#MondayMotivation: Making The Most of An Unexpected Opportunity
Chef Umber Ahmad on her side career as a voice actor.
June 19, 2017
As told to Priya Krishna by Umber Ahmad | Photo by V.K. Rees for Mah-Ze-Dahr
About six years ago, I was walking down Broadway and these two girls from Procter & Gamble stopped me, asking if they could talk to me about my skincare routine.
I chatted with them for a little while, and then they asked to take down my name and phone number. I’m usually a pretty private person, but for some reason, I agreed. A week later, I got a call asking if I wanted to be a part of a trial for a new skincare line. Usually, this wouldn’t be my sort of thing, but they offered to pay me $250—so I said yes. I showed up at this address in New York’s Meatpacking district to pick up the products thinking I was going to be snatched, like in those Liam Neeson Taken movies. I thought it was a scam. Turns out, I was doing a video for Olay.
[Then] I got a call asking if I wanted to be in a nationwide commercial for Olay. So, through a random coincidence, I had booked a national ad—after that, I got an agent and a SAG card.
I remember sitting down in an initial meeting with my agency; I was telling a story where I was imitating some member of my family, so I switched into my Pakistani accent. Immediately, everyone asked if I did voices. I told them I speak a lot of languages, so I’m able to do a lot of accents. I grew up in a multi-lingual family, I lived overseas, and I studied languages in school. It was one of those things that really mattered to our family. Being able to communicate and really truly understand someone’s intentions can only happen if you are learning their language.
I explained this to all of the people I was meeting with, and they told me I needed to meet with the voiceover department of the agency. I quickly became the go-to South Asian/Middle Eastern British voice. I did a United Airlines commercial in which there was this guy learning languages from tapes, and I was the voice of the teacher on the tapes. I am going to be the voice of the 2022 FIFA World Cup ads since the tournament is taking place in Qatar. I’ve done commercials for banks, provided the voice for house systems. It’s enjoyable to lend a voice to something where you have the opportunity to imagine just by hearing, not by seeing a visual.
These days, my main priority is my bakery, Mah-Ze-Dahr. I keep doing the voiceover acting, mostly, because I make really good money. When you are an entrepreneur, you have to hustle like no other person on the planet to find ways to contribute to your dream. I’ve turned plenty of auditions down because I have so many things going on with my bakery, and that’s my focus — to make sure the business is growing and running properly. When I do get to do a voiceover gig, though, it’s still a lot of fun; my voice is something that permeates everything I do in my business, and it’s a great honor to be able to be the voice of what someone else does.
To have someone engage with something or put their sense of faith in me because of how I sound — I love that.