Variety is the Spice of Life

When Cathi Ogden was a teenager growing up in Sydney, Australia, she fell in love with jazz.

She had spent her childhood surrounded by music and taking singing tips from her sister who was eight years her senior. But it was at 15, after hearing Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Swings Lightly, that she made up her mind to become a jazz singer.

Her supportive mother paid for some singing lessons (with a legendary vocal coach who had also taught jazz star Renee Geyer) and shortly after she finished school Ogden packed her bags and moved to London with one ambition – to build a career in the jazz world.

She succeeded in her first aim – performing in top London and Sydney jazz venues and releasing several albums including Curious Covers for Cools Cats and Souvenirs from Stockholm.

Cathi Ogden – My Philosophy 

But Ogden’s career turned out to be far more varied than she had ever imagined. She has also worked as a voice over artist, songwriter and starred in a high profile long-running advertising campaign.

It’s for her part in the latter that Ogden is most commonly recognised. For the past 11 years she has been one of the three “Sheilas” in the Sheilas’ Wheels advertising campaign.

It all started when Ogden was enjoying her second stint living in London (after her initial time in the UK she spent six years gigging in Sydney in the 1990s before returning to London).

“When I went back to London for a second time it was quite difficult to break into the scene,” she says. “It took a while, I just stuck with it and worked my way in.”

She supplemented her income with voice over and music library work. Then one day she received a phone call from an agent she had for session work.

“They had only given me a couple of jobs, so when they told me about the audition, I had no real expectations,” she says.

Ogden went along to the casting and was told they were looking for a singer with an Australian accent.

“I had to sing Baby Love in an Aussie accent, I really piled it on and it was possibly one of the worst auditions I have ever done! But they kept calling me back.”

Eventually she was given the gig as one of the three “Sheilas” in the Sheilas’ Wheels car insurance adverts. Ogden and her fellow “Sheilas” Carly Romain and Emma Robbins (all three are now firm friends) signed a three year contract.

“I never expected it to go beyond three years, none of us did, it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” she says.
The first television advert featured the Sheilas in sequinned pink dresses singing (in strong Aussie accents) in a pink convertible and on stage in an outback bar. The mix of humour and high camp captured the public’s attention immediately.

“Within a week of it being on TV people were trying to track us down to do live shows,” she says. “We did Cardiff Pride – that was just incredible, it was one of the most amazing gigs – and London Pride and the Mardi Gras in Dublin. Quite often we would perform and look out and see people dressed as us. You just don’t get that reaction at a jazz gig. It’s brilliant to be given make-up advice by drag queens.”

The Sheilas released a single with producer/songwriter Pete Waterman called (I’m So) Happy Happy (Your Mine). Ogden also sang a jazz version of Kylie Minogue’s Better the Devil You Know at the Royal Festival Hall.

The Sheilas – (I’m So) Happy Happy (You’re Mine) 

All these years later the Sheilas are still going strong, although these days the campaign is more visible online (and if you phone Sheilas’ Wheels and are put on hold you will hear Ogden’s dulcet tones).

“So many opportunities have come about as a result of it, and I am so grateful for that. Some people came to my jazz gigs in London because of the Sheilas, it introduced me to a different audience.”

Ogden says that in her pre-Sheila days she was quite picky about the work she accepted.

“I think I probably took myself a little bit too seriously,” she says. “I turned down all sorts of pop things because I saw myself as a jazz singer and I didn’t want to stray too far from that. But I reached a point where I thought ‘I have got to stop saying no to things and start saying yes’.

“I don’t look back and regret anything, but I have certainly changed my outlook over the years. Variety is the spice of life.”

If there is one thing she could go back and tell her 20-year-old self, it would be to learn more about the business side of the industry. 

“I wish I had done – I don’t think it really existed back then but it probably does now – a music business course. The business side of music was something I had no idea about, and I was scared people were going to take advantage of me. I was so sure if I got a manager they would rip me off. I think young kids these days are just as terrified.

“But the more time I spend in the industry the more I realise that it’s not really the case. Most people are just doing their job, but you have to remember it is a business. You have to eat and pay the bills.”

Ogden then returned to live on Australian shores and is re-establishing her jazz connections there while doing voice over work.

“I just hit the ground running. I re-connected with my old voice over agency and was back doing auditions two days later.”

Ogden’s top tips on how to succeed in the music industry

  1. If you can afford singing lessons have them. Find a good vocal coach who has been recommended to you. I have been fortunate enough to work with some great coaches including the late Don Graydon.
  2. Warm up your voice in the shower every morning. When I lived in London I actually had Practice written on my shower screen to remind me of what I needed to do. Treat your voice in the same way an athlete would treat their body, it’s your livelihood.
  3. Be yourself, everybody else is taken. Don’t waste your time trying to imitate another artist no matter how popular they are.
  4. Be versatile, and don’t be afraid to try new things, you never know what you might discover about yourself.

Facebook: Cathi Ogden

Article By: Bronwyn Bidwell

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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.