From The Straits Times    |

Image: Jamie Nonis. Artwork: Jane Tan

Do you like your job? Or wonder what it would be like if you’d gone against your parents’ advice and pursued your dream career? Her World’s Career Confessions column spotlights the professional journeys of its subjects and reveals how each individual’s career path and the choices they have made can have an impact on their personal finances, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships.

Our first confession comes from Jamie Nonis, a 42-year old freelance luxury lifestyle journalist who seems to be living the dream life. They’ve (Jamie’s pronouns are they/them) gone on several press trips to exotic far-flung locations in the last few months, worked with brands such as Maserati, Range Rover, and Ferrari, and spent Formula One weekend hanging out with the likes of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes AMG boss Toto Wolff. (Yes, we’re jealous too.)

But as the ensuing interview will reveal — none of this has come easy. 

They come from a difficult family background and survived with very little support. They’ve experienced discrimination as an openly transgender person in Singapore and had to fight hard to be paid what they’re worth. As a freelancer today, they work 7 days a week and have an unpredictable income that ranges anywhere from $0 to $10,000 per month, depending on the era in their life and the roles that they’ve taken on in the last 22 years. They’ve consistently reinvented themselves and iterated on their career, all in an effort to forge their dream job.

This is their career confession.

Name: Jamie Nonis
Age: 42
Job Title & Industry: Journalist, Media
Highest Education: Bachelor’s in Journalism and Public Relations
Years of Work Experience: 22 years
Salary: $0 to >$10,000 per month

Tell us a little bit about your life.

This is actually a very complex question for me to answer, as the truth is very sensitive.

I grew up in a very dysfunctional home environment and was quite neglected as a child. Financial and food security was an issue. Eventually, the environment became too unstable, and at 11, I moved out to live with my relatives. My parents stopped supporting me financially then, and I had to survive on handouts from my relatives from time to time. 

I believe that it’s these early experiences that shaped me to be so driven to prove myself and it’s why I’m self-reliant and fiercely independent – and this is probably why I’ve been self-employed as a freelance journalist for the past 16 years.

How would you describe your career now? Would you describe it as a job, a career, or a calling and is this the career path that you envisioned for yourself?

It’s 100% a calling. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I remember always reading the newspapers as a teen and admiring the writing of my favourite columnists and dreaming of having a byline of my own one day.  But the path to get into the media industry required a mass communication diploma or degree, which I did not have initially. There was only one polytechnic that was offering it in the late 1990s, and while I had the grades for it, I felt discriminated against in the interview process. For context, I was dressed “butch”; a girl in boy’s clothes and this was the late 1990s and Singapore society was clearly not “woke” then.

I ended up doing a business diploma at a different polytechnic, and my first job upon graduation was a marketing and PR role in an events company. After a year, I applied for a writing position in a magazine. The newspaper advertisement stated several requirements, including a mass communications degree and prior writing experience, of which I had none. I applied for the job with my business diploma and no writing portfolio — and I got the job. It ended up being my “dream job” and it was the perfect fit on so many levels. 

And it was only after I had already secured this writing job that I took a short sabbatical to pursue my mass communications degree in Australia, where I did a double major in journalism and public relations. 

In hindsight, looking back on two decades of experience in the industry, I’ve come to understand more profoundly how and why my vocation aligns with the core of who I am — it aligns with the values ingrained in who I am as a person: the seeking of truth, veracity of information, extreme attention to detail, a sense of fairness and justice, and a burning desire for independence.

What challenges have you faced in pursuing your career?

I think the greatest challenge in choosing this career is accepting the lack of adequate remuneration. It’s well-known that creative industries don’t pay as well as other industries, especially in Singapore. The stereotype is sadly true, but of course, there are some outliers and exceptions.

I would go so far as to say that of all the creative professions, the writing industry pays the worst, especially if you are a freelancer. Which other industry offers freelance rates that not just remain static but drop dramatically over a decade, regardless of your level of experience? 

To provide some context, back in the industry’s heyday (before the advent of social media), a good writer could get $1 per word. In contrast, an experienced professional recently told me she was offered 10 CENTS a word – FOR CLIENT WORK. Things have gotten ridiculous. 

