A smile and a song

If love can survive this it can survive anything. Oliver Good spends Valentine's Day with a singing telegram service.

Sarah Ohnemus, who sings and jokes as a telegram artist, poses for a portrait in her costume, Dubai, UAE, on Sunday 14, 2010.

What is the best way of showing that special someone you're thinking about him or her? What does one do when chocolates and flowers just won't cut it? Well, apparently nothing says "I love you" quite like sending a singing cow to the someone's workplace. It doesn't strictly have to be a cow. Superheroes, giant butterflies, even a ranch-hand riding an ape will do the trick. The choice of song is also interchangeable, but the end result is almost always the same: total embarrassment for the recipient, eventually followed by loving feelings towards the sender.

At least, that is the formula The Big Moo - a Dubai-based company which claims to offer the UAE's first singing telegrams - is counting on. It is a service that was pioneered in 1933 by US telegraph company Western Union. When a fan wanted to send the Hollywood star Rudy Vallee a birthday message, a savvy Western Union public relations employee, eager to dissociate telegrams from death and other bad news, decided to have the message sung over the telephone by an operator, rather than just spoken or printed out. That operator was the - in the circumstances - ludicrously named Lucille Lipps - the world's first singing telegram.

Not long after, Western Union began offering singing telegrams to all customers, delivered either in person or over the telephone. Clients could even choose from a menu of greetings, suitable for almost any situation. With most messages delivered by performers in costumes, the service became particularly popular among people sending romantic messages. "I grew up in Canada and it was a big part of our culture there," says Lorate Hamzeh, the managing director of The Big Moo. "One day I just realised that there wasn't a singing telegram service in Dubai and decided there should be."

The former human resources manager left her job to set-up the company and run it full-time. She now hopes to make singing telegrams a regular feature not just every Valentine's Day, but on birthdays and anniversaries all year round. The list of costumes on offer includes everything from an elf to a Rastafarian, and customers can even have themselves delivered to their loved ones in giant gift boxes. There's also a special line of characters for children, including Spider-Man and a fairy-tale princess.

While the singing telegrams of old were intended to add a musical twist to important messages, the service Hamzeh offers is less concerned with the message and more about creating a party in someone's home or place of work, if only for a few minutes. The performers can learn any song the client wishes, but romantic ballads are by far the most popular, as well as pop songs, such as Aqua's Barbie Girl.

"It's not about trying to make myself millions of dirhams, it's about putting smiles on people's faces and surprising them. It's very heartwarming," says Hamzeh, who at the age of 10 paid a singing telegram dressed as a town crier to surprise her parents on their wedding anniversary. "A lot of people get embarrassed and try to run away," she says, "but even if you're embarrassed it's still special."

The Big Moo began offering the service last November and so far takes just a few bookings each week. But with eight telegrams to deliver in 24 hours, Valentine's Day quickly became the company's busiest day since opening. The schedule began at 9am in Jebel Ali where a sales manager, Fredrik, was treated to a few lines of I Love You Baby by the singing friesian, Mooey the Cow. Under the mask was a 23-year-old student, Sarah Ohnemus, from the US, who would be delivering all of the day's telegrams.

"It never occurred to me, on moving to the Middle East, that I might start dressing-up as a cow and surprising people in office buildings," said Ohnemus, while being driven to her next job and still wearing the cowsuit. In need of a part-time job, she heard about The Big Moo through her university's careers services department. Back in Texas, the student sang regularly at weddings and funerals and even volunteered to sing for elderly and housebound people.

"I like to sing, and I just thought 'why not?'" she says. However, the job interview did not include role-play, costume fittings, or even many questions about Ohnemus' singing skills. Instead, Hamzeh was looking for aspecial disposition. "It was more of a personality test," says Ohnemus. "Apparently they were looking for someone absolutely insane. I think I'm a slightly off-the-wall personality, I'm bold and have absolutely no fear of being embarrassed."

At her second job of the day, at an office on Sheikh Zayed Road, Ohnemus put on a particularly wild performance. With balloons in one hand, a basket of gifts in another and a box full of cupcakes, she dashed into the property firm's reception, shouting the recipient's name: "Yasmeen! Yasmeen!" After realising the surprise was for her, the unsuspecting office worker's first reaction was to flee to another room. But despite being burdened with goodies and a heavily padded suit, Mooey the Cow cornered her victim and burst into the chorus of Milkshake, by the R&B artist Kelis.

"People in offices often try to hide behind a cubicle or a coworker or something. Some people sing along with me, or dance. It's awesome when people get involved," Ohnemus says. "Once I got one guy to do a dance that he apparently made up when he was a little kid, called the chicken buk-buk dance. One of his friends requested that I make him do it and amazingly, he actually did the dance in front of all his coworkers."

But Ohnemus admits it can be difficult to balance her academic life with singing telegram performances. She is currently taking a course in Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Dubai and back in Texas, her long list of subjects includes nuclear medicine. "I have a test today which I have to fit the telegrams around and another one tomorrow. I'm studying pre-civil war Lebanon and have barely slept for three days," she says, on the way to her third job. This time it will not be Mooey making the appearance, but Spots the Butterfly.

"I'm feeling pretty good though. Doing this gives me energy because I enjoy it so much," she says. "Most people who know me, know this is right up my alley." Even without the costumes, Ohnemus is keen to perform for people, young and old, and gaining obvious satisfaction from a job that would fill many people with fear. "I had a kids' party that was adorable," she says. "There was a little girl who said: 'You're my new best friend' and then took me all around her house and introduced me to all her friends. I didn't think I'd ever make it out of there."

At her third Valentine's Day job, this time in an apartment building in Jumeirah, laden with balloons and bouquets of flowers, Ohnemus struggled to fit in a lift. The yellow and red butterfly outfit might look sleeker than the cow, but it has wide wings and a giant grinning head. "In this one, I can either see or breathe. Not both. I choose breathe," she says, before walking the wrong way down the hallway.

Arriving at the apartment to cries of surprise and excitement from Ruba the recipient, Spots the Butterfly burst into Christina Aguilera's Beautiful and then the day's second rendition of I Love You Baby. "It's generally easier to run into a room singing and shouting if it's full of strangers," she says later. As well as sitting her test, the rest of the day's performances were carried out with only one small hitch: Mooey briefly got stuck in a revolving door. But the life of a singing telegram is rarely risk-free. On a recent midnight surprise visit, the performer was treated almost like a hostile intruder.

"We went to the wrong apartment, so obviously the person I was supposed to be singing to was not there," she says. "The guy I started singing to got really confused and tried to slam the door in my face." But Ohnemus remains remarkably unfazed. Like the company's founder, all she really wants to do is bring smiles to faces. "I'm not particularly sure what I want to do in life," she says. "But I love singing and it makes people feel good. I try and make it as cute and worthwhile as possible."