Update: Jessica Vosk ended her acclaimed run in Broadway’s Wicked on May 12, 2019. Below, she speaks about her experiences with food allergies.
JESSICA Vosk is one of Broadway’s rising stars, captivating audiences as Elphaba (better known as the Wicked Witch of the West) in the hit show Wicked. But Vosk’s path to stardom hasn’t been a straight line: she studied finance, climbed the ranks on Wall Street, and left it all to pursue her childhood dream to work in musical theater.
Vosk speaks with Allergic Living about her career in music, navigating food allergies, and not letting anything get in the way of living your dream.
Allergic Living: You had a career in finance on Wall Street and left it all behind to perform in musicals. What gave you the courage to take that leap?
Jessica Vosk: I had been with a finance firm for about three years and had risen very quickly for somebody just out of college. It was a lot of responsibility, I had clients all over the world, and I developed a lot of anxiety and stress and started having panic attacks. My body said, “Hey Jess, maybe this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing, and maybe you should do what makes you happy.”
And that really was it. I developed a game plan for how to leave and I did it. But if you had told me when I was a kid listening to cast albums in my bedroom that I would one day lead a Broadway show, I would never have believed you.
AL: What do you love about your character Elphaba in Wicked?
JV: I love that she is a very unapologetic person. She is extremely misunderstood. She gets bullied and ridiculed, but she says, “Look, you can all think whatever you want of me. But at the core I’m a really good person, and I’m going to stand up for what I believe in. You can either follow me or you can be against me.”
And that’s a beautiful lesson, especially these days. For us to say, “I can be honest. I can be who I am. I can be unapologetic.” She’s pretty badass.
AL: You have serious food allergies. When did they begin?
JV: I’m allergic to peanuts, nuts, sesame seeds and shellfish. I’ve been allergic my whole life. When I was 3 years old they decided to give me a taste of peanut butter, and I was sick for three days. Since then the allergies have only become worse, especially to peanuts.
AL: What’s the hardest thing about having serious food allergies?
JV: You want to be normal like everybody else. You want to be able to walk into a restaurant and say, “I’d like to order this.” I’m 35 years old now, and it’s still difficult to get around food allergies.
When I first began my contract with Wicked on Broadway [in July 2018], I had a major reaction to a cookie that people said had absolutely no nuts. It turned out it definitely had nut in it.
My entire body was swollen and covered in a rash, and I had to give myself the EpiPen and go to the hospital. You think you’re already being really careful, but you can never be too careful.
AL: Your work is so demanding. How do you navigate the food allergies?
JV: I keep it simple. I love to cook, so I cook items like hummus that I can’t normally have, and if I need protein before a show, it will be chicken, fish, and a lot of greens, a lot of complex carbs that I can have. You have to stay hydrated, and any little snack has to be something that I bring.
AL: Your schedule looks very full, and you work around a lot of other people. That can’t be easy.
JV: A lot of the time I have two-show days when I can’t cook for myself, and I can’t find the time to go back home. So I have to order out, and I make it extremely clear that even the same knife can’t even be used. The entire management team of Wicked knows about the allergies, and every one of my cast mates is very aware.
I have quite a few scenes where I’m in close contact with people and they all know not to eat nuts before or during the show, and my stage management team carries an EpiPen.
AL: You performed at the non-profit FARE’s Food Allergy Ball in New York City on December 3 . What did it mean to perform for an audience that really understands allergies?
JV: It’s like, “Oh my God, you actually get it!” To be in a room full of people who have a plethora of allergies and to know that the food will be safe, that’s literally a dream for me. I’m not joking. It’s truly a dream.
AL: Here you are at the top echelon of musical theater, doing what millions of people dream about. How did you keep food allergies from holding you back?
JV: I can’t let something like an allergy ruin what I want. I refuse to do that. And if that means having to be super careful, or not going to the restaurant that everybody else is going to, or having to sit in my dressing room and just keep things pretty basic, so be it. I get to do what I love every single night.
If I could have a wish granted, it would be to have no more allergies. But it’s who I am, and I would never be here had I not pushed through some really difficult circumstances.
AL: What advice would you give to young people who have big dreams – and food allergies?
JV: I would say be who you are, and be honest about what you want and what you need. When it comes to things like severe allergies, it’s OK to be unapologetic. And it’s OK to make it a priority in your life because your health is the number one thing.
You might see your allergies as a burden to begin with, but they will really teach you about who you are and make you stronger, and it will all work out in the end. Don’t be hard on yourself for something you can’t control having.