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. It’s 100% a calling.

Would you say that your life is primarily career-oriented?

Yes. I always say I don’t have a life outside work and that’s why I make sure I really enjoy my work. I truly love what I do and I work practically 7 days a week, from morning till night sometimes. As a self-employed person, there’s a large portion of this “work” that is not necessarily paid assignments or projects, but which are necessary in order to build the career profile I have. 

The reason I push myself to work 7 days a week is precisely because writing assignments don’t pay well, so I need to produce volume work in order to achieve a comfortable enough income to support my life — mortgage and car instalments, mainly. 

Has your career been impacted by Covid?

Absolutely. I cover luxury lifestyle so, at the beginning of Covid, it was impossible to publish stories about luxury as it would appear very tone-deaf for the publication. As a result, maybe only 1 out of 10 pitches I would send to my editors would be accepted. Work was quite scarce and my income was literally zero for a few months in 2020. It was very demoralising, and I’m only now realising the full extent of the impact it had on my mental health back then. 

Do you feel stressed out by your work? If so, how are you managing it?

I’m stressed because I have so much going on that I feel like I’m always playing catch-up. That said, I’m thankful that things are finally picking up again and life is almost back to normal.

I try to stay focused and prioritise the important things because it’s very easy to get swept up by everything that’s going on when people are constantly pulling at you from all directions (and not all necessarily are giving you money for your time). So I have to prioritise the paid assignments and gigs and just keep pushing through. 

Admittedly, staying focused to keep churning out work (so that I can be on top of things and be less stressed) has also meant that rituals I used to do to maintain a sense of balance have gone out the door. E.g. Regular exercise, yoga practice, etc. I hope to get back to a more healthy balance.

How is your work going now?

It’s going great! As described above, writing unfortunately does not pay well, regardless of how good you are or how much experience you have. I have very painfully learnt that following your passion does not pay. So while I still love what I do, and will continue to do what I do in this industry, I’m also reinventing myself yet again and I’m moving into hosting events – I just hosted my first F1 event this year and I’m excited to build more experience in this area. 

Do you feel pressure to have a successful career, or to earn more money?

I have never been someone who’s influenced by peer pressure. So external pressure is non-existent. If anything, it’s the pressure I put on myself to achieve as much as I can within this short span of life we have.

More than anything, perhaps, what drives me most is the mission I’m on — to achieve a level of success and visibility within the media industry never seen before for a masculine-presenting transgender person in Singapore.

Do you feel envious of other people, or compare your career with other people?

I’ll admit I do sometimes wish that my identity wasn’t so intricately intertwined with my vocation and values and that I could do something else, like work in a bank and earn a handsome salary, perhaps. But it would not be authentic to who I am. And I’m sure I wouldn’t be very good at it.

People talk about ‘finding your passion’; I found mine early in life and while there are many aspects of my career I’m grateful for, following my passion has been a double-edged sword for me to be honest.

I think the greatest challenge in choosing this career is accepting the lack of adequate remuneration.

Has your career impacted your relationships with other people?

I believe so, particularly in the last few years, perhaps. My profile has risen significantly in the last few years and I do believe that having a “public persona” actually makes navigating relationships more complicated. In terms of romantic relationships, for example, while having a high profile may be attractive and I do get some attention, it never seems to go anywhere, and I think one factor is that it can be a bit intimidating for some people and not everyone wants to deal with being with someone who gets a lot of attention.

If you could go back in time and change anything about your career, or life choices in general, what would you change?

I know this sounds very cliche, but I would probably not change anything, because every part of my journey, every detour, every twist in the road, gave me the experiences that have made me the person I am today. Every experience is precious, as long as we take the lessons and integrate them into our lives. 

That said, though, perhaps I wish I had been true to myself and moved out of PR earlier so that I could return to my true passion sooner, rather than spend 10 years doing something I didn’t love (but paid better). 

If you could tell your younger or future self something, what would you say?

I’d tell my younger self to chill – it’s all gonna work out in the end.

I’d tell my future self – told you it’s all gonna work out in the end.