Alden Boon

Sharina Bynes: Braving the World as a Freelance Emcee and Choreographer

23/09/2015

Aah, the ’90s: an era marked by the complete domination of cookie-cutter pop stars. It was a brand of intoxicating bubblegum-pop grandeur: cheesy rhyming couplets, all-too-slick choreography, and kitsch fashion pastiches. Thousands of miles away from glittering Hollywood, a young girl, tucked away in her room, would mimic the chanteuses’ every single hair whip, sing with her hairbrush, and believe she’s on top of the world.

No, I’m not referring to myself. That girl is Sharina Bynes. Au fait with pop culture of yore, this vivacious lady drew inspiration from Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and the like to carve a name for herself as a freelance choreographer and emcee.

How hard can emceeing be? Just give me a microphone and I’ll get the job done.” If you think that, you have another think coming. And a blistering glare from someone who can out-talk you in a heartbeat. “Some have the notion that if you can speak well, you can be an emcee,” says Sharina. “But it takes more than that. It takes a kind of delivery, a kind of ability to be able to connect with your audience.”

Sharina goes by the moniker “The Asian Britney Spears”, and certainly those are big Manolo Blahniks to fill. We check in with her to learn about the ins and outs of hosting.

You are a triple threat: dancer, emcee and also a singer. At what age did you discover you had a gift?

Since young, I’d always known I would be a performer one way or another. I had my very first performance when I was five — it was a choreographed dance at Buona Vista community centre. There were ministers in the audience!

Were you always a confident girl?

People see me as someone brimming with confidence, and they also see my cheerful disposition. I believe I have a healthy level of self-confidence, which in my line of work is a requisite. Being only human, I am however, not mega-confident all the time. I do have moments when I doubt myself but I just have to dust off the negativity and not show it.

So growing up, did you have your own make-pretend show?

Definitely! Between the ages of four and seven, I would dance along with Michael Jackson whenever his music videos came on television. I would rewind the cassette tape, and it was rinse and repeat! When I was a teenager, I would lock myself in my room, turn on the CD player and pretend I was holding my own concert. My comb was my microphone!

Mine was  still is  an empty water bottle. So whose magazine cutouts do you have on your wall? Whom do you call your influences? 

Britney Spears! I like to think that she’s one of the reasons why I am doing what I am doing today. I grew up during the ’90s pop era, a time when Michael Jackson, and the bubblegum pop that followed were ubiquitous. I watched innumerable music videos whenever I was done with my homework. Award shows, from Billboard Music Awards to MTV Music Video Awards and Grammy Awards, were my fix. I’d check out different artistes’ live performances, even how they presented the awards. My pop repertoire comprised Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. I knew all their music videos and most of their choreography by heart, and I’d even dance along — in my room and in school! I followed some of their personal lives closely.

All these artistes put in a lot of hard work. Innate talent may be a factor but success takes more than just talent. Also, from these artistes, I learnt that you can’t please everyone. There will be people who love you and your work, and there will be detractors who don’t. It’s not personal: it’s just how the business is.

People will always talk so ultimately you will have to learn to love yourself and the things you do, and not be affected by the negative things said of you.

When did you decide that you want to be a full-time emcee/choreographer?

It wasn’t a decision I made. It just happened. I had a cushy job as a sports operations and development executive. Six months into the job, my manager was leaving and I knew I was going to be taking over her workload.  However, there wasn’t going to be a pay raise. So I gave my notice and I made a decision to get out of the 9-to-5 rat race. I did so and I never looked back. I was 21.

Did you have any professional training as a dancer?

I never had any professional training. I was a street dancer — the concourse at Esplanade was my second home — and I watched tons of music videos. And then came my first gig: teaching recreational hip-hop dance for the teachers and staff at a kindergarten. I also taught dancing on a weekly basis at Boys’ Town. I dove right into the work — I’d come up with new choreography every week without fail!

Choosing the right song is very important when you conduct dance classes. And seeing people enjoy the music and dance to the rhythm with your choreography… it really evokes a sense of achievement.

What about your break into emceeing? 

Right after I graduated from Singapore Polytechnic’s Media and Communication, I worked for a boutique public relations (PR) firm, which had a sister events company. After working as a PR officer for three months, I hopped over to the events field.

I liked the work. But the irregular hours didn’t appeal to me. I had to do up proposals, attend meetings, and be an assistant to my boss who at the time was an emcee. He gave me a few tips. I watched him work, watched how others work, learnt how to spin as a deejay and I simply worked hard. Ultimately, it is all about your personality: How you deliver lines, scripted or not.

I shamelessly told my ex boss that I wanted to give hosting a shot. And chance came! There was one weekend when he was double booked and he selected me as his replacement. Yay me! I received positive feedback and he then referred me to another events agency. It’s kind of like a ripple effect. It was harder back then, trying to get your name out there. These days, there’re Facebook groups, which make it easier for us emcees to connect with one another!

