Referring to Jeanette Calliva as a PR professional kind of undersells it. What she did for the vast majority of her career was create the choreography behind London’s nightlife and society scene. If there was such a thing as a Rolodex nowadays, hers would be filled with the contacts of CEOs, up-and-coming entrepreneurs and club owners, artists, Hollywood power players and A-list actors.
The work demanded a lot — especially as she had to create it herself. Calliva didn’t turn a privileged background into a viable career path; she was born and raised in a rough area of Wales’ major city, Cardiff and fought for every inch.
“I had my first child when I was 17. By the age of 20, I had two children. By the age of 30 I had three,” she told me. “I worked, I built two companies — and I still had that feeling like I wasn’t allowed to take a deep breath.”
It takes courage and confidence to show one’s self as a work-in-progress, not sure of what the next chapter will bring. This week’s newsletter focuses on someone with exactly those qualities; someone at a crossroads: whose children are out of the house, who left a high-powered but taxing career in the rear-view mirror, and who now faces the question of what comes next.
When she was 15, Calliva would regularly escape to London to go to the city’s hottest clubs. Of half-Somali and half-Welsh descent, she was already getting noticed. Singer Steve Strange, who ran several clubs in London at the time, told her she should be paid for showing up at trendy clubs with her good-looking girlfriends in tow.
Calliva went on to promote nightclubs, joining up with Strange to produce parties for acts like U2, Prince and Kylie Minogue. Around the mid-90s she began thinking about how she could expand into PR. She met up with an acquaintance of hers, Sara Woodhead, who was working as an assistant at the PR megafirm Freud Communications.
The two of them soon launched Woodhead Calliva armed with a list of top-shelf contacts that was the envy of the town. They were among the pioneers in matching celebrities with appropriate brands and products and created lifestyle events at nightclubs. “We organized the launches of De Beers and Miu Miu in London … at the end of the 90s, early 2000s we were pretty much involved, in some area, with every core brand that was launching or having a party,” says Calliva.
The high-octane life gave her a lot of satisfaction, but also took a toll. At the age of 40, she realized she suffered from adrenal fatigue, a condition that stemmed from chronic stress. She powered through, however, as the business grew – getting more corporate clients and moving to offices on Bond Street.
Ironically, the success of the business meant the size and demands of the operation proved to be greater than she wanted at that juncture in her career. In 2013, she decided to step away permanently from Woodhead Calliva. Her retirement lasted all of one week. She set up a consultancy with Heather Kerzner, whom she had worked with in the past when Heather was married to the hotelier Sol Kerzner. Then that too became overpowering.
“I didn’t want to do it anymore and that nagging thought ... had become a booming voice: ‘What am I doing? What am I frightened of?’ What I was frightened of was missing out, of being in the lives of those I really love.”
She’s downgraded – sold off her house and disconnected from the fast-paced network that helped her create some of London’s most memorable events. That step took some doing as well, she says, as “one’s identity is tied up in one’s work: ‘Am I significant? Am I relevant? Will I be forgotten?’ ” She might not have the answers to those questions, but Calliva is learning that they no longer have the same urgency.
“All I know is right now I feel free. There were aspects that I loved a lot about working, but I have to have this time away from that to see if there’s something I love even more. And it might just be a more peaceful way of existing, of living,” she told me.
When she looks back, she realizes that all of her success is rooted in a strong sense of belief. People came to the clubs she was promoting because she believed they were a lot of fun and that others would agree. So why shouldn’t that same conviction serve her as she enters this new chapter?
“If I have the opportunity to live my life in a way that’s fulfilling to me ... and when I find that, when I’ve landed in that … I think the sort of thing I’m doing, others will want to do.”
We have no doubt that with all the wisdom of life she has accumulated, Jeanette will thrive in whatever path she finds, become an example for others, and activate her same infectious enthusiasm, becoming a north star of what is possible in the next chapter of life.