They Do It for Love, Not Money
What do a professional wrestler, a musician, an improviser, a roller derby athlete, a novelist and a burlesque performer have in common? They are all following their passion even though it doesn’t pay the bills.
Being great at something doesn’t necessarily mean you can make a living off of it. These six people have reached national and even international heights in their respective fields — yet all six still have day jobs. Here’s how (and why) they do what they do so well.
Alias: Shirley Doe
Years Pro: 25
Day Job: Co-founder/writer at advertising firm Jam X Creative
Claims to Fame
∼ Wrestled worldwide, including multiple tours of Japan
∼ Ranked among the Top 500 wrestlers in the world in annual Pro Wrestling Illustrated feature, peaking at No. 265
∼ Shared the ring with Hall of Famers Tito Santana and George “The Animal” Steele
∼ Trained current WWE performers Elias and Joaquin Wilde
Most kids obsessed with pro wrestling only see their favorite grapplers through a television screen or, if they’re lucky, once a year from the cheap seats.
Sam Panico had one in his high school.
Longtime competitor Shane Douglas, who wrestled for top promotions throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, was a teacher between stints in the ring; he worked at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City when Panico was a teen.
“The idea that someone from my town could do this was definitely in my head,” Panico says. Through most of his childhood, he had a heart murmur; when it cleared up at 17, Panico threw himself into the athletics he couldn’t previously. That included hockey, martial arts and, later, pro wrestling. As a student at the former Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he designed logos and gear for wrestlers; when he put a design together for longtime local wrestling promoter Norm Connors, Connors connected him with a trainer.
Panico had his first match in 1995, after about two years of training. At the time, wrestling — even in local circuits — was dominated by giants. “I just turned 23 when I debuted … I was about 190, 200 pounds, and I was considered small,” he says. “Today, I’m bigger than most guys.”
Despite connections with stars — he made ring gear in the early ’90s for Mick “Mankind” Foley, who would soon become a top WWE performer — Panico knew he wasn’t bound for the big leagues. “I realized I’d never go to WWE or WCW, just size-wise,” he says. “Unless I got on a bunch of [drugs], I was never going to have that look. I had the brains for some of the stuff, but not the look.”
His goal, he says, was to wrestle in Japan. The Far East has for decades offered the preferred product of pro-wrestling purists — more athletic, more revered and often more intense than the American product. Panico felt like he’d fit in well.
“As stupid as it sounds, going halfway across the world was more achievable than doing something in the U.S.,” he says.
Panico made several trips to Japan in the early ’00s, appearing for a promotion called Wrestling Marvelous Future; it was an offshoot of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, a group Panico emulated during training.
“The fact that I got to wrestle there and I got to wrestle dudes that I took a lot from, that I idolized, and that I got to wrestle competitive matches with them — that’s a bigger deal to me than making money.”
During an indie-wrestling boom in the 2000s, he was in demand throughout the eastern U.S., frequently wrestling in Ohio, New York and Philadelphia. At the time, he might get $100 for a match — with no added stipend for the eight-hour trip he’d make to get to the show, often driving through the night.
Scant as those checks were, they were much better than modern payouts, Panico says. A $50 payday for a wrestler in Pittsburgh is abnormally good; no pay at all isn’t uncommon. A local grappler will inevitably end up putting more money into wrestling than he or she gets out of it, Panico says. “You’re never going to make enough for basic needs. You’re not even really going to make enough to pay for your gym [membership].”
Panico doesn’t count his greatest matches as his crowning achievement; that, he says, is training performers who’ve gone on to greater heights. WWE star Elias, a fixture on the company’s weekly programming, began his training with Panico in the mid-’00s.
“I’ve never had anybody ask me more questions about wrestling than him,” Panico says. “‘How do you do this? How do you do that? What do you think about this in a match?’”
At 47, Panico still wrestles on a weekly basis. “I think it’s love,” he says. “The thrill of being in there and telling a story. But also, selfishly … you start as a fan and you think, ‘I could never do this.’ [It’s] the fact that you still get a chance to do something that everyone out there only dreams of doing.
“It’s still a mania.” — SC
MUSICIAN AND VISUAL ARTIST
Years Pro: 30
Day Job: Day Manager at Mookshi Healing Arts Center; vintage clothing reseller
Claims to Fame:
∼ Former member of platinum-selling Rusted Root
∼ Toured with bands including Santana, Plant & Page, the Allman Brothers, Dave Matthews Band
∼ Released two solo albums and one with independent band Lovechild
∼ Successful visual artist
When Rusted Root had a hit song and a platinum-selling album, the music industry was a vastly different beast.
