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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Money & Me: 'I can't remember the last time I paid full price for anything'

Comedian Mina Liccione says a performer's salary is never guaranteed, which is why she is a proud user of buy-one-get-one free vouchers

Mina Liccione is a comedian, arts educator and performing artist, who founded the comedy club Dubomedy, with her husband in Dubai in 2008.
Photo: Mina Liccione
Mina Liccione is a comedian, arts educator and performing artist, who founded the comedy club Dubomedy, with her husband in Dubai in 2008. Photo: Mina Liccione

Mina Liccione is a comedian, arts educator and performing artist. Ms Licciaone, a New Yorker, has been living in Dubai for the past 10 years with her husband, the stand-up comedian and producer Ali Al Sayed. The couple founded the first comedy and urban arts school in the Mena region, the comedy club Dubomedy, in Dubai in 2008. As well as teaching aspiring comedians, Ms Liccione is currently busy with her own performance commitments. She is preparing to release a one-hour stand-up special, Araby By Nature, and is also busy shooting for Seasons two and three of Comedy Central Stand up Presents with Comedy Central Arabia.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I grew up in New York. My dad was made in Italy, born in New York. He refers to himself as “frugal”, although we often refer to him as cheap. He definitely taught us that money doesn’t grow on trees, and the importance of working hard to earn your own way.

When did you start performing?

I started off as a dancer. My parents tell me that I was a very shy child, but that I loved to sing and dance at home. They enrolled me into dance class at the age of three, and I haven’t shut up since. Dance and musical theatre was my main focus throughout my childhood and teenage life. I always knew that I wanted to be a Broadway performer when I grew up.

How much did you earn in your first job?

I earned US$10 an hour at the age of 14, as an assistant dance teacher. It felt good to earn my own money, and to be able to go to the movies and buy new shoes without having to always ask my parents for money. At that age, I needed to focus on school, so I could only teach about five to six hours a week, usually at weekends. In addition, I also babysat for $8 an hour whenever I could.

What about your first professional role?

My first professional gig was at age 17. I was cast in MTV’s ‘The Grind’ dance show, which was the most exciting thing at the time. I was signed on for Season One and filmed over a three-month period. While I was at college studying performing arts, I booked a bunch of acting and tap dance gigs, small movie roles and off-Broadway musicals. But I also always kept teaching dance and babysitting, so that I maintained enough of an income and stayed grounded.

What was your first job that defined who you would become as an artist?

Right after graduating from Marymount Manhattan College in dance and theatre in 1998, I landed the lead comic role in the hit Broadway percussion show Stomp. It was my first Broadway show and my first two-year contract. I was getting paid to do what I loved everyday, so it really was a dream job – and I even got medical insurance. Most performers are freelance and go from project to project, so medical insurance is out of pocket unless you’re in a union. To get a full-time Broadway job is not only a dream come true because you get to do what you love – you also get a weekly salary and per diem when you travel. I was on the US national and the European tour, which meant that I was able to travel around the world entertaining the masses. A massage therapist toured with us, all travel expenses were included and Stomp gave each performer their own hotel room at a four-star hotel. Some other touring shows have performers share rooms, but Stomp insisted on private rooms for everyone. I look back at those four years and cherish the memories. It combined my love for music, dance, comedy and travel into one and shaped who I would grow into as an artist.

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How did you then end up specialising in comedy?

My dad is very funny and always joked at home, and comedy always played a big part in my life and art. I was always cast as the comic relief in plays and musicals. After Stomp, I went on to work with Cirque du Soleil doing physical comedy and accidentally landed into stand-up comedy years later, when I was living in San Francisco. I was emceeing an event and there were technical difficulties. The organiser pushed me on stage and said “do something funny”. I ended up improvising and making fun of the situation. I told some stories and interacted with the audience, doing what I now know is called “crowd work". Stand-up was the last form of comedy I explored. It was terrifying. I wasn’t playing a role. It was me - my words, my life, and I had to make them laugh.

Are you a saver or a spender?

I am not a big spender. As an artist, you’re usually not guaranteed a salary. You work gig to gig and don’t take your paycheques for granted. Quite honestly, us Americans love sales and coupons. Other than food, I can’t remember the last time I paid full price for anything.

What do you most regret spending money on?

Cigarettes. I smoked cigarettes for about 12 years of my life. It was definitely the biggest waste of money, and my health.

What has been your best investment?

My education. Even though student loans are not fun, having advanced qualifications in the performing arts, including my Masters of Fine Arts in Experimental Performance and Education from New College of California, which I got when I was 29, has allowed me to teach all over the world at colleges, private schools and universities.

What is your most cherished purchase?

I most value the donations that I have been able to make. My husband Ali and I run the volunteer initiative the Clowns Who Care Project, which provides laughter therapy to children and adults with special needs, orphanages, refugee camps and hospitals in the Middle East. Being in the position to be able to donate money, time and talent to help those in need is by far the greatest reward.

What financial advice would you offer your younger self?

I would tell myself to start a Roth IRA (a tax-efficient retirement account) right out of college.

If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?

First I’d pay for the college education of a group of women in need. Then, I’d buy a condo in Manhattan and Airbnb it.

Does money make you happy?

No. It definitely gives you a sense of stability and more opportunities, but happiness is about how you choose to look at your life and the amount of gratitude you carry with you.

What are you always happy to spend money on?

My husband and I love to spend our money on travel, whether that is for meeting up with family, relaxing or visiting refugee camps in the region to lead workshops and shows.

And what are you always trying to cut back on?

I try to cut back on unnecessary items like expensive branded clothing and accessories, jewellery and Friday brunches. I’m a proud user of The Entertainer discount book. As a performer who works a lot at night, restaurant tabs add up, so I definitely utilise the buy-one, get-one-free coupons that I save.

What would you raid savings account for?

For when we have kids.

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