Sponsor! Petition! Lawyer! These are just some of words that strike fear into the hearts of performing artists looking to pursue international careers.
I was 20 years old when I was awarded my O-1 Visa to the U.S. and I will never forget the nerves I felt as I went through the process! Will I get it? Will my dream be a reality? There is so much work involved, so many areas to understand and cover, and with little to no support. They don’t make it easy, but when you are successful it can change your life.
The O-1 Visa is a three-year, non-immigrant working Visa awarded to performing artists who are classified to have extraordinary abilities in their field. In order to qualify as a person of extraordinary ability, the artist must demonstrate that they have risen above others in their field to the point where they have gained national and international recognition for their work. They must also show they are coming to the U.S. for a period of time in order to continue work in their field of expertise.
As Australians, we are humble and so rarely look at our talent as extraordinary – let alone ask peers to provide information to attest to that! But if you want to work as an artist in the U.S. then you must be able to stand tall, be confident and call yourself extraordinary as we enter “The Visa Process.”
The first step is always the hardest – finding your sponsor. A sponsor can be an agent, manager, casting director, production company, producer or director that will guarantee you work when you arrive. This can be backed up by a position of employment in a show and/or contractual agreement. In my case, I was very lucky. I had two wonderful choreographers from the film I was working on that supported and assisted me by introducing me to a manager who upon their recommendation agreed to be my sponsor.
Sometimes luck will be in your favour and a simple job here in Australia can lead to meeting the right people who can open up doors for you. For others, it won’t be that simple. I offer this advice: take your time, build the right networks, train in overseas schools/studios and build relationships with people in the industry. This will help you find the right sponsor, a sponsor who will support your career from the onset and help you achieve all you set out to.
The next step was meeting my lawyer and filing my petition. Easy? Yes. Costly? Yes! There are a number of fantastic immigration lawyers that specialise in the O-1 Visa. It is important when seeking a lawyer to research extensively and not only seek references from other artists but also compare costs, as no one likes to be taken advantage of.
Using a lawyer has its negatives and positives when it comes to obtaining the Visa. On one hand, they are efficient, accurate, work long hours and usually don’t stop until you receive that document in your passport. If you are financially stable enough to use a lawyer, I would 100 percent recommend it. If you are like me and many other performers and costs of approximately $3,000 to $6,000 are being shown to you, then a lawyer seems unaffordable. Nowadays, performers struggle to make ends meet. Given the chance to do it again and with the knowledge I now have, I would suggest an alternative to filing through a lawyer.
So here we are, petition filed and sponsor on board. I thought to myself, ‘This should be smooth sailing from this point on, right?’ Wrong. Step three – the evidence! Evidence is actually the most important part of the Visa process. This is what ultimately proves that you are in fact a person of extraordinary ability who must be awarded a Visa. This process took me around four months to complete as I needed to go through all of my history with work projects and collect magazine covers, articles, newspapers, shows, American credits and of course, some great industry references. As some of you read this you may be thinking, ‘Well, that’s great for her. But what about me? I don’t know if I have all that.’ I offer this: take a breath. Sometimes a plan can’t be completed in a matter of days or months, but if you take the time and start the process now, the end result can still equal success. You may be surprised what you have achieved and exactly what information and contacts you do have access to.
These days, my company, JOIP, has a great relationship with VisaPaq, a U.S.-based company created to help international artists and athletes wanting to work in America. Most artists are, in fact, extraordinary, but not extraordinary on paper. VisaPaq assists you in solving the problem of proving your ability by working directly with you to create your complete VisaPaq Portfolio. Then, with evidence in tact, they set you up with a lawyer for 50 percent less than standard industry costs. This company is brilliant. The fact that it’s run by performing artists means that they appreciate the struggles we are faced with. They can help you with collecting evidence and suggest to you items that may have escaped you but are relevant in your petition.
So, where to from here? For me, once I was awarded the Visa, relief set in and I was lucky to work in the U.S. It taught me a lot about myself as a performer, but most importantly, myself as an individual. The Visa process is difficult, but if it’s what you truly want then stop at nothing. It may take a long time, but if you can approach it with a clear mind and good guidance, you can achieve all you want and more.
Along this journey, I have learned some valuable truths. I know for each of you it will be something different, but never lose sight of the important things: believe in yourself, trust in your talent, stay focused, stay calm, and above all, take your time. Better to do it slow, get it right and be successful, then rush, fail and have to start the whole process again.
Photo (top): © Sergey Khakimullin | Dreamstime.com