Anyone who wanted access to music went into a brick-and-mortar store and bought a CD. Tours were designed to push album sales, not the other way around. There was plenty of money flowing — enough to make a fine living.
Twenty years later, that has all changed, says Jenn Wertz.
“As far as I’m concerned, the music industry is in a bad spot,” says the multi-instrumentalist and visual artist. “I haven’t figured it out. And I haven’t talked to anybody yet who has.”
Wertz, 50, joined a newborn Rusted Root in 1990. She and John Buynak had photographed the earliest incarnation of the group. “Two weeks later, [frontman Michael Glabicki] asked us to join the band, just after drinking some beers and singing some songs together,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s weird. I don’t really see myself as a musician.’ He said, ‘Trust me,’ and I did.”
The band gained fans on a grassroots level — “[It] very rapidly turned from 30 people to 200 people; the next gig would be 800 people and the next gig would be 2,000,” Wertz says — leading to the 1994 release of “When I Woke,” the certified-platinum album that featured Rusted Root’s breakthrough single, “Send Me On My Way.”
The single gave the band name recognition; a reputation as a stellar live act created demand. The band’s label, Universal, was eager to make the group a household name. “They gave us full money, full touring money with per diems, a video budget, a recording budget. We had a bus,” Wertz says. “Things were going great.”
She left Rusted Root in the latter half of the ’90s to pursue her own projects — she fronted a pair of bands, Lovechild and Isabella — but returned to the group in 2000. A sea change, however, was on the horizon — and a meeting with a record-label executive provided advance notice.
“He said, ‘I just came from a music-industry convention. You wouldn’t believe what these people are saying is going to happen down the road here. In the future, there will be no product — it will just be a virtual file of music that will be greatly compressed and will live in a library on your computer. You’ll buy it to download it to your computer.’”
The prediction shocked the table, Wertz says. “Everybody was like, ‘What about the album art? What about …’ And he said, ‘They’re saying nobody is gonna care about that.’ We couldn’t even wrap our heads around it. It was only 2000; not everybody had a household computer yet. The internet was a baby. We were like, ‘This is an insane idea.’”
The insane idea became an industry-changing reality. Today, 75% of revenue in music sales comes from streaming services — most of which are subscription-based platforms such as Spotify or Apple Music. Very little of that money makes its way to artists’ pockets.
The shift was already underway in 2008, when Wertz left Rusted Root for the second time. As soon as she parted ways with the band, she had to start working, she says. “I’ve done all kinds of jobs; I worked in a natural grocery, I worked at a family business, a high-end catering business in McKeesport.”
A day job does not, however, disrupt the need to create. Wertz — who currently works at Mookshi Healing Arts Center in Regent Square and makes the bulk of her income reselling vintage clothing through services such as Poshmark — released a solo album, “Take ’Em as They Come,” last year. She’s been performing throughout the area recently; she describes the take from most gigs as “pocket money.”
“If I don’t make art and music, I’ll go insane,” Wertz says. “Take ’Em as They Come,” which was funded via a Kickstarter campaign, was born out of the sort of creative inspiration that artists have no choice but to pursue, she explains. “It feels like you’re about to get consumed,” she says, “but it’s the most alive that you are.” — SC
IMPROVISER & COMEDY TEACHER
Years Pro: 11
Day Job: UI/UX designer at OpenArc; print/web designer
Claims to Fame
∼ Co-creator/performer of the long-running show Colossus
∼ Current teacher of upper-level improv classes at Arcade Comedy Theater
∼ Former member of The Flood, The Battery and Ladyhawk, featured improv teams at Magnet Theater in New York City
∼ Performed in festivals, including the Del Close Marathon (New York), Boston Comedy Arts Festival and Chicago Improv Festival
Nick Jaramillo says introductory improv classes bring in four types of people: stand-up comedians; theater actors; the “funny guy” of a friend group; and people who are going to do the scariest thing they can imagine.
Jaramillo did the scariest thing he could imagine.
It was 2008. Jaramillo lived in New York City and needed something to do. He figured he’d take a class in something, anything; a guy in a bar started talking to him about improv. Jaramillo hadn’t even seen improv, but he signed up for a class at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theater anyway.
“The best choices I’ve made in my life have all been completely ignorant,” he says.
At the end of the eight-week class, Jaramillo had his first show at the UCB Main Stage (imagine playing your very first football game on Heinz Field). His improv partners did pretty well. Jaramillo … completely bombed. Not one laugh.
It was too late to walk away. He already loved the mix of people, the quick friendships, the ways a scene could play out — and the validation when it went well.
