Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

From Bieber's antics to Beyonce's work ethic: UAE music promoter Thomas Ovesen spills his best celebrity tales

Mariah Carey required many humidifiers, Justin Bieber sped in a sports car and The Eagles' had a business-only approach: we sit down with the man who works hard to bring the world's brightest stars to the region

Thomas Ovesen with British singer Elton John after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.
Thomas Ovesen with British singer Elton John after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.

Concert promoters are used to last-minute hiccups. Whether it’s the singer waking up sick, the equipment not arriving at the airport or unexpected weather changes, any operator worth their pedigree would have a plan B – and plans C, D and E, for that matter – to ward off setbacks. But if you have been doing this long enough, you will eventually come across challenges you just don’t have a solution to.

Justin Bieber, along with his entourage, had decided to zoom around Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road in rented sports cars and, in the process, lose his hosts

Such was the case on the evening of May 5, 2014, when Thomas Ovesen received a call while in Dubai’s Sevens Stadium with news that made his blood run cold. “What do you mean you lost him?” he barked, before his harried colleague reiterated that the headline artist of Ovesen’s biggest concert yet had gone missing hours before a sold-out show.

The star in question was Justin Bieber who, along with his entourage, decided to zoom around Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road in rented sports cars and, in the process, lose his hosts.

Ovesen recalls being speechless. He stalked the venue’s backstage while the crowds began to file in, and prayed Bieber’s already ­eventful tour (more on that later) would come to a satisfying end. The phone call he hoped for came not long after.

“Justin stopped on the freeway because apparently he wanted a burger,” he reveals. “In a way, it worked out well. Considering the crowd we had that night and the heavy traffic, he managed to get here much faster than if he’d got on the bus we would have provided.”

This coming out of almost anyone else's mouth with such nonchalance would have seemed contrived, but Ovesen has been around the music block so many times, he knows to expect the unexpected.

This also makes him a fascinating interview subject.

'Bieber gave me this guitar, he's a good kid'

I knew I was in for a treat when Ovesen invited me for an exclusive sit-down in his ­stately Dubai villa. Located in a nondescript compound in Jebel Ali, the place is as much a music museum as it is a home. Nearly 100 signed concert posters and plaques – from Ed Sheeran, Destiny’s Child, The Eagles and Kasabian to Aerosmith, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Kylie Minogue and Craig David – line the walls of the corridors and rooms, and represent UAE shows Ovesen has worked on over the past two decades.

Perhaps the most valuable item of all is not on the wall, however, but in Ovesen’s hands. We are in the pool room, which he refers to as his “man cave”, as he removes the white acoustic guitar from its case. “Bieber gave me this one,” he says, with a wry smile. “I don’t know whether this was a way to say thank you for the stuff that happened in Dubai while he was here, but it was a nice touch. He is a good kid.”

Music promoter Thomas Ovesen, who has brought Destiny’s Child and Justin Bieber to the region, photographed in his UAE home, which has plenty of rock paraphernalia he obtained from recent tours. Victor Besa / The National 
Music promoter Thomas Ovesen in his UAE home, which has plenty of rock paraphernalia he obtained from recent tours. Victor Besa / The National

Ovesen’s place has a zen-like quality to it. There is a stand-alone water fountain in the back of the living room, where we’re sat, while outside, there is an intimate-sized pool surrounded by green fronds. With Sade cooing Smooth Operator from the speakers, I remark that his place could easily function as a hotel spa. As it turns out, that’s the point.

Ovesen, whose career has included stints heading up regional live-events companies such as Done Events, AEG Live Middle East and 117Live, as well as being part of the pre-launch team behind Dubai’s new Coca-Cola Arena, explains that a concert promoter’s job is not exactly stable. “There are no set hours and you are not always working in the office. In fact, many of the deals I do with artists’ agents happen in the middle of the night, because they will probably be in Los Angeles,” he says. “So since I am working all hours of the night, I wanted the place to be comfortable and quiet enough for me to work in.”

