Meet the women behind the headlines

Join HUNGER as we go behind the scenes to meet the trailblazing women who keep us update to with the latest news

When we’re caught up in a whirlwind TikTok trend or obsessing over a celebrity that’s breaking the internet, it’s easy to forget that there’s a team of people somewhere underground who have engineered the whole thing and are probably still beavering away to make sure things don’t fall apart at the seams. Some of the biggest music and fashion stories of the past year have come together because of the skills, strategy and incredible endeavour of women working behind the scenes. HUNGER’s editorial director, Devinder Bains, sits down with two of the changemakers responsible for some of the most significant moments.

Sonal Vara-Parmar, Founder and CEO of IAM Entertainment

A goddess-like Beyoncé appearing on stage in a yellow Atelier Zuhra gown, breaking into Etta James’s “At Last” while fireworks light up the night sky, is a scene that’s recognised by millions across the planet, not just the 1,000 or so people who were lucky enough to attend the private gig at Atlantis the Royal in Dubai. Such is the power of social media and of course the hard work behind the scenes organising what has probably become the most famous musical performance in recent memory. One woman who knows all about that hard work is Sonal Vara-Parmar, the woman tasked with pulling the whole thing together. Vara-Parmar’s company, International Artist Man- agement Entertainment (IAM), was approached by the luxury hotel to find a star big enough to cause a behemoth-scale viral sensation to announce its opening.

“The hotel group had a wish list of performers, but we said, ‘If you want to go big, there’s no one bigger than Beyoncé,’” she recalls of the conversation that took place just months before the performance in January this year. “It sounds a little, I guess, as- inine, because it is Beyoncé, but they wanted the biggest and she is the biggest and, after 25 years in the business, I knew we could get the biggest.”

And the 25 years in the business that Vara-Parmar is talking about have been quite a rollercoaster through the entertainment industry. They have seen her go from working as a wedding planner in London after finishing her degree to heading to New York as part of Sony BMG, taking on work with Live Nation Entertainment in the Middle East and then setting up her own entertainment management company and having the likes of Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Coldplay, Kevin Hart and Lady Gaga on speed dial, and   working on projects with Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Etihad Airways and Dubai’s tourism department, as well as events such as the Davos summit and the Cairo International Film Festival.

“I was planning Bollywood weddings when I was headhunted by the luxury Hempel Hotel [in London] to start their events. I would just cold call record labels and studios to offer the hotels up for A&R parties and filming. Eventually they started to take interest and the first event I did was an Elton John and Amy Winehouse showcase,” remembers the entrepreneur, who was born and raised in Zambia during her early years, until her family moved to England. “At one point I was invited to a listening party for the Black Eyed Peas. I asked the manager back to the hotel to encourage him to use the space next time. He went on to work as a senior executive at Sony BMG and became my mentor. That’s how I started working with Usher back in 2001 to 2002. I remember I used to go to all the recordings at Top of the Pops, and that was my lane. I knew then that is what I wanted to do.”

A move from London to New York to Dubai followed. Vara-Parmar arrived during a boom in business in the UAE, working for luxury hotel groups and clients before finding her way back to music with the global entertainment giant Live Nation Entertainment. Eventually, her expertise in the industry and knowledge of the Middle East led to her setting up her own business in 2012.

“I think when you know you’re capable of more, you want to do more, and it’ll never be enough until you take that risk and work for yourself,” she says of the decision to leave Live Nation. “I quit that job in the middle of our Mariah Carey show. It was all in the moment – I just knew that if I didn’t do it then I would probably never leave.”

Vara-Parmar initially set up IAM Entertainment, the only female- founded entertainment company in the Middle East, with a PR col- league, but bought her out two years later. Her husband, Ash Par- mar, joined as managing partner in 2018 and the company has grown to take on more sectors. “Music is the largest, but film and TV production is a division that we’re aggres- sively growing,” Vara-Parmar says, having already completed projects such as the recent Apple TV+ docuseries Boom! Boom! The World vs Boris Becker with John Battsek and Oscar winner Alex Gibney. “The endorsements and the campaigns, both government led and non-government, are another division, and we’re actually about to launch our influencer management platform, working with incredible women in and out of the region.”

The company is at a place where it is working on multi-billion-dollar projects and can now pick and choose the clients it works with. “If I don’t feel good about the business, we won’t do it. There’s real power in saying no,” Vara-Parmar says. That doesn’t mean her journey to success hasn’t been without its challenges, especially as a female in the male-dominated music industry. “People have doubted me because I’m a woman, because I’m an independent company not linked to the big agencies. Men run the venues around the world, the heads of the record labels are men. It’s a boys’ network,” she says frankly. “So for me, forging direct relationships with the artist and with their management was the secret to the company because I was in control of the narrative and who I spoke to, and I didn’t have to go through the men who were pulling the strings.” Which is not to say it still doesn’t happen. “I faced this less than a year ago with an agency that tried to manipulate a deal I was already working on. It was a female artist that I’d known for years that stood by me and said no to them. And that’s what it’s going to take – more of us standing together.”

