• Danielle Bitton

The Road Less Travelled Part 4: The Big Apple

I partied like a rockstar in Miami for WMC in March and moved to NYC straight after at the beginning of April 2007. I was 22 and fearless, moving to the biggest city in the world on my own.


Thanks to "Craigslist", I had an apartment waiting for me with 4 delightful roommates.

I took a taxi from La Guardia Airport to Midtown Manhattan and when I saw the NYC skyline I was delirious with excitement as the butterflies in my tummy fluttered around.

My new apartment was on 44th St and 2nd avenue, 2 streets away from Grand Central Station, right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. The area itself is a business hub of office blocks but also home to some 20 something yuppies fresh out of college in Murray Hill, 10 blocks east.


I was greeted with a big smile from Tali Katz, a nice Jewish girl from Cleveland Ohio, her father was also Israeli so I felt this would be a very "kosher" living situation. She showed me to my room which was opposite hers. It was tiny, I could fit a double bed in with just enough space to walk around it but I didn't care, I was in New York City!!!!! My window looked down on 44th street and it was alive! I'd watch the commuters rushing to work in the morning and smell the aroma of coffee wafting up to my window from the morning breakfast stand right on the corner.


The apartment was like a hostel with all of us young and idealistic internationals (besides for the one American Tali).

My roommates were delightfully colourful, Ilana was from Calgary, Canada, she was a hipster before hipsters were cool, artsy, creative and studying in NYC with a dream of becoming an art curator. (Which she now is.)





Sophie was a little Jewish Moroccan French mademoiselle who came to do an internship in NYC for the summer. Her room was even smaller than mine, it was the same size as a walk-in closet, it barely fit a single bed. The walls were red and her room was illuminated by a plastic red bedside lamp from Ikea, we used to call it the Moulin Rouge.



Kemal was our hot Turkish roommate, he called the shots as his name was on the lease and we were just renting rooms from him. I'm positive he was raping us on our rental, I was paying $1000 a month for my room, he was probably living there for free by charging us those prices.

I loved my new international family and couldn't believe I found 3 lovely Jewish Girls and a Turk to live with. The only downfall was that the 5 of us had to share 1 bathroom but we had to make do!

Illana, Sophie, Kemal and Tali

I bought a bed and some drawers at Ikea and as most people do in their new apartments, I sat on the floor for hours trying to assemble them, almost giving up hope until Tali's dad came to my rescue.


On my second night in NYC, I met a Jewish guy online and I went on my first date. He took me to a place right on 44th street in an office building. I started to feel a little suspicious as there was no restaurant in sight, but he guided me down a staircase to the basement and to my surprise I was transported to another world. It was a traditional Japanese sushi restaurant, with Water Lilies and Koi fish swimming around in ponds, beautiful Asian women greeting me with a bow and an ever so gentle "Arrogate" (Japanese for "Hello"). I felt like I was in Japan and realized I had just had my first taste of this eclectic city, the melting pot of the world right at my doorstep. I couldn't wait to bite my teeth into this big shiny apple.


I enrolled at The Circle in The Square Musical Theatre Summer Workshop, It was OK but kind of basic so I left and went to do a summer intensive course at The Lee Strasberg Institute. For those of you who don't know Lee Strasberg, he co-founded the Group Theatre in 1931. Strasberg is often considered the "father of method acting in America" teaching the 'system' of Konstantin Stanislavski, which he had interpreted and developed. In 1951 he became director of the nonprofit Actors Studio in New York City, considered "the nation's most prestigious acting school," and in 1966 he was involved in the creation of Actors Studio West in Los Angeles.


I loved my program at Strasberg which focused on scene study, movement, acting for film and learning how to be a method actor.


We did the most incredible exercise one day with our teacher Lola Cohen. Sense Memory, it is the art of channelling emotions quickly. You have to remember a traumatic incident in your life, a memory that holds a lot of emotion, you are to describe the incident not by the action or events that took place but by your senses. I pictured the moment I walked into the hospital not knowing if my friend Nasko was dead or alive but when I got to his room he had passed. I described the smell of the hospital, the colour of the rose on his bed, every sensation I had that day and within 1 minute, I was crying my eyes out. You are not allowed to use a memory that was recent as it could be too traumatic so you have to choose a memory from at least 6 years ago.


This training helped me particularly playing my last role of Eva Peron, when she was gravely ill and her body was crumbling, I memorised the feeling of being really sick, of utter fatigue, weakness, feeling short of breath, it allowed to be in my character's body and when you are there physically, the emotion that comes with it is much easier to access.

