Jill Carlen


"It was baptism by fire," she says of switching careers. "I learned so much – all about creation, execution. I fell in love with it. I sponged it all up. Things were getting tough in the industry. But by then, I realized I loved spa."
"It was so powerful to see people affected in every way."

Jill Carlen dreamed of being a Broadway performer her entire life. She went to school for it. She performed on a cruise ship after college. And finally in 1996, she moved to New York to fulfill her destiny.

While Carlen is now the Global Director of Spa Concepts for Hilton Worldwide and on the ISPA Board of Directors, her first career took her around the world with famed singer Gladys Knight on a Broadway tour.

"I was sort of a Janis Joplin type for Broadway," Carlen says. "I wasn’t as hardcore, but I was the rocker type."

Carlen traveled to South America, Europe and Canada, performing everything from Smokey Joe’s Café to Into the Woods. She was in Las Vegas for six months, and she was part of the last show at Caesar’s Palace before Celine Dion’s residency started in 2003.

One of Carlen’s roles was associate choreographer. She went on other tours to assist in the sequencing of the dances. She was also the understudy for all of the female parts, which helped her develop some important skills for her second career in the spa industry.

"I learned to adapt and pay attention," Carlen says. "You have to be so aware of your surroundings and of other people’s little nuances."

So how did Carlen end up in the spa world? Well, being a Broadway performer left holes in her work schedule, so Carlen took on what she called "survival jobs." She did things like hand out flyers for $10 an hour in Times Square. One of these survival jobs was as a receptionist at Exhale New York at Central Park South. She fell in love with the people at the spa and their experiences.

She began to have a change of heart about her childhood dream and life’s work.

"I was starting to feel not particularly authentic," Carlen says. "You’re told where to dance, and you’re told where to sing. I lost my innovation. I got frustrated and fell out of love."

And at the spa, she got something different.

"It was so powerful to see people affected in every way," she says. "At one point, my ex-husband was a musician as well. One of us had to make a living, and I thought, 'I love this spa stuff, I can go back to singing and dancing later.'"

It wasn’t as if this was completely random. Carlen grew up near a lavender farm in France, where she learned about its benefits and healing properties. This began her lifelong passion for wellness. She wound up working in some of New York City’s most prestigious spas like Exhale, Bliss, The St. Regis New York and Deepak Chopra. She also launched multiple spas and wellness facilities while working at the prestigious consulting firm Lexi Design. She later helped The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, win Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Hotel Spa.

"It was baptism by fire," she says of switching careers. "I learned so much – all about creation, execution. I fell in love with it. I sponged it all up. Things were getting tough in the industry. But by then, I realized I loved spa."

It was admittedly a little heartbreaking to move on from performing, but Carlen still had plenty of memorable experiences. Among them:

• When Carlen was in Las Vegas, she took guitar lessons with Bubba Knight, the older brother of Gladys Knight and the unofficial leader of Gladys and the Pips. Since Gladys was so well known at that point, she did her own show. Tony Bennett was in attendance one night, and Carlen got to sing with him afterwards for about an hour in a private party. "It felt like I was part of history, big highlight of my musical career."

• Carlen waited tables as one of those "survival jobs" in New York City. She waited on several celebrities, including Billy Joel. “He was super, super nice. He was hilarious. … He gave a $100 tip for a $50 check. Years later on tour, I got a note from him backstage: 'Hey I think you were our server back in NYC, great job!'"

• Carlen sang in the annual New York Village Halloween Parade in Lower Manhattan in front of 2 million people.


"It was baptism by fire," she says of switching careers. "I learned so much – all about creation, execution. I fell in love with it. I sponged it all up. Things were getting tough in the industry. But by then, I realized I loved spa."