Sarah McLellan: There wasn't anything in my mind that told me that it wasn't possible
It’s no wonder Sarah McLellan was drawn to the performing arts; her life is reminiscent of a Broadway musical in itself. Growing up in Bundaberg, Queensland with a dance teacher and theatre director mother, Sarah’s foray into performing began young. Since then, her career has traversed various industries – each as interesting and impressive as the last.
Moving to New York at age 17, Sarah made her Broadway debut in the musical 42nd Street before relocating to Las Vegas to perform in Queen and Ben Elton’s hit musical We Will Rock You. Following her tenure on Broadway, Sarah performed as the lead singer of all-female rock tribute band Lez Zeppelin, touring all throughout the US and Europe for crowds up to 40,000 people.
As a self-confessed foodie, she later combined her love for the culinary and editorial worlds as a branded content editor for The Lifestyle Collection at Condé Nast where she created award-winning content for publications like Bon Appétit, Epicurious, Condé Nast Traveler, and more.
Catching up with Sarah on the sky deck of the World Trade Center overlooking sprawling Manhattan, one thing is for certain – Sarah is certainly in the right city for her palpable unbridled ambition. Or, as she puts it best: “It's very hard to move anywhere after you've lived in New York.”
Interview by Molly O'Brien
How did New York come to be on your radar?
I was exposed to dance competitions all throughout Australia and the world – New York included. The first time I visited, I was 12, and even at the age, I knew that New York was something I was ultimately working towards.
Was that based on your own experiences, or were you influenced by popular culture?
It was a little bit of everything. If you’re a dancer and singer, New York in general and being on Broadway is the end goal. I also was open to London and looking at the West End, but New York just spoke to me. On one of my visits, I was noticed by someone in the industry who suggested I consider making the move permanently. It watered the seed that was already there.
Did you have a good grasp of the city when you arrived?
I arrived in New York when I was 17. It was like any new foreign place, I just did my best to figure it out!
What did you start doing for work?
I was on scholarship at Steps on Broadway and worked a few jobs here and there along with working their front desk. I was also auditioning for dance and theatre gigs too.
How long was it until you had more permanent status here in terms of working and living?
I was continuously hitting roadblocks when getting to the end of auditions when asked about my visa situation. At that point, the E3 wasn’t available. My agent thought it would be a recurring issue, so they sponsored me for my O1 visa – Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement, which took quite some time.
Part of this process was leaving the United States so that the visa could be approved and issued. So, needless to say, it was a little bit frustrating to have been in New York and to have had that momentum, and then to have to go back to Australia!
Eventually, I came back and was able to work. I was hired to do a tour with Harley Davidson for their 100th Anniversary World Tour which was my first big break. I spent about a year and a bit touring with them, through the States and eventually to Australia and Japan.
In the summer of 2003, I made my Broadway debut. It was in the Tony award-winning revival of 42nd Street; a very traditional musical theatre show. I performed as a swing in that show where I understudied and performed all 24 female ensemble tracks. I was in that show for a little over a year and it was an incredible experience.
How influential was that experience as a part of your time in New York?
Very. The majority of my best friends now I met during that show. Everyone was so passionate and full of energy, and everyone has worked very hard to get there. You feel like you're a part of a bigger family.
How did you feel when you were doing these performances?
It feels like I'm where I'm supposed to be. I feel very lucky that I had that incredible experience, and even now in my career, I'm always trying to seek out something that is reminiscent of that.
How did you know when it was time to leave the industry?
I think it’s important to have an understanding of the progression of your career and wanting to continuously be challenged. I’m always pushing myself to be better, do bigger things, take more risks. I never want to get too comfortable.
Did you ever think you’d have a second part of your career that didn't have much to do with the entertainment industry?
I was always dabbling in other things while I was performing. When I was in 42nd Street, I had a column in a dance magazine in Australia that I did bi-monthly. I started working in restaurants and eventually worked my way up in a restaurant group as director of marketing, social, and events.
Did this signify your “phase two” in New York?
It was very different because it was the first time I was working in an office, but I was also jumping between restaurants too which made it a little easier to deal with.
Did you consider moving back to Australia at any point?
Everything I know about being an adult has been because of living in New York. So, when I think about going home, my adult life doesn’t really exist there. Also, it's very hard to move anywhere after you've lived in New York.
How did you come to be working in the editorial world?
I always loved writing and during the time I was at the restaurant group I started my own blog. I was writing there and doing some freelance work too. It was a great creative outlet. I then spent 14 months as editor in chief of the luxury travel and lifestyle site, Infinite Legroom where I wrote over 1100 stories. It was that role, which was very reminiscent of a startup “wear all the hats” environment, that really solidified my interest in writing as a career.
I spent about a year and a half in San Francisco where I spent a lot of time in wine country. While I was there I got way more into the food and wine scene, and so after about a total of 14 months doing that job, I actually left and started a consulting business. That's when I stumbled upon writing for Condé Nast.
Was it the editorial or the culinary side of things that interested you most?
It was a combination. I always had a natural gravitation towards that food culture, I loved cooking and writing about food. I started working at Bon Appétit a few days a week, and shortly after I moved into a full-time role in branded content. I worked there for two and a half years, working on all kinds of custom content across print, digital, video, and experiential.
You’ve been living in New York for a long time, how have you noticed the Aussie community in New York evolve?
I think the biggest change was when the E3 became prominent, so many more Australians were able to come here. On a grand scale, there are so many incredible Australians who have come here to take what they've done at home and escalate it to the next level. I think it’s really inspiring to see so many different industries represented here; whether that be fashion, theater, music, acting, business or finance.
Why do you think a city like New York is conducive for success, specifically for Australians?
The type of person who decides they want to come here, I think, is already hard-wired for being very dedicated to what they do. I don't think Australians move here because they don't like the Australian lifestyle, but there's just something about New York that's alluring. It's the best city in the world, after all. Having said that, I’m still very much a proud Aussie girl, and I know that I wouldn't necessarily have come here with the same mindset had I not had that upbringing and support of my family.