Sonja Allen founded Dubai-based live comedy and events company Big Fish Entertainments in 2018. The second youngest of nine children, including seven older brothers, she was a professional dancer in the UK, Japan and on cruise ships until an ankle injury forced a career change into publishing. A family tragedy then led her to become a professional comedian in 1998. Five years ago, Ms Allen, 49, moved to Dubai when her husband David landed an air-traffic controller role. They live in Arabian Ranches with their two sons, aged 9 and 10.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
We lived in a four bedroom council house, 11 of us. Dad was in the merchant navy. It was tough with a lot of mouths to feed. We didn’t have a lot of money. I remember going to school once and mum had cut the toes out of my shoes because they couldn’t afford another pair.
Mum and dad went into the pub trade when I was about 13 and the older ones had fled the nest. Fortunes improved and my younger brother and I benefited, but mum and dad instilled the value of money. We were never given pocket money – we had to earn it. When I got my first car, dad made me save and he paid for insurance. He never told me he was going to do that – he wanted to see if I would save.
How much were you paid in your first job?
Every day, we used to do the ‘bottling up’, getting empty bottles into the crates and then filling the [pub] shelves. We were paid £5 (Dh23) a week.
My first adult job was as a holiday camp dancer in Blackpool in the late ‘80s. I was 16, doing shows and calling bingo, for £56 a week. I went from there to Japan as a dancer and used to send money home every month, that’s where I started thinking ‘I like this saving lark’. If I didn’t have it there, I wouldn’t spend it.
How did you become a professional comedian?
My brother Michael was a comedian, just breaking into the big time, being looked at to host TV shows and I used to do writing for him. Then in 1995 he died of a massive heart attack, only 34 years old. It was devastating. I left my job, sold the house, bought a PA system and went out and did showcases – I knew two gags and three songs.
Was it tough to make a living?
It takes a while to get going. I was terrible at first; I’d do a gig and after 20 minutes they’d go ‘you’re no good, there’s your money, go home’ … any comedian will have stories like that. That taught me to never stop listening or learning and ‘don’t chase the stardom, chase the work’. As long as you’re working on a regular basis, you’re a good comic. I was working six/seven nights a week, earning a very good living.
When I could regularly pay my bills was a huge milestone. I would hate to go back to worrying how I’m going to pay for something, where you can’t sleep because you don’t know where your next gig’s coming from.
How did Big Fish Entertainments happen?
I went with friends to watch a Dubai comedy show. They set me up, got me up out of the audience without warning. I hadn’t been on stage for four years, but did about 20 minutes and started getting my mojo back.
Big Fish was born in November 2018. It’s tough to start anything, whatever the business. You’ve got your flights [to buy for visiting acts], permits, accommodation, marketing, fees, staging, lighting. There’s risk. Last year we lost on a few shows but we expected to in our first year because that’s when you learn. It’s about building a reputation.
Has the pandemic affected you?
Massively. We were off and running in January, then could hear what was happening with Covid-19. We were proactive and chose early on to postpone [shows] – we could see where it was going. Everything from September onwards is staying in place for now.
We’d started building momentum, followers, regular ticket purchasers and needed to stay connected to our audience, so we created on our Facebook and Instagram page exclusive recordings from comedians that go out every Saturday, free of charge. We’ve built a cushion into our plan – it’s not huge, but it will keep the ball rolling.
At home, because we’re not going out we’re not spending, although the shopping spend and AC bill has gone through the roof.
Are you a saver or a spender?
I’m a spender and a saver. Everyone says I’ll never be a millionaire because I’m too generous. But I do save. It’s in the back of my mind, ‘you never know when you’re going to need it’. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s coming in handy now and does set in motion a mindset to continue to save even when we come out of this pandemic, if not more so, because you never know what’s around the corner.
From a professional point of view I don’t scrimp – I want shows to look and sound good, but will always look for the cheapest flight, try to cut down on fees. There’s a balancing act to be done. If I don’t have to spend it, I won’t.
Where do you save?
Savings accounts and we’ve got UK pensions. I don’t think I’d put money into a high interest account I can’t touch for five years at the moment and I’m glad we didn’t go locking away our money. We also put money into bricks and mortar. We have property in the UK, our four-bedroom family home that we rent out.
What is your most cherished purchase?
The Peavey mixer amp I first bought [to do shows] 22 years ago. Half the knobs are missing, but I didn’t want to get rid of it. It was a lot of money then, about £1,200.
A Renault Laguna was my worst purchase, in 1998, for £8,500. It cost me more to keep it going than to buy. I was going to do three UK shows one weekend and the cam belt snapped. It cost £3,500 to get it back on the road and I lost the gig fee.
What are you happiest spending on?
Family time. Before all this happened, every three months we’d do a little staycation, just go and stay in a hotel in Abu Dhabi or Ras al Khaimah. We have a proper little holiday when we’re there.
If I’ve learnt anything from the experience with my brother it's that life’s for living. As long as I can pay the school fees, go on a decent holiday and we’re comfortable, that’s good.
Do you plan for the future?
Hopefully, we’re here for the next 15-20 years, at least until the boys have done their schooling. Our plan is to purchase more property, ideally one overseas. In terms of retirement, we want to go between a property in the UK and somewhere else in winter. And as long as I’m still enjoying comedy, I will continue to do it.