The Life of a Cruise Ship Entertainer

If you’re trapped on a boat for months at a time, stuck with people you have nothing in common with, you are going to end up drinking, and once you’re drunk you may end up fucking them.

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Jul 7 2014, 9:00am

“I wanted to be Metallica when I grew up,” Brandon Rittenhouse of Hillsborough, NC tells me. Currently, he makes a living playing guitar and bass on cruise ships. He loves it. “It’s exactly like being a rockstar. The passengers think you’re a god.”

Still, he has no illusions that the job is just that—a job. “Everybody thinks that there’s this giant record producer that’s going to take a cruise and see you and want to book you. That’s simply not true. I’d love to be the next Nickelback or whatever, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Nobody who sees you on the ship is going to remember you for the rest of their lives.”

One of the shittiest things you have to tell a kid is that their dreams probably aren’t going to come true. Take being a rock star, for example—most people who want to grow up to be a rich and famous musician are going to fail. Getting signed, putting out records, and playing shows to thousands of adoring fans is difficult, and given the harsh realities of the record industry, often not all that lucrative. For every person who successfully ekes together a living playing music full-time, there are hundreds who fail. Maybe they can’t sustain the pace of touring, maybe they aren’t distinctive enough, maybe they just can’t catch the lucky break that the guy who was opening for them at a shitty dive bar two years ago ended up catching.

But there are other ways to make a good living off of playing music, even if they aren’t so glamorous. It turns out that playing music for four hours a night for tourists you’ll never see again on a cruise ship is way more sustainable than putting out a seven-inch that leads to some shows that leads to getting a publicist that leads to getting a write-up on Pitchfork which leads to a tour which leads to your band getting in a fight over a bag of cocaine in Des Moines, Iowa, which leads to your band splitting up.

The people who work on cruise ships are uniformly fascinating, unique, and insightful individuals who have a singular perspective on the human condition. They also have insane stories—if you’re trapped on a fucking boat for months at a time, stuck with people you have nothing in common with, you are going to end up drinking with them to pass the time, and once you’re drunk you may end up fucking them. On top of that is the unspoken class distinctions at play—between performers and other crew members, Americans and those from developing nations, whites and non-whites. For some, working on a cruise ship is an adventure; for others it’s a chance to escape an impoverished nation.

Brandon, on bass, performs with his band Blue Avenue

Depending on who you talk to, there are a few ways of getting booked to play a cruise ship as a performer. There are various agencies that book talent on all of the major cruise lines and hotel chains. To get signed to an agency, you have to audition. From there, you’re matched with a ship, and hop on. For smaller cruise lines, the process is less regimented, consisting of auditions and rehearsals.

Once you’re on the ship, “It’s the fucking cushiest job ever,” Greg Pittard, 25, of Chapel Hill, NC tells me. “We were mostly in a lounge in the back of the ship, playing for old people. We got to play literally whatever covers we wanted.” Greg, a vocalist, worked roughly four hours per day, and never before five o’clock.

“The performers are treated as guests, in a sense,” Lindsey Gentile of Los Angeles tells me. She was a singer on the Oceania Regatta for six months in 2008. “You eat where the guests eat, and I could drink with passengers. You’re encouraged to find people you really like and hang out with them and have them feel like part of the family.” Meanwhile, many crew members are not allowed to leave the designated crew area, which include a crew mess hall and crew bar. Performers are often given their own rooms, while other crew members often have to share rooms. “I dated a chef on the ship,” she says. “He worked all day, have a two-hour break to go outside and get some fresh air, and then come back. That’s a sad, sad little life.” She describes her experience as a net positive, though it should be noted that pirates attacked one of the Regatta’s sister ships shortly after she got back to America.

Lindsey, middle, on the Oceania Regatta

Still, equality between passengers and performers only extends so far. Due to liability concerns, there are only certain places performers could venture above deck. “I couldn’t even get on the elevators, because there weren’t any cameras on them,” Greg says.

Omar Morsy, a Queens-based DJ who’s done month-long residencies on Royal Caribbean ships, has similar recollections. “Under my contract I couldn’t touch or interact with any guests on the ship,” he says. “You get drunk rich girls coming up to you saying, ‘I’m with the DJ, blah blah blah,’ and I have to be like, ‘You gotta chill, I can’t touch you.’ At the end of the night, you gotta sleep back deck in those cabins.”