1998: Moving to the GCC to be an air-traffic controller

Ovesen’s fast-paced lifestyle is a far cry from his childhood, which he spent growing up in the rainy city of Copenhagen in his native Denmark. Back then, his only exposure to the music business was as a fan. A lover of all things to do with live music, as a teenager, he would regularly volunteer at the mammoth Roskilde Festival, which continues to pack in 160,000 people over four days in the island of Zealand.

With more than 100 acts booked to play at the festival, Ovesen was tasked with looking after bands far down the pecking order. “I didn’t mind that all. I would often get these bands, some German punk group no one knew, to look after. But they really didn’t need me. So I would just sneak off to see someone like Bob Dylan or Iron Maiden performing.”

While his work with the festival ignited his interest in putting on live music events, what cemented his aptitude for it – not that Ovesen knew at the time – came from a far more unlikely source: the Danish Air Force.

As part of the selection of physical and psychometric tests that came with the recruitment process, there was one particular exercise that displayed Ovesen’s skills.

“I was holding this toy and inside was a little metal ball that would run through a maze. The aim of the game is to not lose control of that ball,” he says. “I was able to do that while the instructor would tell me, through the headphones I had on, to spell my name backwards or to ­multiply 142 by 3.”

Thomas Ovesen and wife Deborah Yearwood with British singer Ed Sheeran after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen
Thomas Ovesen and wife Deborah Yearwood with British singer Ed Sheeran after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen

Ovesen’s quick thinking and ability to multitask landed him an opportunity to study air-traffic control, which by 1998 had him working at Bahrain International Airport. “I came to the Gulf with no idea of what life was like here. All I knew was what my friends told me: it offers a great tax-free salary, the weather is always sunny and the shawarmas are huge,” he recalls. “What I didn’t expect was that I would also have a lot of time on my hands.”

2001: Changing nappies with Westlife

Keen to ­rekindle his love for live music, Ovesen tracked down the region’s biggest music promotion company, which at the time was Manama’s Mirage Promotions. Soon he was juggling two roles; guiding international commercial jets to the runway during the day, and being involved in marketing and setting up regional dates for the likes of Shaggy and Westlife at night.

“During those years I approached concert preparation mentally, like I did in the air force test. It was basically about me not letting that metal ball hit the edge of the board,” he recalls. “But sometimes, it is not about that. It is really down to personality and bringing things down to a human level.”

Ovesen recalls a touching incident while managing Westlife’s sold-out Beirut show in 2001. The night before the concert, singer Brian McFadden learnt that he was to become a father for the first time. For the next three days, he would come to Ovesen’s room and, with his wife’s blessing, change the nappies of their three-month old baby so he could “practice and be ready to become a father”.

Thomas Ovesen with British singer Elton John after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.
Thomas Ovesen with British singer Elton John after his show at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena in 2017. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.

2004: Mariah Carey 'always looked fabulous'

At the time, Ovesen had just moved to the UAE and running Mirage Promotions’ Dubai office. As part of that role, he organised some of the Emirates’ early major concerts such as Ronan Keating in Abu Dhabi’s The Club in 2003 and Dubai Media City Amphitheatre’s first concert in 2002 featuring Craig David.

These gigs partly prepared him for dealing with his first superstar performer, Mariah Carey, who made her UAE debut with a 2004 concert at the amphitheatre. Ovesen knew the show would be “an eye-opener” just by the list of demands her management sent over.

“We gave her this amazing private villa suite at the Royal Mirage hotel,” he recalls. “The funny thing was, as well having humidifiers put in certain places, she also wanted the windows taped shut. She had this room with the best view, but couldn’t see it.

“One thing I remember is how fabulous she always looked,” he adds. “The day after the concert, which was great by the way, she had to fly out back to the States on a first-class flight. Even at that time, she came out of the hotel dressed in this gown like she was going to the ball,” he reveals.

2005: How Beyonce went straight from the airport to rehearsal

Another career milestone came the following year with Ovesen bringing Destiny’s Child to the same venue. Sixteen thousand people packed the sold-out show to see Beyonce perform in the Middle East for the first time. Ovesen knew the singer was cut from a different cloth as soon as she arrived in the emirate.

