Written by Jennifer Florendo
If there was ever a time to be glad that some things stay in Vegas, now would be that time. Our featured Fearless Females have made their mark on the famed Strip. From a successful casino executive, a talented performer to an entrepreneurial chef, these fearless females are happy to share their stories of finding balance, finding strength and finding oneself again.
Cindy Kiser Murphey: Taking a gamble
At the age of 17, Cynthia Kiser Murphey told her family that she was moving across the country to study hotel management at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. While met with some questions, the family was very supportive. They must have sensed that her future was promising, regardless of the career she chose. Kiser Murphey is now the President and Chief Operating Officer of New York-New York Hotel & Casino.
Kiser Murphey has always been attracted to the hospitality industry and the role that it plays in the lives of the vacationer, viewing it as being responsible for “creating people’s vacations and memories.” A proud accomplishment is the creation of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino marketing figurehead and all-around resident fun character Vinny, who is a human embodiment of the resort, and promotes the resort’s amenities on a one-on-one basis with guests.
In recent years, the face of hospitality has changed not only in Vegas, but around the country and Kiser Murphey was challenged with heightening the visibility of her property among tourists. And that is where Vinny comes in. “People come to see our version of New York,” she says. So they made Vinny as New York as possible. A native New Yorker, he’s the go-to guy, the guy with the hook up … accent and all.” People from all over the country contact him on his Facebook page, more often than not with their opening line: “Yo Vinny!” to ask what’s offered at New York-New York. He is now a mainstay at resort events, and it is not unusual to see Vinny hanging out at the tables and other areas of the resort, rubbing elbows with guests.
While it isn’t always fun and games at work, Kiser Murphey has worked hard throughout her career. She is so focused on doing her job, and doing it well, that she has never stopped to consider the role that gender has played in her success. “I honestly don’t look at myself that way. You get judged upon your own merits, you build relationships and you create results,” she says. “Your focus is doing a really good job and building your own skill set in a way that makes you marketable and you can add value to the organization. As long as you can add value, don’t spend a lot of time with what you don’t have or who you aren’t or who you are.”
A wife and mother of two boys, ages nine and 15, Kiser Murphey has some organic advice when it comes to balancing it all. “It’s not static, it’s today. Today you might feel like you’re balanced and then tomorrow comes. I have always involved my children in what I am doing. Otherwise, there isn’t enough time to exclude them from what you do and then try to have a whole separate life.”
And balance she does, but being able to attend all the important events does require some juggling. “I don’t believe I’ve missed a parent teacher conference. That’s not to say that I haven’t had conference calls in the car both directions. I think you have to be a master at scheduling and utilizing all your time.”
Just when you think that she is super woman, she shares something we can all relate to. “If I know that I have to be at a football game at 4, then I better have a 6:30 a.m. conference call. The challenge with those calls is making sure that the kids don’t make noise or that the dogs don’t bark,” she laughs.
So just what does fearless mean to her? “It’s being willing to go out of your comfort zone and willing to learn something new and try something new and do things that you haven’t done before. To me, I think it’s a comfort zone issue. Expanding your horizons by doing something you haven’t done in the past and having the courage to do that. Courage is more the word I use,” Kiser Murphey says.
New York-New York Las Vegas Hotel & Casino
3790 Las Vegas Blvd., South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Trina Johnson Finn: Living her dream
In Trina Johnson Finn’s house, music was always abundant. It is no wonder that at the age of eight, she discovered her talent and began performing in talent shows. Her love of performing continued throughout high school, into college where she studied voice and acting at UMKC Conservatory of Music.
While there, Johnson Finn landed first major gig with MC Hammer. He was looking for artists to sign to his record label and while she did initially think that he was full of it, she still gave it a shot and went on tour with him for five years.
In 2004, Johnson Finn and her husband moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas where she struggled to re-establish herself and her career. “The first year was tough on me for performing because I had to come to a different city and start from scratch,” she says. “Overall I’ve had a fantastic ride in my career. I get to live my dream.”
The fantastic ride hasn’t come without some great challenges of character, strength and faith. Johnson Finn always considered herself fearless and a fighter, a trait she inherited from her mother. “She always made me feel like I can do anything, just go for it. She was the one who allowed me to live my dream,” says Johnson Finn.