Any sweet memories of your first emceeing gig?

It was a gig at Heartland Mall. I was doing voiceover works for the shopping mall’s promotions. Shortly after, I had another voiceover gig for CLEO magazine, and things started revving up. With voiceover gigs, you don’t have to face the crowd, but you draw the crowd in with announcements. It was nice to have shoppers come up to me and compliment my voice — some even asked if I worked as a deejay! That boosted my confidence. From voiceover gigs, I then moved up to become an event host.

I’d imagine you get questioned about your decision to go freelance and not get a “steady job”? 

My family always probed and asked me why I do not get an office job that pays Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions and bonuses. And it’s true, my job has an age cap: I don’t think I’d be dancing when I’m 40! Right now I do contribute to my own CPF account, although I lose out on employer’s CPF contributions. And having a sizeable CPF balance is key to buying a house in Singapore.

But hey, I’ll worry about all that later. I love what I’m doing, and I honestly don’t know if I can keep this up for life. I should just carpe diem! Life is short  do what you love.

The key to making emceeing a lifelong career? Work hard, work smart, and be humble. Being thick-skinned and having an outgoing personality will help too!

What are the challenges of the job? How do you overcome them?

My weekends are normally reserved for events and weekday evenings adult dance and Zumba classes. There are times when I work seven days a week. It can be hard to juggle but it’s all about time management and managing your priorities. My friends actually sulk because I don’t meet them as often as they want me to. And I tell them — I can barely make some alone time! I get back home at around 8pm on a weekday, and I still have to finish up my paperwork, which takes an hour or so. Not to mention I have to prepare for different dance routines, come up with lesson plans, reply my work emails, etc.

So to all of my friends who understand — or try to — thank you! 🙂

I still get butterflies in my stomach sometimes before I go on stage. Every show is different; you have to start from scratch, try to win over the audience and make sure they have as much fun as you do. And I do get stage fright. There was an event that had me quaking — my hand and microphone shook while I was hosting an event graced by a senior minister as well as another VIP. I had no idea what caused it! It was a small and simple setting — which probably made the experience even weirder.

I’m sure you handled that situation #likeaboss. What about going on vacations? That would mean giving up a few gigs here and there.

That’s right. It’s simple: no work equates to no money. Going for a vacation means money deficit! I usually try to take two vacations a year. It’s good to get away from work once in a while, and come back rejuvenated and filled with creative ideas. I went to Las Vegas this year, where I saw my long-time idol Britney Spears in person at her Piece of Me show! I even took a few dance classes when I was in Los Angeles: that was my way of paying homage to my inspiration!

What if you get sick?

The show must go on. Pop a pill and just soldier on.

You’ve had days when you had three back-to-back gigs. Have you ever reached the point of fatigue? How do you keep going?

This is not good for health but I take loads of Redbull before the start of an event. Drinking loads of water is a must too. After an eventful day — pun intended — I will reward myself with whatever I feel like eating. And maybe a massage the next day!

Operating as a lone ranger… have you ever been burnt before? 

I have to say I am very lucky to have not experienced a no-payment. I do have to credit myself for being cautious — I always send my invoices prior to conducting dance workshops or hosting events. Sometimes, you may need to do a little bit of chasing, but that’s about it for me.

Tell us about the most memorable gig you’ve had thus far.

Hosting the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run in 2013. It was hitherto my biggest crowd ever of 8,000 runners! And I must have done something right because I got asked to host the event again in 2014, this time with 10,000 participating runners! I was also hosting for a good cause — to give ex-offenders a second chance. And in a society where people judge others by what’s on the surface, it’s important for us to look beyond that.

You’re involved in marquee events like Chingay. How did you manage to get these big gigs?

I got a text from a teacher in St Joseph’s Institution International asking if I would like to do Chingay and I said: “For sure!” There were different segments and I helmed the Travelling Dance segment in 2014. I didn’t perform: I trained dancers for the spectacular event and we were representing the Eurasian Association in Chingay.

It was a big-scale event that I knew would give me a lot of exposure and recognition. Where hosting is concerned, it’s all about who you know and who thinks you can do a good job. So, networking is pivotal. At the end of the day, you want to put your name out there.

How well you do your job no doubt depends on how enthusiastic your students or the participants are. What do you do when they are a little less than energetic?

As an emcee, you need to learn to read the crowd. And if they are not receptive enough, you have to psych them up — it could be the things you say, and how you say it. Even the background music affects the mood.

As a writer, I’ve covered many events myself. Sometimes different emcees employ the same tricks — like the incessant use of PSY’s Gangnam Style. How do you keep yourself on top of your game?

Have someone to mentor you; someone whom you look up to and seek advice from. I’m thankful that I have one. Also, do not be afraid to ask for feedback — good AND bad. This will help you improve.

Any advice for the young, aspiring emcees out there?

Do what you love and the money will follow. And when you’re successful, or almost successful, stay down-to-earth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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