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  • Annette Dawm

Duty Free with Rebecca Danigelis

Rebecca Danigelis is a mother of three who describes herself as an “unlikely subject of a movie”. However, at the age of 75, she lost her job as a hotel housekeeper after 50 years of employment. Then her son, Sian-Pierre Regis picked up his phone and started recording. Together, they created Duty Free, a documentary which explores ageism in the workplace as well as the bond between the mother and son as they fulfilled Rebecca’s bucket list.

Collectively, Duty Free has been viewed over 3 billion times via television, theatres, film festivals, online streaming and DVD sales! “I guess with three billion views it has done very well!” Rebecca laughed, but she admitted that when she first lost her job, things were “really desolate”. Not only was the hotel in Boston her place of work, it was also her home. Soon after her termination occurred, there was also an eviction notice.

“My son came to my rescue and took me through a journey of rediscovery.” Rebecca explained. Now 81, she said, “I didn’t think about ageism. I never expected to finish my job without being carried out in my coffin, honest to God! I never thought I would lose my job! Never, never, never, but it’s more common with older people….I found a new purpose in life, which is fighting ageism.”

Sian-Pierre worked as a journalist before directing the film. In 2016, he created a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise funds for the bucket list and the documentary. At the same time, Rebecca searched for meaningful employment. (Her job search is a large part of the film.) Suddenly the story went viral! Rebecca credited Sian-Pierre’s journalism skills for being able to reach so many people. She added, “I am a lucky one that I have a Sian-Pierre.” Today, Rebecca uses her voice to advocate for seniors who do not have someone to help them navigate through unemployment, homelessness and other challenges such as mental health and COVID-19:

“When workers are told, ‘I’m sorry, today’s your last day.’ Where do they go? What do they do? Something has to change.” Rebecca continued. “Applying for a job online is new for me because I was born before they had computers. A job application will say, ‘scroll down to find your birth year’. I scrolled and kept going down and it stopped at 1979, so it’s not fair.… Thanks to Senator Garcia, they are no longer allowed to do that.”

“My next thing is, I want to get a bill passed that says there has to be a page in an employee handbook which states, ‘This is what you may expect on your last day of work under the following circumstances:

A) You resign. Thank you for working with us. You’ll get a good reference. You’ll get vacation pay. You will not be able to collect unemployment.

B) You’re fired for poor work. You will not get a reference. You are not eligible for re-hire. You will not get unemployment.

C) You are re-structured. You will receive 60 days notice that you are being re-structured (your role no longer exists). You will receive help from our Human Resources department to find another job. You will receive a very good reference and should another position come up, you will be first for consideration.’ That’s what I want to see happen so that people know what they are getting into when they start a new job.”

Additionally, Danigelis is looking forward to working with various organizations such as The National Council of Aging and The World Health Organization “and really highlighting the benefits of working with seniors”.

Looking back on the production of Duty Free, Rebecca said that Sian-Pierre’s film process took some getting used to: “You know, when this story first started out, it wasn’t with the intention of making a film. He was just taking pictures of me with his phone. As you will see in certain scenes, I had no makeup on and I was in various states of undress getting out of bed. I did not know he was filming me! It was only when he saw the need for the story and got the word out that he proceeded with making the movie.”

For the first time, it seemed like Rebecca and Sian-Pierre really got to know each other as adults. “My whole life was living in a hotel and working in a hotel. My whole thing was, ‘educate your kids, say goodbye, you call them and they get on with their lives’. So we certainly became very much closer and I learned so much more about him—how emotional he is and how loving he is.” Rebecca also got to know her son’s friends and his partner, Sam. She now lives with Sian-Pierre and Sam at their home in New York. She recalled that throughout the project, Sian-Pierre realized how resilient she was and that he no longer saw her as “just his mom”.

Their bond continued to grow as they completed Rebecca’s bucket list of things she missed out on during her career. The list included fun activities like joining Instagram, milking a cow, and taking a hip hop dance class. However, there were also more physically and emotionally challenging tasks, such as skydiving and returning to England where Rebecca was born.

“The easiest thing, I think, was milking the cow. It was so much fun to have the baby cow come over and nuzzle on the end of your fingers! It was so surprising! I was thinking we were doing it the old fashioned way, but now it’s all machines! What a surprise! What an eye-opening thing! It was such a lovely farm we went to with such lovely people.”

