How I Got Here - Biba Lille-West

Biba Lille-West, owner of event massage companies Mobile Massage UK and The Pressure, set up the businesses to provide massage services at events. She talks about her Hollywood dreams, the techniques of a Russian acting teacher and her love of art and music events.

Biba Lille-West, founder of Mobile Massage UK and The Pressure
Biba Lille-West, founder of Mobile Massage UK and The Pressure

What do you do and how long have you been in your current role?

Since 2007 I’ve owned and run two events massage companies, Mobile Massage UK and, more recently, The Pressure. I sit in the HQ doing the production stuff whilst my talented teams of therapists provide an energetic ten-minute massage service at indoor and outdoor events across the country, with a manicure service now a bit of a hit too. Trade and consumer shows, along with music festivals, are our biggest markets.

Where was your first job? What was the most important thing you learnt there?

My first job was working as a junior assistant at Phonogram Records, assisting on Band Aid, rejecting demo tapes and generally making tea. I was 16 and itching to get into the West End and work in the music business. I quickly learned to type, got a long contract through a media temp agency and took a year out before sixth form.

I was thrown into a sophisticated adult world and trusted to get on and deal with it: you worked till midnight, things had to happen yesterday, and you needed to satisfy the inscrutable pleasure of mad, irascible people, often at the other end of a telex machine across the Atlantic.

It was incredible being trusted to help Band Aid. I was involved because it wasn’t deemed worth putting anyone else bar the most junior person in the department on the project to begin with. Bob Geldof ran much of this campaign from our office. For me, it was about calling and persuading numerous people to give us everything for free that we needed to make the Band Aid record both manifest and be a success. Not least was making sure he didn’t appear live in pyjamas – I designed and made him a glamorous fake fur coat in which to switch on the Christmas Lights in Oxford Street to keep the media abuzz with it all.

How did you get from there to where you are now?

Massage didn’t feature for many years, except that I spent most of my earnings on that from a very young age. I loved acting and had wanted to go straight to drama school at 18, but due to the regulations of the discretionary grant system I actually went back to the music business for a couple of years.

Once at drama school I still worked in a wide variety of flexible part-time jobs, from a spell watching tumbleweed in the BBC radio newsgathering department, to running club nights and selling Bodymap samples in Camden Market.

In 2004 I completed an MA in theatre directing, and also emerged from it with the realisation that though all the publishing work was fun and educational, I wanted proper funds to blow on fringe theatre. I needed to finally take charge of my earning capacity to improve my productions. I got physical, training for a year in holistic massage which I had become fascinated by. I then established a small business doing ten-minute back massage in pubs in Shoreditch and Clapham, unsurprisingly eschewing spa and clinic life.

By 2007 I saw there was a niche to provide a simple service for visitors to expos and festivals to experience, and co-founded Mobile Massage to provide whole teams of people to do it.

Looking back, did you expect your career path to take the course it has?

I still expect to end up in Hollywood. Although the one time I did feature in a big blockbuster the part was cut out in the final edit. After that you have to laugh and relax about it all, and just enjoy the ride. As meanwhile, all my sideline job experiences were cooking up nicely to provide the ability to run the business and I am very pleased about that. Of course I never did spend the profits on any fringe theatre.

Would you do anything differently?

It is difficult to say, because I was so dedicated as an actor and enjoyed that so much. Although, having taken the business to so many trade shows over the last six years, it’s possible I’ve discovered more about people, drama and relationships than in all those years of acting. It would have been great to have had massage feature in my life earlier on, and to have enhanced it materially by having my own business.

Who has inspired you along the way?

I am inspired by visual artist friends who go at the world with their work fearlessly, and don’t throw up their own barriers.  And very significantly, all the strong women I worked with or for over the years in each one of those sideline jobs. All going at it fearlessly, subordinate to no-one.

Have you ever had a job interview that went particularly well or spectacularly wrong?

Fortunately I avoided that peril. My early jobs I got through temp agencies - how incredibly lucky that way in seems now - where I just had to type incredibly fast to get on the books. Or they were recommendations within an industry, or came from leftfield, offered directly via friends and acquaintances. Of course it rarely happened that way within my acting career, where I had numerous experiences of both.

Is there a piece of career advice you’ve ever been told that has stuck with you?

A combination of plan for the worst-case scenario, show passion and say thanks, and get it in writing. Yes, get it all in writing – every agreed transaction. A contract, an email confirmation, a receipt, a shareholder’s agreement, so you can swiftly sort out subsequent disputes. The first two are old buddies that help me through, the last I’m still a stranger to, but finally sticking with.

What career advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?

Set up a business right now. I needed to balance early on the career I could not control with something I could determine the success of myself.

How do you wind down and relax after a hectic day?

Having no children and living in central London part of the week, I feast on fabulous art and music events at night. And I enjoy political events too. But since the beginning of the year, the majority of the week finds me working in the tranquil village of Kingham in the Cotswolds. City kids die hard - I can’t help but remain out of sync with the rhythms of the country and instead foolishly maintain the pace and price of boho life where I can. Generally achieved by appearing rather too regularly at a London-league gastropub, The Kingham Plough.

Want to share your career story with us as part of the Women in Events campaign? Email news editor Samantha Edwards to feature in a future How I Got Here.

Read more about health in the event industry in the February/March issue of Event by subscribing here.

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