Departures and Arrivals. From dancer to jazz singer and PR guru

By Koko Zuberi

When I met first Zena, the first thought that came to my mind was ‘Xena the Warrior Princess’ (remember that American TV series from the 90s?). To me, she is just that. She is a (positive!) warrior and she is a princess. What does Zena do? Well, not only is she a freelance PR consultant and writer, she is also a professional jazz singer and has been balancing her two careers successfully for over 10 years.

More importantly, she’s doing what she loves. I think I can safely say that many people are stuck in careers that don’t fulfil them or are only in jobs to help pay the bills. So whenever I meet someone who’s truly happy in their work, I’m curious.

This is Zena’s story…

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A singer, a dancer, gymnast, and later, an interpreter. Singing was always a part of me. My Dad was a musician and encouraged me to follow my heart and musical talent. I was never formally coached, but my weekends with Dad, since I was about four, nearly always involved us playing the guitar and singing together. Although I thought hard about pursuing it professionally, my Mum always stressed the importance of getting a good all-round education first. She said as long as I had that, I could do whatever I wanted.

The dancing part started with ballet at six and then Latin-American and Ballroom dancing from age eight. My Mum and Stepfather were keen Latin-American dancers. They started taking me along to their lessons and competitions and suggested I enrolled.  They found me a little boy partner and I started competing around the UK when I was nine. That’s where the travelling began!

Then there was the gymnastics. I got into that, albeit a bit ‘late’ at age 12, and although it was something I was passionate about and continued for seven years, my coach said that I should have probably started age three in order to not be scared of  the scariest moves! Those disciplined years in the gym taught me about focus, determination, resilience and presentation, to name a few, all of which are essential lifelong qualities.

My passion for wanting to be an interpreter was due to my grandfather instilling in me a curiosity about travel and foreign languages. Lunchtime French classes in primary school and regular trips to Germany, Russia and other parts of Europe as a teenager were fundamental in fulfilling my thirst for learning languages and being nosy about other cultures and ways of living. I became fluent in German and could converse happily in French, Russian and later, basic everyday Norwegian.

Was there a turning point conversation?
I thought I would become an interpreter until I met the careers officer at the University of Surrey in the final year of my linguistics degree. She suggested that there were fewer choices than I thought available if I wanted to use my language skills every single day. Competition for becoming an interpreter was high, and teaching and translation were the only other options she presented. This was a bit of a shock as I was convinced I’d be using at least my German every day. That’s when I first heard the term ‘public relations’. She thought it would suit me down to the ground. She was right. I’ve now been working in PR for 22 years…


Fast forward 1, 2 or 3 decades…is there a marked difference in the ‘plan’?!
There was never a career-or life-plan. But another turning-point conversation took place when I was 28. A singing hairdresser told me about a weekend jazz school. I met like-minded musicians, learned how to create and fine-tune my jazz-repertoire and arrangements and it paved the way for me to become a professional jazz singer.

In order to focus more on singing, I left full-time life of PR and turned to freelancing in 2005. It freed me up to launch my jazz life in full, record two albums and sing professionally as often as possible. Now in 2016, I’m leading two parallel and occasionally intertwined working lives that I love.

What tips would you give to teens / 20-somethings starting out, in terms of approach to (working) life?

Travel abroad to get perspective. Embrace hard work and be keen to learn and ‘own’ every job you have. Get plenty of work experience in different places (some might be for free, but hobby-related, stimulating and still useful!) and never be flippant or complacent on the job. You never know who you’re talking to, and every conversation could lead to a new opportunity. Always be professional and respectful, find out what they need from you and then give them more – think about what extra you can bring. But if you’re not being treated with respect, if your work isn’t appreciated and if your brain isn’t learning anything after a while, start looking elsewhere! And ultimately, always remember what made your heart sing when you were a child and a teenager and get it back into your life if it’s faded into history. Talk to people and find a way to make it your present.

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