She was homeless and turned down $1 million. But WHY??

1 comment
This is a true story.
Pick yourself up, Kilcher, she tells herself. Move forward. Find a way to be happy.

That was always her motto, ever since she was a little girl addressing herself by her last name in a tiny town in Alaska.

But it wasn't always easy...

At eight years old, her mom leaves the family for reasons no 8-year-old kid can understand.

Her father starts drinking and isn't very nice to her, to put it mildly.

So at age 15, she strikes out on her own and ends up in San Diego, California.

The teen manages to get a job, but one day her boss says if you want your paycheck you have to sleep with me first.

The girl thinks about it, but only for a second.  She refuses.

The boss wasn't bluffing.  She doesn't get her paycheck.  And her landlord, who wasn't a fan of Kilcher paying rent late to begin with, evicts her.

So now she's homeless. Oh, and soon thereafter, her car gets stolen.

Now it's all about survival.

Since it's hard to get a job when you start getting that homeless look, she approaches a coffee shop owner named Nancy who's about to go out of business.

"Do you think you can stay open for two more months?" the girl asks.


"Well, if I bring people in to hear me sing, can I keep the door money, you can keep all the coffee and food money? And, like, we'll try and make it together?"

"Okay," the coffee shop owner says.

So the girl heads down to the boardwalk to "street sing" and play her guitar. She hands out flyers in between songs.  

Come down to the Inner Change Coffee House on Thursday at 6 o'clock, she says.

That Thursday, two surfer dudes show up and pay $5 each.  The girl suspects they only showed up because they thought she was cute.

She plays for five hours.  She plays that long because she doesn't know any better. She just thinks that's what you're supposed to do.

She also plays that long because she's bored and lonely and she doesn't know what else to do with her life.

Every day, she repeats the same routine: She busks on a corner near the beach, plays songs, and hands out flyers.

She looks at singing as simply baring her soul.  She has nothing to lose.  So she sings about the most truthful things she knows.

This includes some not-so-nice things about herself.  For instance, she's become a compulsive shoplifter.  She even stole an entire watermelon once, walking into the store empty handed and then walking out a few minutes later nine months pregnant.

One day she's in a department store dressing room and she catches a glimpse of herself in the dressing room mirror, stuffing a brand new dress down her pants.  

It's a pathetic sight.  It stops her cold.  Keep this up, Kilcher, and you'll end up behind bars or dead.

It becomes a life-changing moment, but she actually has no idea how much her life is about to change...

That's because at her coffee house shows, two people becomes four people ...

...four becomes eight...

...twenty becomes forty...

She can tell they like her and her singing.  What she's doing is raw, and people are responding to it.

She's not thinking about a record deal. She's just enjoying the feeling of being emotionally fed for the first time in her life...

...not hiding and not being fake. Being authentic.

The girl admits that this feels good.  Like, really good.

She's not pretending to be better or more talented than anyone else. But people start looking at her differently.  

She's just being herself.  Sometimes people cry at her songs.  Sometimes she cries, too.

For the first time in her life, she feels like she's making a meaningful connection with the world and its people.  

...40 people turns into 80...

...80 people turns into standing room only.

...pretty soon the overflow spills outside...

They stand out there, looking through the window, even in the rain.  Cheap speakers are hung outside so they can hear this girl with the guitar.

And then one night, a DJ from the biggest radio station in town shows up. Someone told him about the girl in the coffee shop and that he should come.

She notices him right away because he's not one of her regulars and he has a hard look about him.

He sits in the back and listens.  During one song, he can be seen quietly crying, wiping away tears.

The girl gets invited to the radio station and the song she sings there later gets played on the radio.

A bunch of people call into the station and want to know, hey, can you play that song again?  And just who is that chick?

The song becomes one of the most requested songs at the radio station that year, which is crazy because this girl's style is acoustic folk and this is all happening in the early '90s, at the height of grunge.

Eventually, music executives start showing up at the coffee house.  They drive down from L.A. in limousines.  They fly in from New York.

A bidding war ensues for the rights to sign her to a major label for her first album.

She's flown around to various offices in high-rise buildings to discuss her future.

She's offered a million dollar advance to record her first album.

I'll say it again: This homeless girl is offered One. Million. Dollars.  

She's still only 19 years old.  She doesn't have an agent or a manager.