Jaramillo, 39, continued classes at UCB for a few years before switching to the Magnet Theater. Around 2012, he made it onto a Magnet house team, allowing him to perform regularly in NYC and at festivals around the country. “[Making the team] was joyous. It was such a culmination of so much work,” says Jaramillo.
It’s work that does not, however, offer much money or notoriety. Few people get paid much to do improv. Most do not get paid at all, Jaramillo says, or they’re getting small amounts (in the tens of dollars) for single shows. The form also doesn’t translate well to video, so the reach of any given group or show isn’t far. “Nobody’s really famous for doing improv,” he says.
Jaramillo thinks that dynamic might make improv “the last regional art form.”
“You can’t really get an idea of what’s going on in another scene unless you go there,” he says.
After Jaramillo married his wife, Erica Sera — who herself started performing after they met — they moved to Pittsburgh.
“There’s only one city you can move to after you marry a Pittsburgher,” he says.
Pittsburgh’s improv scene is still developing, but is attracting talent, including Jethro and Kristy Nolen, longtime teachers and performers in established scenes before moving here. The city is also generous to relocated performers such as Jaramillo and to students at places such as Arcade Comedy Theater, where Jaramillo has been teaching for three years.
“Nobody has a monopoly on talent,” he says. “There’s great, funny people here doing really good stuff. You can do something here that’s as good as anywhere.”
Jaramillo and his wife have two small children now, making it hard to perform together as often as they used to. “It’s truly passing the baton back and forth,” he says. In addition to family, performing and teaching, Jaramillo works full time as a UI/UX designer and a print/web designer.
“Designing is something where you get to be creative, but you’re by yourself a lot,” he says. Improv balances that solitary work. Both, he says, are about listening and looking for patterns. “They just come out differently.”
Improv, meanwhile, can be more recreation than vocation. “It’s nice that [improv is] almost just for fun,” he says. He once heard Magnet Theater founder Ed Herbstman — he’s “improv-famous,” meaning he’s known to dedicated comedy fans but far from a household name — say it took five years to realize he was bad at it. Now, of course, Herbstman is very, very good. Jaramillo soon found the story reassuring: “It’s going to be a lifelong pursuit … I can just work on it forever.”
So he does. For the past year, he and Jethro Nolen have been performing Colossus, an hour-long show at Arcade.
“It’s the coolest, hardest thing that I do, and it is so much fun.”
“You want to be the show that inspires the next set of people,” Jaramillo says. He and Nolen want people to see the show and think, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that — and then I saw Colossus … and that opened the door for us to have an idea.” — AW
ROLLER DERBY ATHLETE
Alias: Stark Raven
Years Pro: 10
Day Job: Web support supervisor for CVS Caremark
Claims to Fame
∼ Skated with teams ranked in the Top 20 nationwide
∼ Member of Pennsylvania All-Star Team
∼ Competed internationally, including competitions in London
∼ Former Bench Coach for the Cleveland Guardians
Life can get in the way of time-consuming passions. Work, family and day-to-day obligations cause many people to step back from their less lucrative vocations. When you’re busy, who has the time to do something challenging just for themselves?
Lisa Brevard, however, is never too busy to compete at roller derby. The busier she is, the more she needs the sport.
“Roller derby has turned into my point of sanity,” the 40-year-old athlete says. “When it’s off-season, I don’t know what I’m doing with myself.” As a member of Steel Hurtin’, the top-level competition team of Steel City Roller Derby, she travels nationwide each year to compete in pursuit of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association championship.
Brevard says the highly physical, highly cooperative sport has provided a needed release throughout the last 10 years. At one point, she was raising two small children, caring for her ailing mother and working full-time. “You would think at that time there was no way I could do anything else,” she says; fortunately, family members offered to help for a few hours here and there. “I found this tiny little slot where I could go and play roller derby late at night … I’d have a couple hours a night where I could do something for myself. The kids were sleeping, my mom was sleeping. It was a little tense, but it kept me from going crazy.”
Early in her tenure, the team was ranked among the 20 best in the country and qualified for national playoffs. While recent campaigns have not been quite as successful in terms of championship competition, the organization has grown; now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Steel City Roller Derby fields three full teams of skaters, many of whom pitch in on the administration of the volunteer-run organization.
Brevard discovered the sport after seeing the 2009 movie “Whip It,” wherein a young woman finds community in roller derby. “I didn’t know they had a team here,” she says; she assumed that the movie, set in Austin, Texas, depicted the epicenter of the sport. “I was willing to move to Texas to learn.” Fortunately, she discovered Steel City Roller Derby — but there was another hurdle to overcome.
