.
Working on Fashion Queens was a remarkable experience and stepping stone. But the radio show I host today, Bevelations – that’s where I’m truly me. That’s mine. It has my name on it. And my Dinner with Bevy series? That’s also me. Now that I’m representing my personal brand, I can show both sides of me: The part that’s interested in fashion and design along with the part that’s interested in entertainment and pop culture. I can talk about my interests in mid-century modern architecture and the Black Panther movement. I can show my audience who I really am. And, some 30-years and a lot of hard work into my career, this is the life I’ve always wanted.