Scene Study "Hedda Gabler"

I also began vocal lessons with a teacher that was recommended to me by an opera singer I met when I worked on Costa Cruise lines. I paid $100 an hour going to weekly lessons when I could afford it. Knowing what I know now after training in the Bel Canto style of singing with my incredible teacher Serita Stern (who is 87 years old and going strong) was a complete waste of money, he had it all wrong.


My roommates and I had so much fun together sharing stories about how our days went, going out for amazing Sushi around the corner and authentic Thai around the next. New York has the most authentic cuisine from all over the world as it's made by all its multicultural immigrants that came to America with nothing more than the hope of living the American dream. We would have pre-game drinks at the apartment just to get a bit of a buzz before our big nights out clubbing and Wow, did we party!

We all fancied Kemal but little flirty French Sophie soon became the chosen one.

When my summer acting intensive training was over it was time to start auditioning.

I went back to the Backstage weekly audition paper and online searches on Craigslist. I would have to arrive at the auditions by 7 am, sometimes just to sign in to avoid the mass cattle call and there would already be a line of girls fresh out of the best musical theatre programs in the country waiting to sign in. I was very insecure as I didn't have the training they had or the connections. Sometimes I would have to wait till the late afternoon to be seen, which by that point, my voice was no longer warmed up. From being allocated 16 bars to sing normally, by the end of the day you were lucky if you got to sing 8 bars. Sometimes you never even got the opportunity to audition, you were called into the room with 30 other young women or so and the casting panel would look at your headshot and resume and if there wasn't much experience on it you were "typed out", meaning you were dismissed.


It was a catch 22, how could I possibly break-in or even get an agent without the experience? Never mind the fact that I wasn't equity. I would have to continue the hustle of auditioning in the mass cattle calls.

I began hustling for work immediately, searching for any bartending jobs. I landed my first job at Phillipe Chow, a very trendy upmarket Chinese Restaurant on the Upper East Side on 60th St and Madison Ave. It was a popular celeb hangout loved by the Kardashians, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Jay Z and Cardi B, just to name a few. The private lounge was frequented by the hottest hip hop stars racking up some hefty bills ordering Dom Perignon and Courvoisier

I had to train for 2 weeks, which meant I was working for free, I was not happy about it but hey beggars can't be choosers.

I really enjoyed working behind the bar, mixing up some tasty cocktails and engaging with the patrons. In my mind I was my own Coyote from the movie "Coyote Ugly"

In September it was the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which always fall around my birthday. I had been taken to a very cool "Yuppie" synagogue called the "Soho Synagogue" they didn't really have an actual synagogue, it was more like a pop-up synagogue. The rabbi was young, hip and clever and it became the in place to be for all the Yuppie Jews of Manhattan. Membership fees were steep for most of the eligible bachelors there.

I loved it, it was hip and social and I really wanted a bit of community in this big city so I volunteered my talents and asked if I could sing for the High Holidays. We started rehearsing our harmony parts and then at the last minute they were concerned that this would go against the Jewish orthodox law. You see, women aren't allowed to sing in front of men as in theory men would be turned on and lose focus on their prayers. Don't get me started on this topic, I used to fight with my Rabbis at school about this all the time! The compromise was that instead of scrapping the beautiful harmonies we had been working on for the last 2 weeks, the Rabbi allowed us females to sing to the congregation but with our backs facing the men which didn't really make any sense to me as even though technically they couldn't see me singing, they could still check out my derriere.

There was a very cool young orthodox guy called Mendle who had quite a gift with the spoken word, he told the weekly Parashah (sermon) as a "rap" it was hip and it felt good to be a part of this progressive community.


My first wedding band "Victory" in NYC

Somehow I got connected to this stunning Israeli couple who were starting a wedding band, I auditioned for them and we started rehearsing with another amazing male vocalist, we filmed some videos but only had 1 gig before the band disintegrated.

I missed being on stage and performing but had to keep hustling.


One job is definitely not enough in NYC so I started working as a "promo model" We were hired by different brands to promote a product or work at different events. I once worked at Shakira's concert promoting her new fragrance and got to watch her concert for free at Madison Square Gardens.

One of the least glamorous jobs was handing out flyers in the freezing cold. I worked for alcohol brands promoting different spirits at different bars and clubs.


Most models, actors and singers worked as "cater waiters" or as "model bartenders" and hostesses or coat check-ins for big events. I'd find myself rushing to the kitchen to get another tray of hors d'oeuvres out for a private party in an Upper West Side loft, or bartending at the Hugo Boss fashion show after-party at Fashion Week or for a Martha Stewart catered event, where I sliced off a piece of my finger while preparing garnishes for her cocktails and had to pay $1000 dollars for a pressure bandage when I went to the ER. (Don't get me started on that!)

