I Couldn’t Quit My Cocktail Waitressing Gig Because I Loved The Money

Photographed by Sunny Shokrae.
For years, I spent my daytime life hustling towards my dream of becoming an actor. But to ensure that my rent was paid — and that I could survive in New York City — my nights were spent as a bottle server. I worked in exclusive clubs where rich people agreed to table minimums in the thousands, plus a 20% gratuity, all in an effort to dance among beautiful people and prove their wealth and power. And young women like me were there to reap the capitalistic benefits.

I once heard a fellow waitress ask, “What’s the most expensive champagne we have?” and suddenly a toddler-sized, shiny bottle that I had never seen before sat on the bar. There was always fanfare whenever expensive champagne was bought; a sparkler was lit, a female was objectified, a waitress procession ran across the dance floor, all exulting the pricey bubbly. But this time, I noticed the entire staff was involved — waitresses, go-go dancers, my manager, the bottle hosts, the doorman, and every single busboy, all with flutes in hand, ready for the liquid glory to be poured out.

“He bought the Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam,” a girl whispered to me. “It’s $40,000.”

A teacher’s salary in four and a half liters of fermented grapes. But which was more gross — this guy's spending habits, or the fact that I was profiting off of them? Each of us waitresses made over $5,000 in gratuities that night.

I got my first cocktail waitress job right after college — thanks to a fake résumé and a short skirt. I was too broke and too smart not use my looks to get ahead. Plus, this was cocktailing, not my "real" career, right? I needed something in the interim, just until I got cast in a TV pilot or something.

I earned my stripes trailing waitresses who had worked in the business for years. They regaled me with stories of their wild nights out, of snorting K, and of the boring hedge-funders who took them to expensive dinners and fancy trips abroad.

“Come to Cairo,” Sophie said to me at the end of a Thursday night shift. “There’s a jet waiting for us at Teterboro.”

“I can’t. I have an audition tomorrow," I replied. (I didn’t get the part, and I have yet to cross the pyramids off my bucket list.)

'He bought the Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam,' a girl whispered to me. 'It’s $40,000.'

I started waitressing to bankroll my acting dream, but it was years before I finally landed a commercial that paid well enough for me to quit nightlife. And truthfully, I needed a break. I longed to make money doing something that I loved — and I didn’t love making vodka-sodas. I didn’t love waking up at noon every day because I had stayed up so late. I didn’t love that people assumed my only aspirations were to find a wealthy husband some Saturday night. I didn’t love drunk people. But, as happens with many romances, I didn't know what I had until it was gone: the money.

The money that allowed me private lessons with Idina Menzel’s acting coach. The money that paid for the best headshot photographer in New York. That afforded me an apartment on the 23rd floor of a beautiful high-rise. That funded casting networking sessions, Chanel purses, sample-sale sprees, and a seemingly endless savings account. The money that let me treat 100-dollar bills like 20s.

But even though I could support myself from that commercial, I still wasn’t really a "working actor." I didn’t show up to a film set every day; I lived off of residual checks. And as each check became smaller than the last, I realized that if I wanted to keep pursuing my dream, it was only a matter of time until I was back in nightlife.

A year after I filmed the commercial, I landed a job at a swanky club in Chelsea. The sun was setting on its hot-spot factor, but it was popular with the European crowd, so there was still money to be made. And champagne to sell. I’d sip all night on the expensive nectar, starting out flirtatious and fun but ending with my face flushed and facing a toilet bowl.

I soon became like the veteran waitresses I had worked with before: I trained the new hires, I headed up the close-outs at the end of the night, I pushed people who were in my way. I yelled back at unruly customers. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I didn’t care how much money people were spending. Cocktailing was the constant reminder that my dream wasn’t coming true.

I wanted a career in acting, but I wound up with a career in nightlife. And when you’re making a series of lateral moves from club to club for almost 10 years, that’s a dead-end job. I had become a slave to it all: nightlife, money, and my acting dreams. And I couldn’t decide which was worse, since they had all become intertwined. So to break the cycle, I hung up my stilettos and left it all behind.

Cocktail money kept my hopes of stardom alive (for a while), but it couldn't buy my happiness. For me, money is indeed subjective. But the true value of a dollar isn’t what it can buy — it's how you earned it.


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