The chances of a Canadian Tibetan Buddhist, adroginous-looking vegan and out-of-the-closet lesbian making it in the inner sanctum of country music of Nashville, Tennessee seem so remote as to defy belief. It takes the unflinching faith in her abilities, the total love for music and singing and the rare amount of self-confidence found in personal branding hero/heroine k.d. lang to have made it all possible; not just for her, but for the many others who will surely follow in her footsteps.
It all began with a passion for role-model Patsy Cline in her native Alberta for Kathryn Dawn Lang, whose fascination for her early referent quickly transformed into a desire to become a professional singer inspired as she was by her achievements and example. Her first forays into performing came indeed in a Patsy Cline tribute band she had set up with other enthusiasts, with whom she recorded her first album in 1983. Little did she know at the time that four Grammy Awards and a Canadian star in the Hall of Fame would follow in a career spanning over thirty-five years to-date in which she would sing duets with the likes of Tonny Bennet or one of the James Bond movie themes for ‘Tomorrow Never Dies‘.
Never easily catalogued and always ready to defy stereotypes, k.d.’s iconic looks were also admired on the big screen when she was the star of Salmonberries (1991). Unbeknown to many, her big break came thanks to the support of the great Roy Orbinson, with whom she recorded the duet ‘Crying’ which won her her first Grammy Award as early as 1987. k.d. has had a go at genres as diverse as country, pop, folk and torch song and was ready to walk away from fame in 1992 and later come back rejuvenated and with a clearer sense of purpose. She gladly admits that she cleans toilets like everyone else at her Buddhist retreat center and that her looks make her be mistaken for a man just about every day. The only thing she is afraid of, she claims, is fear itself. As for her sense of humor, it was more than proven in an epic TV interview with Australian mega-star Dame Edna Everadge.
k.d. realized she was gay at the age of 13 – her father had abandoned her and her family a year earlier – and was under pressure from her recording company not to reveal her sexuality. She is glad she did not give in to that pressure, since as she declared in an interview to The Guardian newspaper “I don’t think [my album] Ingenue would have been a hit without me coming out, I wouldn’t have got on the cover of Vanity Fair [in a barber’s chair being shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford].” Fame got the best out of her and she was wise enough to take a long sabbatical which allowed her the time and the peace to reflect on it all.
“Life is so impermanent that it’s not about somebody else or things around me, it’s about knowing you are completely alone in this world and being content inside,” she would later declare.
Songwriter, crooner, pop and folk singer all into one, k.d. sees herself as a musical nomad who really likes to change. “I’ve always tried to disallow the genrefying of myself,” she tells us, “and like to sing what I feel.” Perhaps as a direct result her personal brand is today as strong as when she first left her native Alberta.
Lessons for personal branders
– Role-models are often the first impulse for many of us to follow a given path. Make sure yours are as inspirational as Patsy Cline was for k.d. lang. Remember that the quality of your personal brand is directly related to the quality of the role models that inspire and fuel it
– Do not buy into the hackneyed ‘nuclear family myth’: like k.d. most of us come from less-than-perfect and/or alternative family backgrounds. As her case proves, this is in no way a deterrent for success
– There is not, has not been and will never be another ‘you’. Refuse to be pigeonholed and stand up for what and who you are even if that means challenging stereotypes. Create a space for yourself and your brand in your industry or profession until you are respected and valued in your own right
– The crucial importance of introspection for your personal and career development cannot be underestimated. Be ready to take some time for yourself as k.d. did in order to reassess your life and your priorities and adapt your personal brand accordingly. This reflection period is never time lost but time wisely invested
– Do not lose touch with your roots and – especially when success knocks on your door – keep both feet firmly on the ground. A healthy degree of humility is the best antidote for the twin demons of vanity and egolatry. Keep them firmly under check and remain a likeable and approachable human being it is a pleasure to do business with
I invite you to join me next week when we’ll be discussing the success of a Latin American personal branding hero: a twenty-something year old with a baby face who turned a personal hobby into a lucrative profession and became the first TV success in his native country and the whole of Central America. Stay put!
Oscar Del Santo is a lecturer, consultant, key speaker, blogger and populariser of online reputation and inbound marketing in Spain. He has been extensively featured in the Spanish and Latin American media and is included in the ‘Top Social Media Influencers’ and ‘Best Marketing Tweeters in Spanish’ lists @OscarDS. He is the author of ‘Reputacion Online para Tod@s’ and the co-author of ‘Marketing de Atraccion 2.0’.