Geoffrey Owens isn't quite a household name, but he has been trending this week for something rather ordinary: a hard day's work.
Ironically, it was this Labor Day weekend when a story, job-shaming Owens -- best known for his role as son-in-law Elvin on "The Cosby Show"—went viral. Twenty-six years after "The Cosby Show," the actor made headlines after a New Jersey shopper took photos of Owens in a Trader Joe's uniform bagging groceries at the checkout line and Fox News picked up the story, which initially was reported by the Daily Mail.
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That's when it got crazy -- the social media shaming, the backlash, the criticism, then the criticism of the criticism, the support of his peers and a much larger conversation around classism and how we value and devalue labor and laborers.
As a woman who, after over a decade, left a corporate career feeling completely unfulfilled, I can tell you first hand a "good job" has little to do with how much you make. The radical part of Owens' story, however, is that people think it's at all shocking for an actor to be working odd jobs between gigs and that it in any way makes him lesser. In March of 2014, the National Endowment for the Arts released a study noting that at least 271,000 artists held second jobs.
I'm an up-and-coming actress, and I've done temp work. I've worked as a front desk attendant at a spa, a journalist, a video producer and a digital marketing strategist since leaving my corporate career to become an actor and host. Trying to do what you love and still pay the rent isn't easy. I'll also admit that going from an executive at a major nationally-traded company to waking up in the early hours of the morning to open a gym has definitely caused me to doubt my self worth on more than one occasion. Here I am, the same person, but I've also witnessed former associates treat me differently after my career change.
But jobs and salary should not define identity. Net worth and self worth are often erroneously connected in our society. Ultimately, such assumptions hypocritically encourage job shaming in a society that supposedly celebrates the "honest working man." But do we really?
Owens, who spoke with media outlets to respond to all the chatter, is still very much a working actor. His recent credits include "The Affair," "The Blacklist," "Divorce" and "Elementary," to name a few. He's also taught acting at Yale.
He's got a resume any actor would want, with quality credits that tons of us actors are beating the pavement for every day. The Daily Mail quoted Karma Lawrence -- the woman who snapped the photos of Owens at Traders Joe's -- as saying, "I would have thought after 'The Cosby Show' he would maybe be doing something different." That couldn't be further off the mark. The fact is that Owens was an accomplished actor before he started working at Trader Joe's 15 months ago and he still is one now.
Owens told Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" that the story left him "really devastated." Imagine that -- someone being shamed for an honest days work in America, the country that cheers the underdog, where bootstrapping is a part of our DNA. But more than ever, wages seem to equal worth in our social landscape. We are all chasing "good jobs," but more of us need to consider what having one actually means.
Like me, Anthony T. Goss, a fellow actor currently starring in Layon Gray's Off-Broadway play "Black Angels Over Tuskegee," quit his corporate job to pursue his passion for acting. He holds two degrees and told me that in his more than three-year career as an actor, he's had jobs as a hotel concierge, restaurant worker, event greeter and as a front desk attendant at a gym. "We [are] all out here doing that hustle thing," he said.
Throughout her nine-year career, actress Kelcy Griffin, who has had recurring roles on "Gotham," "Dietland," "Power" and more, has also held quite a few survival jobs as a babysitter, personal trainer and restaurant hostess. "[There] is the need to prove that you're acting because there is such a stigma—if you're not working you can't claim yourself as an actor," she told me. "If you tell someone you work in a restaurant you are signaling that you have failed in some way. People don't understand how the business actually is."
Countless Hollywood luminaries have been completely transparent about their survival jobs and side hustles in the past.
Kathy Bates recalled in one interview the experience of working as a temp for Ringling Brothers in their accounting department. Fellow Oscar winner Mahershala Ali told Backstage Magazine, "I used to work as a deckhand on these ferry boats in San Francisco."
All of these stories are what it looks like to be a working actor. It looks like Geoffrey Owens.
Being a working actor isn't a fairytale. Sometimes it looks like sacrifice. Sometimes it looks like working a night job so you can go to auditions during the day. Sometimes it looks like bagging groceries. Most of all, it's not the picture perfect posts you see on Instagram of actors always on set.
A person is more than just a job. In the end, I am happy that dozens of actors came to Geoffrey's Owens' defense on social media by sharing their own past and present survival jobs. Tyler Perry, who has been very open about his own financial struggles to success, even offered Owens a job on his OWN TV show, "The Haves and the Have Nots."
But there are many thousands of actors waiting tables, mopping floors and doing other odd jobs just to get a shot at their dream. They may never get tweeted by Terry Crews, and Tyler Perry may never offer them a job. Still their pursuit is worthy. Still, to echo Geoffrey Owens, we must "honor the dignity of work."
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