The upside was we got a sneak peek into the lives of the New York Elite's socialite scene.


I also started a job working as a Disney Princess, obviously I was Princess Jasmine and sometimes Cinderella and I also had to be a clown for kids parties, painting faces, doing magic tricks and making balloon animals, the skills you acquire when you are desperate for cash! For $100 an hour it was worth it.

I managed to hustle a gig with a divine Cuban Salsa Band in October and it felt so good to do what I loved even for just that 1 hour.

By November 2007 our lease had come to an end and it was time for the fabulous 5 to part ways. Tali and I decided to stick together and find a place of our own, we couldn't find anything decent in the city so we ventured out over the Queensboro Bridge to LIC, Long Island City. To a new development along the East River in Queens. Long Island City is known for its gleaming new high-rises with sweeping views of Manhattan and did we find a high rise! Brand spanking new, a concierge, a movie cinema, indoor pool, rooftop terrace with BBQ facilities, a huge lounge area with communal kitchen plus the apartment was huge. it was technically a 2 bedroom but as everyone does in Manhattan, just add a drywall and its a 3 bedroom. So to afford this Luxe living we needed to find another roommate, so I invited Amanda, an Armenian 20 something princess who I worked with at Phillipe Chow to move in with us, her parents were well off and funding her music career, she was also a singer and thank goodness, between the 2 of their parents who signed surety for us, we were able to secure the apartment.

Tali and Amanda lived in the front of the apartment with beautiful views of Manhattan, I, being the immigrant got the back room without windows, it was my cave, at least the sun wouldn't wake me up in the morning and I had an ensuite bathroom so it was a trade-off.

It was a great idea having these communal spaces as it created a more social vibe, we met our neighbours and used to hang out together. Most New Yorkers, go to work come home and the only person they say hello to is their doorman.

Long Island City Apartment

That December I decided to run away from the cold and go with some friends to Miami, Jade met us there and we had a fabulous time at one of the top hotel parties on New Years Eve. I just loved Miami, It was a sexy city with the warm Latin culture, the Art Deco scene and the tropical vibe.


I came back from Miami and was on the next flight out of NYC to Cape Town. I am not a fan of winter, in fact, I have been trying to avoid it for most of my life and as the temperatures started to drop to below 0 degrees Celcius I knew that was my cue to head on home. Like a little bird, this would be the first of many migrations. I managed to hustle some gigs but mostly managed to enjoy the summer and live off the hard-earned Dollars I had made that year.

2008


I got back in February and I auditioned for an awesome project called "Peaceman" it was a musical about Shlomo Carlebach's life intertwined with his beautiful melodies he wrote for the Jewish prayers. It was a "reading" a musical reading is just a read-through of the book and music so investors can get a sense of it. The reading was at The Lincoln Centre" and it felt quite posh to be a part of something there.

I recently discovered that Shlomo Carlebach was accused of sexually assaulting and harassing numerous teenage girls and women, yet somehow I remained unaware of this until this year, no one had managed to mention this, despite the allegations being public since 1998. That's probably why the show never took off. #metoo


MR...

Back in the hustle and bustle of the city one evening, I was strolling around Chelsea trying to find a friends party. I had my little Chinese pink Sanyo flip phone, with no GPS in those days and my battery was on the verge of dying. I was wearing black knee-high boots, a pink tartan skirt, a black top and a cute black hat. Just as I was just about to give up on trying to find this party I heard a deep voice say to me "you look familiar, are you lost?" I looked up at this tall dark handsome man and low and behold it was Mr Big (Chris Noth) from Sex In The City.

Now I don't know about you but I was obsessed with this show! I started watching it when I was 17 and couldn't wait for the next weekly episode. It was revolutionary in the fact that it was the first show that liberated women sexually, it was about women who enjoyed sex and spoke about it openly. I would still have 2 more years before I lost my virginity but I loved this show and got quite an education from it. I couldn't wait to live like these fabulous women did, having my very own sensational NYC experience. I had also fantasised of meeting my very own version of the debonaire mystery man, Mr Big, who would arrive in a black town car and wine and dine me and whisk me away on adventures with him.

I didn't expect to meet THE Mr Big!


He invited me to join him for a drink, I accepted very nonchalantly meanwhile inside I was about to explode. My heart was racing, I was a bit star-struck but I played it so cool.