And women standing together brings the conversation back to that Beyoncé gig in Dubai, where IAM Entertainment worked with the star’s own female-heavy company, Parkwood Entertainment, to not just break the internet but smash it to pieces with that performance. Was she prepared for such a huge cultural moment?

“I knew it would be big, the marketing strategy was very inclusive. It was aimed at everyone from the A-listers to the different macro and micro-influencers, which made it accessible to everyone. It made everyone feel part of it,” Vara-Parmar says thoughtfully, before adding, “I don’t think you can quite prepare for the viral sensation that it was though. That comes from people, that comes from something they felt, you can’t buy it, can’t quite touch it. You can’t anticipate fully it. It’s a moment in time.”

And how was it for her, knowing that she was going to be working with one of her musical heroes? “I don’t think it hit me until I saw her at the dress rehearsal. I think that, until then, you’re go- ing through the motions, because experience tells you so many different things can happen at any time. You do not say a word to congratulate yourself until it’s done. You don’t actually get to enjoy it, probably until afterwards,” she says honestly, before talking about the full-scale dress rehearsal show. “It was just a handful of us that got to see it. Seeing someone that you idolise, that isn’t quite real in your eyes, in that kind of proximity was emo- tional. She saw me sobbing and came over at the end to thank me.”

So what’s next for Vara-Parmar? “It’s harder now, because where do you go from this? I need to come out of this comfort zone and try something new,” she concludes, while still hinting there may be more big shows on the way. Because despite the different directions the business is taking, music pulls at the heartstrings for Vara-Parmar. “Music for me is this escapism. The fact is, even today, any live performance I do, I will cry. It’s embarrassing, but it’s kind of expected now. I think the day I stop crying during a performance I’ve worked to orchestrate, is when I’ll stop.”

Irene Agbontaen, Tastemaker Designer and Strategy and Partnerships Director 

When I get together with Irene Agbontaen, she has just spent the Saturday at Glastonbury festival with the rapper Central Cee, where his performance smashed out one viral moment after another and his surprise guests included a cute baby and Mercury-prize-winning rapper Dave. Agbontaen has barely unpacked, but her coming week comprises working in the office, circling a few events in London and heading off to New York for Burna Boy’s performance at Citi Field – home to the New York Mets baseball team, making him the first African to headline and sell out a US stadium.

It’s a lot, but in truth, this isn’t an extraordinary week for south Londoner Agbontaen. A few days of studying her Instagram stories show that if there’s a big music or fashion event, story or party happening somewhere in the world, Agbontaen is likely to be there, if indeed she isn’t the one who orchestrated it in the first place. Her ability to partner brands with the perfect talent and drop the collaboration at just the right moment is a superpower that has made her hot property for music labels and fashion houses around the world.

Agbontaen is the brains behind some of the biggest collaborations of the past year, be that Burberry and Burna Boy, Central Cee and Jacquemus (who could forget those baby huskies?) or Shygirl and Mugler H&M. In fact the first two of those campaigns launched just a couple of weeks apart. Agbontaen is a busy woman but her incredible black book of contacts means she can juggle multiple projects at a time without breaking a sweat.

“I’ve known and worked with Burna for years, and as for Burberry, I’d known Riccardo Tisci through the work he’d done with Nike and we’d kept in contact. For Burberry, he wanted a campaign that spoke to new audiences, that took Burberry into new spaces,” she says of those initial conversations. Agbontaen suggested tapping into the hype around Afrobeats music, targeting an already well-established market both on the African continent and among a huge global diaspora. “For me, the great thing about that partnership is that I was working with a team that was open to listening. So even once Burna was all agreed and we went on the shoot, I suggested doing an out-of-home campaign wrap in Heathrow’s Terminal Five to Riccardo, because a lot of flights to and from Nigeria and Ghana start or finish there. A huge influx of people would be heading to Africa during December when the campaign dropped – and the team made it happen.”

The collaboration, which also featured the singer Shakira, launched in November 2022 and made headlines worldwide, adorned magazine covers and sent social media into a spin. The momentum started five months before the campaign even dropped, when Burna Boy became the first Afrobeats artist to perform at Glastonbury, wearing a custom-made Burberry boilersuit, and continued into 2023, when he made headlines in a blue-checked look at the Met Gala – a cute Instagram post on Agbontaen’s account captures her bending down on the red carpet to adjust his outfit, showing how nuanced her involvement really is.