So she goes to the public library to research this business of record deals. She discovers that an advance isn't a cash bonus that you get to necessarily keep. It's actually something that you have to pay back through record sales.

She does the math to see how many records she'd have to sell to pay back $1 million.  It's a lot of records.

And because she's made such progress toward a personal promise to always make her own happiness Priority No. 1...

...and because she knows that when someone with her particular emotional background is practically a recipe for becoming a statistic if she hits it big...

...she doesn't think she can trust herself to have a record deal and emerge from it in one whole piece without self-imploding.

She wants to take the deal.  But she's terrified to take the deal.

So she fashions a compromise of sorts.  She makes herself a deal...

She promises herself that her number one job is to continue figuring out how to be happy above all else.

And her number two job is being a musician.

She also promises herself that when it comes to being a musician, she will prioritize being an artist over being famous.

So she signs a record deal with Atlantic.  

But she turns down the $1 million advance.

Her album does not sell well right away. So she goes out on tour.

She'll play anywhere.  A typical day for her is playing at a high school in the morning, doing one or two radio shows in the afternoon, and then gigging wherever she can in the evening.

She does all this driving around in her used car with a friend.

She plays more than 1,000 shows over the course of that first year. She's still not even legally old enough to drink in any of the establishments she's playing.

She eventually scores an opening slot for various acts.  She opens for bands like The Ramones where drunk fans throw stuff at her because a girl singing folk by herself does not seem like a good fit for a punk show.

She doesn't care, she'll play anywhere.

Then Bob Dylan's manager contacts her. He says that "Mr. Dylan" would like her to open for him.  

This is all the more amazing because when she was 16 years old she actually had a dream that she would open for Bob Dylan.  In the dream, he came on to her and it was gross.

The manager makes it clear that Kilcher will not be meeting Bob Dylan, nor will he watch any of her performances.

Fine, she says.  I think you'll find that I'm all business.

During her performance, some fans talk over her playing.  

She hates that.  Hates it more than anything.  So she asks them to stop...

But this one guy keeps rudely talking as she performs.  So she puts down the guitar, picks up the microphone and asks the lighting guy to shine a spotlight on this jerk.

She calls him out in front of everyone.  She gets him kicked out by security.

Years later, this will make for a great story on a podcast, how someone bought a ticket to a Bob Dylan show and this homeless chick with a guitar just kicked him out, lol.

Bob Dylan hears about this.  He actually loves the fact that this unknown girl kicked someone out of his own show.

He invites her to his dressing room to meet her. She puts on a modest turtleneck and heads over.

Nothing creepy happens.  In fact, Dylan is a perfect gentleman and the two of them discuss music as peers.

Eventually, she gets her big break...

After all the boardwalk busking, after the hundreds of coffee house shows and all unpaid gigs, and after thousands of miles criss-crossing the country in her used car, she's invited to perform on the Conan O'Brien show.

It's the tipping point.  The album that she nearly gave up on soon catches fire.

In the span of just a couple years, she goes from being homeless to having one of the best-selling debut albums of all time.

The album flies off the shelves of record stores at a rate of more than one million albums PER MONTH ... for over a year.

Oh, and remember the $1 million advance she turned down?

Well, it turned out that by declining the $1 million, she ended up with one of the biggest backend deals in music history.

It gave her the freedom to create the albums SHE wanted to create, without being beholden to anyone.  

It helped vault her to international stardom, and soon she would become one of those stars you know just by one name only.

Which means the name "Kilcher" probably doesn't ring a bell for you.

That's because you know her simply as Jewel....



Okay, so here's where I'm supposed to transition to some relevant lessons as we head into the holiday season, but I not going to.

Sometimes a story is simply to be enjoyed for what it is, a story. And Jewel's story is clearly a-freakin-mazing.  

(And I haven't even told you about how her own mother would go on to steal more than $100 million from her daughter as her "manager." True story.)

Besides, aren't the takeaways here fairly obvious?

Be authentic.

Stay true to your vision.


Get yourself out there.

Think hard about the backend.

Follow your own star.

And keep going.

1 comment

  • Posted on by Faye

    Thank you for posting stories like this one and “The Red Marbles”. (I shared that one with a friend.) We need to hear more about the courage and love and human compassion and connection that is in the world today. It reminds us that the headlines are not where most people live. It the one-to-one moments that will define who we are as human beings.

    Thank you!

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