Beyonce wore out the group and the backing dancers. She was the bandleader and choreographer. You could just tell that she was going to be huge

“Beyonce came to Dubai the night before the concert while the rest of the band came two days before,” he says. “I kid you not, she went from the airport, dumped her stuff in the hotel, and went straight to the venue for three hours of rehearsals. She wore out the group and the backing dancers. She was the bandleader and choreographer. You could just tell that she was going to be huge.”

But not every artist Ovesen has bought to the UAE has had that same extremely performance-focused attitude. While on stage they were all able to turn it on, but a few had a more leisurely outlook off stage.

2007: Aerosmith meeting US troops in Dubai and Tommy Lee still reeling from a breakup

Take Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, for example, who learnt that an American carrier ship was anchored in Jebel Ali a day before his band’s 2007 show at Dubai Autodrome. Ovesen arranged for the group to surprise the troops with a visit on deck.

“The admiral of the fleet gave him the microphone and told him: ‘Perhaps you can say, hello this is Aerosmith and we are on the ship.’ Instead, Tyler did this big rock wail that he always does when he sings. It was funny.”

Thomas Ovesen with singers Dianne Krall (left) and Elvis Costello at the 2014 Blended Festival at Dubai Media City Ampitheatre. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.
Thomas Ovesen with singers Dianne Krall (left) and Elvis Costello at the 2014 Blended Festival at Dubai Media City Ampitheatre. Courtesy of Thomas Ovesen.

That same year, another rocker used his UAE date as a way to keep himself distracted from personal troubles. Ovesen recalls offering Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee a supportive ear while he was in Dubai to perform a solo show as part of the Bike Week festival.

“He had just broken up with Pamela Anderson for the final time and he wasn’t really in a good place. He would call her a few times while he was here,” he says. “You could tell that he needed company and I was happy to do that because I am a huge Motley Crue fan.”

2012: The Eagles are all business

However, when it came to dealing with the legendary rock band The Eagles, who performed in Dubai’s Sevens Stadium in 2012, it was strictly business. “That was an interesting tour because the band really treated it like a job,” he says. “On stage they were simply amazing, but as soon as the concert was done, they would all go their separate ways. They wouldn’t talk to each other. That was different.”

2015: One Direction a 'pleasure to work with'

That was in stark contrast to One Direction’s show at the same venue in 2015, says Ovesen. Despite the band effectively splitting up not long afterwards, their bond as a group was palpable. “They were a pleasure to work with. They worked together as a unit. They had the right management with them and they cared a lot about their fans,” he says. “It was a collaboration in a great sense. When it came to pre-event planning, they wanted to know about the pattern of fans in the market and wanted to ensure that they were safe and hydrated at all times.”

Who does he credit for his success? The Biebs

The singer was sporting tattoos in 2013 by the time he first visited the UAE for his Believe Tour. Sarah Dea / The National
The singer was sporting tattoos in 2013 by the time he first visited the UAE for his Believe Tour. Sarah Dea / The National

With more than 32,000 screaming fans in attendance, One Direction’s Dubai gig remains arguably the UAE’s biggest yet, and Ovesen’s crowning achievement in a trailblazing career that has also included setting up UAE music festivals RedFestDXB, Blended and Fiesta de los Muertos. Reflecting on that event, Ovesen says he partly owes its success to the famed antics of Bieber.

He credits the never-ending drama of that 2014 tour – from Bieber’s two-hour late ­arrival for both shows, speeding tickets incurred while driving and a fan invasion that resulted in a ­broken piano – with giving him a certain resilience.

Once again, Ovesen managed to keep the ball from proverbially skidding off the board, while the world was seemingly falling down around his feet. “At the end of the day, Bieber delivered his show and while parents may have been upset that he was late, the fans saw him perform and loved it,” he says. “After that show, I just felt like I was ready for anything and, in a sense, I felt like I owed it to myself to make One Direction happen and that was a massive show.”

And then, after sharing all of those amazing anecdotes, Ovesen had to end our chat: he had more calls to make, more plaques to add to his collection and more landmark events to add to the region’s burgeoning entertainment scene.

We can't wait to see who he brings to our shores next.

Updated: June 27, 2019 05:14 PM

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