Whereas Burna Boy was al- ready a household name, Central Cee was still on the periphery of the mainstream when talks began with the luxury label Jacquemus. “They’re actually a brand that has had a similar trajectory to Central Cee, in that they’ve got huge in a moment,” she says. “I started going to the Jacquemus office and connecting with them a few years back. There were a lot of young people there, always playing music. It was always a good vibe, so I would say that, culturally, I saw a fit. I had been working with Central for a while and was looking at brands that he liked wearing and Jacquemus was one of them, so I thought I’d start by getting him to one of the shows, and then it went from there.”

And the super-cosy campaign for autumn/winter 2022 was instantly a viral hit, shared across social media by fans of both the rapper and the fashion brand. The timing was impeccable: both parties were having a moment of their own and the combination of the two was almost a sensory overload for fans and the media alike. It also cemented Central Cee’s place in the fashion world.

When asked how she made the stars align so perfectly, Agbontaen says it’s a mixture of taste, strategy, reading the data and having the interests of both parties at heart. And as for her own success? She puts it down to the network and reputation she’s built over the past 20 years. “It all dates back to when I was 18, working on the door of the YoYo night at Notting Hill Arts Club,” she says with a laugh. “The resident DJs were everyone from Mark Ronson to Skepta. We had new acts as well as legends like De La Soul and Nas performing, and everyone wanted to be my friend because I could get them in! The capacity was about 300 people and there would be 1,500 people queuing outside. That’s when I started building my relationships.”

The club night was the epicentre of where music met fashion through the 2000s. “I remember Trapstar used to sell their T-shirts at YoYo in a pizza box,” she says. “I was meeting cultural innovators and they were all just coming to have a good time – it was networking, but not as you know it now.”

From there, Agbontaen was hired by the Edition hotel group to work on events. “I started using the contacts I’d made at YoYo. So I did A$AP Rocky’s birthday party, I did Patta, Kaws and Jordan launches,” she says. “And I had other things going on too. I’d met Skepta at YoYo and started working with him as a stylist, so when he shot the video for ‘Sunglasses at Night’, I started looking at brands to work with him and began thinking about how we intersect brands into music.”

She moved from the Edition to work as the director of culture at the then newly opened Curtain hotel. “They wanted to know, ‘How do we make sure that this is the hot spot? Who should we get to open the hotel?’ And again I had to lean into my contacts,” she remembers. “I was clear that if you want London culture in east London, you had to work with Skepta at that time, and it was a huge success. It even got eight pages of coverage in the Evening Standard. At the time I didn’t even realise that what I was doing was essentially cultural marketing and PR.”

The scene was set for the hotel. “I did a party for Erykah Badu, I did SZA’s Ctrl album launch and Miguel’s album launch. I was doing a lot of music parties and I needed money to fund them, so I would reach out to brands to partner with talent. And then it flipped and brands were coming to me, looking to work with talent – they would be interested in some- one I’d worked with before or a talent I knew personally and ask to be connected, and that’s how I started doing more than just brand partnerships. That part of my role was organic really.”

Agbontaen’s knack for partner- ing brands and talent would even- tually lead to a strategy and partnerships role within the global entertainment company United Talent Agency, but along the way she’s become a brand in her own right. She’s a cultural influencer on social media, picking up her own brand partnerships. She’s starred in Channel 4’s reality TV series Highlife, sharing how she navigated freezing her eggs as a Black woman, and she’s also run her own fashion company, TTYA (Taller Than Your Average), for ten years, designing shoes and clothes for women like herself who are, well, taller than your average woman. Agbontaen, whose parents moved to the UK from Nigeria before she was born, is a keen champion of the communities that she sits at the intersection of, supporting people of colour and women from minority backgrounds through her TTYA Talks workshops and podcast, interviewing pioneering women who can pass on life and business skills. “It’s important for young women to see and hear from people who look and sound like them. I want to introduce them to women of colour who are sitting both front and back of house in major creative industries, to show them that they too can do it.” And what’s her best bit of advice for those wanting to follow in her footsteps? “People always think that networking is looking to people that you think are doing better than you, but actually, sometimes your network is the people who are already around you. They are the people you are already connected to, the people you are on the same upward trajectory as, the ones on the dancefloor with you – nurture them.”

Editorial DirectorDevinder Bains
StylistMorgan Hall
Make-up ArtistZac Campbell-Muir using Pat McGrath Labs and Armani Beauty Hair EditorNick Irwin using Schwarzkopf Professional Session Label
and Wahl professional styling tools
Photography AssistantsOlly Dundas, Alex Heron, Marcus Lister, Chelsea Nawanga
Fashion AssistantsOlivia Miller, Alana Newton, Drew Smith
Make-up AssistantJaz Crush
Hair AssistantsAlex Sarghe, Tia Feels
ProducerSarah Stanbury
Production AssistantReneque Samuels
Digital ArtworkTrue Black Studio