It's almost 9 PM on a cold fall night in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The energy is palpable as the crowd patiently waits to be reunited with their sister. 90s R&B, classic Michael Jackson, and select hits by Bruno Mars pulsate through Boardwalk Hall's sound system as the audience gyrates to the music with anticipation.
Photo Courtesy of The Fader
Then it happens. A one-minute video montage snatches everyone's attention. Racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, and domestic violence are all highlighted. The names of black men who've lost their lives due to police brutality flash across the screen. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Philando Castille. Oscar Grant. The list goes on. This is our pertinent reminder. Although we're guaranteed a good time, there are serious matters that will be addressed.
The uniform is all black. The message is urgent. The icon is Janet Jackson. Cane in hand, she elegantly erupts onto the stage wearing a black leather trench coat and elbow length black leather gloves to match. Superhero-like, she is our leader for the next two hours. The leader of the Rhythm Nation.
Instead of jumping into “Burn It Up," the Missy assisted dance track off of her critically acclaimed latest album, Unbreakable, Janet starts the show with “The Knowledge" followed by “State Of The World," Both are socially conscious tracks off of her Rhythm Nation 1814 album. Despite these songs being almost three decades old, the issues that a then twenty-three year old Janet Jackson sought out to address are just as prevalent in 2017 as they were then.
To watch the youngest Jackson command the stage as she performs hit after hit is breathtaking. She hasn't lost a step. Alongside her troupe of dancers, who are young enough to be her children, she sings live while performing some of the most famous choreography in pop music history. All of this doesn't come easy though. Despite Jackson being one of the most well-known music artists of all time, she continues to put the work in. She began rehearsing for the State of the World tour in July, only six months after giving birth to her first child. To whip her famous body back into shape she enlisted the help of former sprinter and bodybuilder, Paulette Sybliss, who helped her lose fifty pounds. According to Sybliss, as reported in the Atlantic City Weekly, Jackson followed a strict weight-training program and increased her protein intake, while balancing her diet with carbohydrates and healthy fats to keep her energized.
Photo Courtesy of PEOPLE
But she's not doing too much. Nothing about the State of the World Tour is overstated or tries too hard. The production is not as grand as on previous tours, and the costume changes are minimal, but it all works. Jackson is at a point in her career where she doesn't need all of the theatrics.
Her herd of adoring fans love her without the extras, and she knows it. This tour and Jackson's ascend back into the spotlight is about much more than extravagant costumes and perfectly timed pyro explosions. Similar to the way that she's used her career to advocate for equal rights and the LGBTQ community (she was recently honored with the 2017 Music Icon Award at the OUT100 Gala), Jackson is using the State of the World Tour to send a very clear message – she is not okay with our current state of affairs, and her robust catalog of music will once again be used to create dialog and raise awareness about these issues.
When she performs the emotional anti-domestic violence song “What About," or the female empowerment anthems, “Nasty" and “What Have You Done For Me Lately" the crowd sings along to every word. Women testify and rejoice. This is why Jackson has stood the test of time. The fact that she is no longer the ab-baring chanteuse that she once was doesn't matter. Jackson floats across the stage, fully clothed, just as confident as she's ever been. Her million dollar smile leads the way, followed by an opulent auburn colored high ponytail that bounces to her beat.
As the show winds down you can't help but think about how special and empowering the whole thing really is. The State of the World tour is the culmination of a career that has aged gracefully. With fifty-one years under her belt and a newborn baby boy waiting backstage for her, Ms. Jackson can still outperform your favorite performer, while simultaneously using her voice for good. Now that's Control.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.