In February 2009, that fearlessness was put to the test when Johnson Finn agreed to perform in Suriname, South America. What she agreed to was a Toni Braxton tribute show, but the show promoter had other plans. As she performed, it quickly became clear that something wasn’t right: The audience began to shout at her and throw things on stage. “The guy had promoted that the real Toni Braxton was going to come, so people were buying tickets thinking they were going to see her, and they were seeing me.”
The next day she and her husband were taken to jail, where Johnson Finn remained for four months. Her husband received a two-week sentence, just for being with her. Upon his release, he flew back to the U.S. and began the biggest fight of his life: To get her out of jail. “I think about it today and go ‘I survived that?’ They were trying to put me in jail for three years.”
After returning from Suriname and losing everything, Johnson Finn was prepared for another struggle in rebuilding her life. “Literally, we lost everything and had to start over. And that was taxing on us both. I thought, ‘Wow I need another great job,’ and then I got this really great job with “Vegas! The Show.” It was a blessing, the timing was great,” says Johnson.
Having gone through hell and back, Johnson Finn concentrates on the good and the lessons learned. She is healthy, alive and able to do what she loves: perform and entertain.
What she loves the most about her job performing on The Strip is that “Vegas! The Show” is so incredibly diverse, with performers from all ethnicities. Even though the show runs seven days a week, Johnson Finn is still excited to go to work each day. “It’s great when you can go to work every day and love your job. I work six days a week, two shows a week. Most people would think it must be exhausting, but you don’t look at it like that. It’s a really, really great show,” she says with gratitude.
Vegas! The Show plays nightly at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Saxe Theater at Planet Hollywood. For more information and tickets, please visit vegastheshow.com.
Living, learning and loving
Saying that Chef Carla Pellegrino was born to become a chef is an understatement. She began her career in cooking at the age of 10, when most her peers were playing with cars or dolls. At the age of 16, her entrepreneurial spirit kicked into gear. She owned her own store in Italy and featured daily cooking demonstrations. In 1997, she moved to New York and attended the French Culinary Institute in New York.
In 2006, Pellegrino was given an opportunity to come to Las Vegas and open her then-husband’s family-owned restaurant, Rao’s at Caesars Palace. She was the executive chef in charge of leading the opening and giving it a splash of flair that she is best known for. The restaurant thrived, the marriage ended, and in 2010, Pellegrino parted ways both professionally and personally with Rao’s.
Faced with some major career decisions, Pellegrino thought about packing up and moving back to New York when she was approached by Tropicana Las Vegas. Like the hotel, her life was going through a transformation and renovation and it just felt right for the chef. It was a risk, but she was confident in what the property was about to become. “I was restarting everything and I had to reinvent myself. I feel like I am doing a renovation of my own life and we can grow together. I felt related to the whole thing,” says Pellegrino.
The decision to open up Bacio at Tropicana Las Vegas may have been impulsive, but that is the norm for the spunky chef. Her decision was a good one and now Pellegrino feels right at home again on the Las Vegas Strip. Even if she felt any hesitation or fear, she knew that in the end, she would be OK. “I do it and figure out the questions later. I think that you still have a little fear because that is what keeps you good. I like risks. I take risks. And the only way to grow is by risk. If you don’t risk anything … you are never going to know. You are never going to have anything, you are never going to know how far you (could go) if you don’t risk. That I think makes me fearless.”
Along the road to success, Pellegrino has learned some great life lessons, which she is happy to pass down to her 27-year-old daughter. “I say to her … love yourself. Every kind of love, you give it up. You give it away to people, you give it your work, and you give it to your sons and daughters. All this love reflects the love you have for yourself. I think that all kinds of ambitions, things you do for yourself, things you do for people … The only thing that enables you to give anything to anyone else is to love yourself.”
Lessons that she not only preaches, but practices. Bouncing back from a divorce and facing major career decisions, she was able to maintain loving herself and continued to find herself. “Since the start of my divorce a year-and-a-half ago, I have not been doing what I like the most which is traveling. Up until two years ago, I used to do at least three big trips a year. This year I am going to try to get back to Brazil. I like to know what is going on outside of the United States. You come back fresh and everything feels brand new. I am going to try to go back to that,” she concluded.
3801 Las Vegas Boulevard, South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
10740 S. Eastern Ave.
Henderson, NV 89052