“I bought myself a pair of skates — and learned how to skate,” she admits. “I skated every day until I figured it out.”
While the physicality of the sport was alluring, Brevard says the appeal was more holistic. “It’s the community that draws you in the most,” she says. “For me personally, I’m the lead on the team. I have my own line when we go out there. A lot of people might look up to me or respect my support; for me, that drives me.
“I wholeheartedly believe that you should not depend on just a few people on a team. It should be an entire team working together, all the time. You need all the players all the time.”
That can mean support in behind-the-scenes scenarios (especially considering athletes are not paid), and it can mean stepping up when a team member is injured — something of an inevitability in roller derby. Brevard has suffered a medial meniscal tear on the outside of her right knee, a torn PCL and a sprained ankle. She broke the other ankle in two places, an injury which required an implanted metal rod.
“The smaller injuries, I’m used to,” she says. “The bruises are the first things that people see. I miss my bruises … The bruises are kind of like a badge of honor.” It’s the larger injuries — which she said usually come from awkward movements rather than collisions — that intimidate her. Those could mean time away from the team.
And what about the day when she has to hang up the skates? As a 10-year veteran, Brevard has been skating longer (and thus has suffered more wear and tear) than many of her teammates.
“At 40, I want to go as long as I can; I don’t feel like I’m ready to finish now,” she says. “But eventually, my body’s gonna be like, ‘I think you need to slow yourself down.’”
Even in considering retirement, however, Brevard thinks of her team first.
“I want to be able to leave a legacy that’s a learning, teaching, building experience.” — SC
Years Pro: 12
Day Job: Family medicine physician, Allegheny Health Network
Claims to Fame
∼ Published three novels
∼ Achieved “bestseller” status in Canada; released in 10+ countries
∼ Third novel, “The Secrets of Flight,” translated into Dutch, French and Italian
∼ Received a Presidential Citation for Outstanding Alumni from the University of Delaware in 2011
Maggie Leffler knew that 87-year-old Mary Browning had a secret, adventurous past, but she didn’t know yet what it was. She did know that Mary would be one of the alternating narrators in her third novel; in the book, Mary would befriend a teenage girl with whom she would be able to divulge her long-gone life. Whatever that life was.
In 2009 — the year her second novel, “The Goodbye Cousins,” was published — Leffler read about President Obama awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. As soon as Leffler saw a war-time photograph of the women posed in front of a plane, leather flight jackets and all, Leffler knew that Mary had been a WASP.
“The Secrets of Flight” was published in 2016 and has since become an international bestseller. It has been translated into Dutch, French and Italian.
Leffler, 46, knew as a child that she’d grow up to write novels. “The form came out of me,” she says. “I’m always in for the journey, the long haul — getting to know my characters and just settling in for a while in this imaginary world where I can fix everything.”
Leffler’s grandmother had published books, which Leffler loved reading as a kid. “I always thought it was so cool to leave behind that piece of yourself even after you no longer exist,” she says.
In college, she majored in English while also taking prerequisites for medical school. Both of Leffler’s parents were doctors; she found their work stories fascinating. In 2000, Leffler moved to Pittsburgh for a residency program in family medicine at UPMC St. Margaret.
“I just kept writing at night,” she says. “I’ve always been doing it. It’s embedded in who I am.” Writing gave her an outlet for the rigors of residency. It also provided community when she joined a writers group in Squirrel Hill (she has now been a member of an off-shoot group for 13 years).
Leffler spent her residency rewriting what would eventually become her first published novel, 2007’s “The Diagnosis of Love.” She got married, finished her residency, started in practice and gave birth to the first of her two sons. She began to write query letters in search of an agent, a process that mostly involves waiting and “the up and down road of rejection.”
That road proved to be one worth taking. She got an agent and then a two-book deal from Bantam Books. The flux of the publishing industry contributed to the long stretch between her second book and “The Secrets of Flight.” “It finally worked out,” she says.
Writing novels is not a sustainable income for her. An up-front sum, or advance, is offered to authors against future royalties, but that money only comes when a book is sold — which could be every few years, or longer. Royalty checks, an unpredictable form of payment, arrive every six months.
For 16 years, Leffler has worked part-time as a practitioner of family medicine for Allegheny Health Network; since her second son was born, 11 years ago, she has worked part-time. “It gives me time to use my imagination every day,” she says. Writing and medicine, however, are not mutually exclusive. “I really enjoy talking to people, hearing their stories,” she says. “That’s the humanity of medicine. It’s really about the stories of people.”
