Do give up the day job: what New York’s biggest stars did before they were famous

Golf caddy, personal assistant, teacher – if you’re a struggling artist, there are other ways to make bread

In partnership with ‘The King Of Staten Island’

Everyone’s got to start somewhere in life, even the people you can’t imagine having a ‘normal’ job. That’s true of some of the biggest names to emerge from New York’s creative scene, like iconic actor Steve Buscemi who worked as a firefighter before turning to the world of film and TV. He goes back to his roots in The King Of Staten Island (available to rent at home now), which follows budding tattoo artist Scott Carlin (played by Pete Davidson) while he tries to get his life on track. Life in the five boroughs is often driven by a hustling spirit and these stars appeared in some surprising guises on their way to fame.

Debbie Harry, Blondie – Playboy bunny


Before Blondie, there was bunny – Playboy bunny, to be precise. In the years before she was a fixture in the dank confines of infamous venue CBGB, one of New York’s leading ladies of punk was earning her coin in ears and a tail. Before that, she waitressed at the long-gone Max’s Kansas City, which became a hub for Andy Warhol and his circle in the late ‘60s. Fellow singer and Max’s waitress Jayne County described Harry during her waitressing days as being “always stoned and regularly dropped cheeseburgers in people’s laps”.

Amy Schumer – bartender, waitress, pedicab driver

Since starring in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck in 2015, Amy Schumer has become one of the most celebrated names in comedy. Before the world was aware of her wit, though, she held down a bunch of other jobs. Some, like bartending and waitressing, were pretty regular, but others were less so – during a stint living in Santa Barbara, Schumer worked as a pedicab driver, cycling people up and down the city’s State Street.

Cardi B
Cardi B worked as a grocery store worker before spending time as a stripper . Credit: Prince Williams/Wireimage

Cardi B – grocery store worker

It’s no secret that rapping wasn’t Cardi B’s first job. Before she was a hip-hop heavyweight, the Bronx MC was a reality star on Love And Hip-Hop: New York and worked as a stripper – something she frequently references in her music. But even before all that, when she was still known as Belcalis Almánzar, Cardi had a much more relatable day job – working at a grocery store in TriBeCa. Her time there came to an end when a manager caught her giving a colleague a very generous discount and suggested she go work at the strip club across the street instead.

Kristen Wiig – hotdog seller, babysitter, seller at a farmer’s market

After catching the acting bug while studying at the University Of Arizona, Kristen Wiig threw all caution to the wind post-graduation and moved to LA on a whim to try and become a professional actor. While she was waiting for her big break she went through several jobs, like babysitting, selling peaches at a farmer’s market, and manning a mall hotdog cart, to make ends meet.

Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi as firefighter Papa in ‘The King Of Staten Island’. Credit: Universal

Steve Buscemi – fireman


Before he was an actor, Steve Buscemi served as a firefighter in Manhattan, going out on auditions in his spare time. After four years of service, he left the FDNY to pursue acting full time and it paid off brilliantly – he’s now one of the city’s most iconic actors with a raft of impressive credits, including Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Reservoir Dogs.

Moby – golf caddy

He might be a world-renowned musician and producer now, but there was a point when Moby was just a teenager with a Saturday job saving up to buy records. His first job wasn’t your average shift washing dishes or manning a till though. Instead, a young Moby got himself work as a golf caddy just so he could pay to bolster his record collection. “I was quite small so I could only carry old people’s bags as they didn’t have as many clubs,” he told Today FM in 2016. “I only took that job when I was 13 years old so I could buy David Bowie records.”

Awkwafina – publishing assistant

New Yorker Nora Lum is a respected rapper and actor now, but before the world got to know her Awkwafina alter-ego, her jobs were much more behind-the-scenes. The Queens native started out interning at local publications before securing her first job at Rodale Books as a publishing assistant – until a music video she filmed with a friend was discovered by her co-workers. “My boss ended up finding out about it and kinda fired me,” she told TigerBelly in 2017. Their loss, though, was the world’s gain.


Patti Smith
Patti Smith used to work in a factory. Credit: Alamy

Patti Smith – factory worker

Like all great artists, New York punk poet Patti Smith put her experiences in a mundane 9-to-5 to good use later in life. She worked in a factory – rock mythology is foggy on whether it was one making toys, baby buggies or textbooks – and her time there inspired the 1974 track ‘Piss Factory’. “Floor boss slides up to me and he says, ‘Hey sister/You’re just moving too fast/You’re screwing up the quota/You’re doing your piece work too fast,’” she sang on the track.

Gene Simmons, KISS – teacher, personal assistant

Some rock stars might seem like they came out of the womb ready to rock and roll, but even the world’s most notorious musicians have unlikely pasts. None could be more surprising than KISS singer and bassist Gene Simmons, who had a stint as a teacher to the kids of the Upper West Side before dedicating his life to the stage. He also worked as a personal assistant to the editors at fashion mags Vogue and Glamour for a time. Maybe that’s where he picked up how to get the band’s iconic black-and-white face paint just right.

Nicki Minaj – office manager, waitress

It’s hard to imagine larger-than-life rapper Nicki Minaj as an office manager, but that’s just one of the day jobs she held down before getting her big break. She also worked as a waitress at restaurants across New York, but didn’t have the greatest attitude to patrons. “I was really, really [rude] to the customers,” she said during a 2014 appearance on The Tonight Show. “That’s what made me wanna hurry up and follow my dream. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is not for me, I gotta hurry up and get out of here’.”

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