“One of the hardest things was visiting my sister’s grave. My sister raised me when my mother died…. Then when my sister died, I was the only one with my job in the hotel and I couldn’t just take off. You can’t just go to England for a day and come back. So I didn’t go and I’m so sorry I didn’t go there sooner. I felt a sense of relief when I saw how nicely everything has been taken care of.”

In 1973, Rebecca was diagnosed with cancer. She was living in America and raising her first child, Sian-Pierre’s older sister: “I was very ill and I had to send my daughter to live with my sister who had raised me.” At the time, Rebecca thought her daughter “had a great life” and didn’t want to disrupt her by asking her to come back to America when things got better.

“It’s only years later that I’m realizing how abandoned she felt. She thought I just sent her away because there was something wrong with her. Although she had a great life and went to the best schools and had a great upbringing, she never really forgave me. She felt like she was worth less than what she really is, but now we’ve re-joined, so that’s the greatest thing!”

Rebecca also recounted her skydiving adventure: “The skydiving was scary, but I was prepared. ‘Be prepared’ is my motto. So I said to the instructor, ‘Sir, I know you’re a very skilled aerialist, but I just want you to know up front before we go out, I like the straight-down method.’

And he said to me, ‘Rebecca, you didn’t like anybody telling you how to do your job, did you?’ and I said, ‘No sir!’

He said, ‘And I don’t like anyone telling me how to do mine.’ Then out the window we went! We went round and up and down, and my hair looked like a palm tree! When we got to the ground, I felt duty free for the first time! It was exhilarating, but not for the faint of heart!”

With regards to Instagram, Danigelis exclaimed, “I have 50 000 followers! I don’t know who all of these people are, but they write to me and they love my housekeeping hacks! I do housekeeping hacks on how to clean stuff and how to make cake and I’ve really gotten to know them. Especially in the ageist circle, a lot of seniors and people all over the world have written to me and said, ‘This happened to me! I got laid off in my old age!’”

When asked what she wanted people to take away from Duty Free when they watch it, Rebecca replied, “Do not let your job define you. Family is everything.” She noted that people are often too quick to cancel plans with their kids in order to pick up an extra shift at work. “We have to rethink that…. Fortunately, I always lived in a hotel where my sons were close by, but certainly with my daughter, my job always came first. I had to support them.”

In 2021, Duty Free was featured on the PBS program, Independent Lens and Sian-Pierre was nominated for an International Documentary Association Award for Best Writing! When Rebecca saw the film on TV for the first time, she recalled that “The phone never stopped ringing! It was exciting but then I’m seeing myself with no makeup on and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! Oh Sian! No! No! No!’ But that’s life. As you see it, that’s exactly how it was. It’s been shown in lots of nursing homes and care centres and I’m very, very pleased with it. We’ve had it shown in theatres across America and we’re hoping to show it in Australia next year. I’ve been employed by many, many people in different hotels over the years. People will see me and they recognize me because of my bun! If I go to Boston and I see people in the street, I don’t always know who they are, but they know who I am! It’s so exciting and I love them all dearly!”

Currently, Duty Free DVDs are available on Etsy. For each one sold, Sian-Pierre and Rebecca will donate a DVD to a long-term care facility.

In terms of her advice for people of all ages, Rebecca Danigelis urged others to “go with your gut”. “Everybody’s all going to get old and I tell them, ‘Take note, you’re going to get old. Document everything that happens to you (at work) because that’s one thing I didn’t do…. If you feel something isn’t right at work, don’t just ignore it. Jot it down. Write down how you do each task and keep a file because it’s really hard to prove ageism. When you have documentation, you can say, ‘This happened!’ The thing is, we have to confront ageism when we see it.”

Recently, Rebecca spotted an article on LinkedIn that was meant to congratulate a woman who worked for many years as a housekeeper and was now a general manager. The article featured photos from both times in the woman’s life. Rebecca was appalled that the comment section focused more on the woman’s appearance rather than her achievements: “People didn’t write congratulations. They wrote, ‘Oh jeez! She looks better now than she did then!’ So I replied, ‘It doesn’t matter how old or how young she looks! She is beautiful and she got put into this position because of her hard work and her resilience!’ People have skills! It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are! People’s certain skills come together and form teams and strong bonds, and that’s what I want to see in America…. As I said, I am a lucky one who is able to create a better future for those who are less fortunate than myself.”

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Photo courtesy of Sian-Pierre Regis.

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