She’s also interested in the growing trend of narrative medicine, which uses stories to teach, learn and process. Leffler says those stories can sometimes convey a patient’s history better than a more traditional textbook case study. She’s been co-instructing on the subject at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.
“All the stories you take in [as a doctor] can weigh on you, and so putting them on paper helps let it go,” she says.
Leffler wouldn’t leave the medical field even if writing alone could provide for her family, she says. “Honestly, I really do love seeing my patients,” she says.
“What would happen if the whole world just got to pursue their passions?” She thinks there would probably be more art, but “we need to go out and focus on each other, too,” she decides. “I like being out in the world and taking care of patients. It’s worked out to be a nice balance.” — AW
Years Pro: 5
Day Job: Manager and server at two Pittsburgh restaurants
Claims to Fame
∼ Named 2018 Pittsburgh Pride “Femme Fatale”
∼ Founding member of Smokin’ Betties burlesque troupe
∼ Performed nationwide, including appearances in Denver, Richmond, Va., and Providence, R.I.
∼ Member of Hot Metal Hardware & Cosmic Misfits burlesque troupes
On the night that Luna La Crème graduated from Carlow University, they celebrated by attending a burlesque show. They knew a bit about the art form — a vaudeville-style entertainment marrying humor, striptease, performance art and nearly anything else you can think of — but had never attended a show.
It was, surprisingly, a blend of pursuits they’d been toying with for years. For some people, burlesque is a daring leap; for La Crème, 27, it was a natural evolution.
“When I was little, we had a deck; I would [go there and] put on shows for no one,” they say. “I would put on music, dance, come up with choreography.”
Through their teen years, La Crème became fascinated with creating costumes and started crafting cosplay outfits. Burlesque, then, is “this thing that ties in all the artistic expression I’ve felt throughout my entire life.”
And the striptease element? “I’ve never really liked wearing clothes,” they say.
Contrary to what the uninitiated might think, burlesque performances are remarkably body positive; as La Crème puts it, “Every body is a burlesque body.” That can create a feeling of empowerment, rather than exposure. “I have not always felt comfortable in my body. Probably only in the past year or two have I been, like, ‘Yeah, this is good. I like this. My thighs are curvy, it’s good.’ But I’ve always felt strength in … not being modest in those ways.”
La Crème enrolled in a burlesque class in 2014. “I was the youngest of the group; everyone else was in their late 20s, 30s, 40s,” they say. “And then, here’s tiny little 22-year-old me. There was a lot of pressure. But as soon as I started doing the stripping, it was extremely freeing.” The age gap wasn’t the only difference. “I was the only queer person [in the class],” says La Crème, who is non-binary. “I felt like I stuck out a little bit.”
Taking in other events that focus on queer performers as an audience member led La Crème to see the distinction as an asset to be celebrated; they cite the Fierce! International Queer Burlesque Festival, which has been held twice in Pittsburgh, as a key influence.
Experience — and success — created confidence. La Crème has performed across the country in addition to regular performances in Pittsburgh; favorite routines include a “fallen angel” character set to Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” as well as Broadway-tinged acts set to “All That Jazz” from “Chicago” and “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” from “The Producers.”
Their regular and wide-flung performances have also led to a healthy social media following. Their online persona — as with their onstage presentation — is fully and entirely Luna La Crème; that is to say, there is no public mention of their legal name. (La Crème declined to disclose their real name for this article, citing privacy and safety concerns endemic to all forms of adult entertainment.)
The distinction goes beyond that of a typical stage name. “Me as Luna is a little bit more quiet and cold — but also very sweet. When I’m 100% [my off-stage self], I can be a little bit outgoing and talk your ear off,” they say. It’s not a remarkable difference, however; “There’s a little bit of a distinction, but very little.”
Growing notoriety and national performances may lead to more gigs and opportunities, but it does not necessarily lead to a marked uptick in money. Burlesque performers typically work for tips; a hat is passed after each routine, and audience members are encouraged to bring cash to support the performers. While that money can cover travel and costume costs and provide a bit of profit, it’s nothing a performer could make a living off of.
La Crème says the typical take for a night’s work ranges between $40 and $80. “If you’re [making] $100 or over, it’s a good show,” they say. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider it a job. “I just consider it the job of my dreams.”
La Crème continues to perform on a weekly basis. Going forward, they say, “I want to start focusing on getting more people on the stage — education and mentorship.” While there’s ample stage time and performance spaces, “There’s so much more we could do in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t want to see a little Luna not have a chance to buckle down and learn.” — SC