Despite the somewhat obvious class distinctions, there’s a very real draw for everyone who works on them. After six months at sea, “I came home with $20,000 in my bank account,” Lindsey tells me. “You don’t pay for shit,” Greg says. “Food, room, and board’s free. Every two weeks you get a massive wad of hundred-dollar bills.”

For many of the non-American crew members, such salaries can be a godsend. Lindsey says, “These guys from the Philippines, they would tell me about their families or their girlfriends or their wives and they would work on the ship to make money, and then go home for six months and not work. I don’t know what that looks like.” Adds Greg, “The people who work on the engines on the ship all have mansions back home.”

“All the money they’re making, they’re sending home to their families,” Omar says.

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There is no WiFi or cell service at sea, which effectively cuts off your connection to home. “You get so lonely,” Omar says. “You have nothing to do back deck. You’re just kind of waiting to either do your next gig or waiting to get off the ship to go enjoy some sunlight.” A non-smoker, he suddenly found himself picking up the habit. “When you’re on cruise ships,” he says, “for some reason, you start taking it up. I almost feel like it’s a lonely pastime.”

Ports chosen for their wonder and beauty tend to blend together. Lindsey says, “We were in Monte Carlo, and these guys on my ship that I’d become friends with were saying it was their favorite one. I asked why, and they said, ‘Because of the McDonald’s. It was the saddest thing.”

Because of the small space, privacy is at a minimum. “It feels very invasive,” Lindsey says. “You can’t hide. People know you’re at the gym, you’re at the bar, or you’re doing your show. You walk to your cabin at night and that weird dude that keeps looking at you knows where your room is.”

In spite of the isolation—or perhaps because of it—many on the ship find a peculiar sort of freedom. Lindsey says, “I had this crazy friend on the ship. He was the art director, and I think he was hiding from the law. He got into some white-collar crime back in the UK, so I think he was like, ‘I’m just gonna disappear for a little while.’”

“It’s literally another life,” Greg says. “Everyone would ask me, ‘What are you running from?’ Most people had something back home they didn’t want to deal with. For me I was sick of being in Chapel Hill. But for other people it was like, ‘Oh, I have a fiancé, and I really hate gay people, but I wanna suck your dick in this bathroom.’”

“My friend Emily and I would call it ‘Penguins at the Zoo.’ If they’re semi-good looking and they could speak a few words of English, they were on your radar,” Lindsey says. Of her chef boyfriend, she says, “I totally thought I was in love. Our first date was in Venice, and it was so romantic. And then he came to visit me and I was like, in hell.”

Brandon plays guitar

Brandon’s a wellspring of stories, such as the time his band had finished playing on New Year’s Eve and a drunk passenger, “Pulls his pants down and starts windmilling his dick, like whipping it around in circles on the dancefloor.” Soon enough, security showed up and started beating the shit out of him. Or there’s the time he and some of the other Americans on the ship sneak-attacked other staff with Jaegerbombs in the crew bar. Or even better, when he was wearing drag on Halloween and a 50-year-old Bulgarian man tried to grab his (non-windmilling) penis.

There’s also the one about the guy slept with his lead singer’s girlfriend and got caught—nearly. “So he claims to have been banging Kirk’s girlfriend in his room on the ship, right,” he says, “and here comes Kirk up the hallway and he bangs on the door. And it's obviously him, and obviously heard what was going on. He's holding the door closed and asking who it is, and Kirk wouldn’t say anything. And then the key’s turning, and he's like, ‘Fuck! Who has a key to my room!’ He's fighting the little knob on the inside of the door, and he realizes he'd left my key outside. Kirk’s turning it with all of his might, and this guy has his girlfriend in there ass-naked. The neighbor came out and said he was going to report security, and Kirk ends up shying away. He ended up asking me about it, and I told him I'd he was sleeping with somebody else and couldn’t let him in because he didn’t know who it was. Still to this day he doesn’t know who it was.”

Because I am a journalist, I ask if the guy held the door closed while sporting an erection.

“It was half-chub, dude. It started out full boner.”

“It’s like college,” he later tells me. “The work doesn’t change and the drama is everlasting.”

Drew Millard has been on like five cruises. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard