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For struggling actors, no more waiting tables

Their new side gig, which pays decent wages, is to be brand ambassador at marketing events

New York

CHÉRIE Celeste Malone was a struggling actor who had been piecing random jobs together - waitress, barista, rental property manager. Then she saw a casting call on Backstage, a jobs website for actors. She went to the audition, but to her confusion, didn't have to read any scenes. She was hired immediately.

But she had misunderstood the ad: it wasn't for an acting role, exactly. The job was to be a "brand ambassador" at marketing events. And it paid, in her words, "extremely, extremely decently".

Ms Malone, 27, had stumbled into a thriving industry that seemed ideal for people like her: the world of experiential marketing, which aims to create emotional connections between people and brands through real-life interactions. These happenings rely on temporary workers who function as something between event staff and human billboard.

Called brand ambassadors, or BAs, they're the smiling (and suspiciously attractive) people greeting visitors at product launches, handing out free samples at music festivals, signing in guests to fashion shows, or appearing out of nowhere to chat whenever a long line forms, making sure people don't get bored.

New York City's role as a centre of both theatre and marketing has resulted in a convenient pool of professionally charming brand ambassadors. And with brands and marketers now producing lavish, over-the-top events akin to full theatrical productions, the line separating the two is starting to blur a bit.

"Brand ambassador work is the best thing that ever happened to me," said Sean Hankinson, a 30-something from Tucson, Arizona, who has appeared in the soap opera Days of Our Lives and toured the country in the off-Broadway production Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. Mr Hankinson was an apprentice at an off-Broadway theatre in 2016 when he met a recruiter who said he'd make a great BA. Like Ms Malone, he'd been struggling to find good day-to-day work that could accommodate last-minute auditions and gigs. Up to that point, he had supported himself by working as a personal assistant, and cleaning or picking up laundry through an on-demand errand app called Hello Alfred.

US$700 an hour

He signed with a staffing agency and found himself in Times Square, handing out fliers for US$20 an hour. "It's soul-crushing, and you think, Everyone hates me," said Mr Hankinson. "But I kept doing it because the recruiter had told me if I kept at it, I would start getting better gigs."

He eventually graduated to costume-character jobs, like dressing as a mummy (US$75 per hour) or being the wrangler who keeps rambunctious children from hurling themselves at other costumed characters (US$50 an hour). For one job, Mr Hankinson wore NFL-branded clothing and chatted up guests on the rooftop of a Midtown hotel, earning US$700 for just an hour of work.

Mr Hankinson books his work through Mustard Lane, one of many BA staffing and production companies that have cropped up to service "brand activations," as such events are called. (Nearly every brand ambassador at Mustard Lane is a professional actor or performer, according to the agency's founder, Kristal Mallookis.) Adam Hollander, who founded his company early enough to snag the name Brand Ambassadors, estimates that since his agency started 20 years ago, more than 30 other BA agencies have opened in New York City.

The rise of social media has vaulted event marketing - what is now called experiential marketing - from an afterthought to a top priority for brands. And according to Stephen Papageorge, president of the creative agency the Loveshack, spending has followed suit.

Part of this is owed to the success of Sleep No More, a free-form immersive theatre production that opened in New York in 2011. Audience members were sent wandering through a former hotel, stumbling upon scenes and interacting with performers. It was a hit, and kicked off a craze for all things immersive, both in theatre and in marketing.

Elaborate productions

By 2015, Mr Papageorge's previous agency, Mirrorball, was creating elaborate productions like Motel No. 7, an event for Jack Daniels strongly influenced by Sleep No More. It also had a budget, Mr Papageorge said, "in the many millions of dollars". The immersive motel-themed party featured more than 100 actors, including bellhops who sent guests on mysterious errands and a bachelorette party that sang karaoke all night. After kicking off in Brooklyn it toured the country like a Broadway production.

It also paid on par with one. Jesse Patch, a producer for the event (and a former theatre major), said that to ensure Broadway-calibre talent, he paid Broadway-level rates - at the time, US$1,750 per week or higher.

Ms Malone, for her part, worries that her BA gigs are becoming less accommodating. One agency she works with has begun requiring commitments of up to five days at a time, making it harder to schedule last-minute auditions.

For now, she feels upbeat about the future. In March, she performed in a play about Harriet Tubman. In April, she landed a small role in an Amazon docuseries. "They put us all up in such a fancy hotel," she said. And the past few months, she's been working as a BA at a Dolby audio "pop-up experience" in SoHo.

Hankinson, on the other hand, recently relocated to Atlanta, drawn by the boom in film and TV production there. But he is always ready to return to New York for work: his BA gigs certainly beat working in restaurants, he said, and still pay so well that he finds them hard to turn down. At least for now.

"You don't want to be a waiter when you're 45," Mr Hankinson said. "I don't know if you want to do BA work either, but you could." NYTIMES