Working Life: Isabel Russo

The head of ceremonies at the British Humanist Association on moving from actress to celebrant

Isabel Russo
Isabel Russo

I'm responsible for administering the network of more than 300 celebrants who conduct non-religious weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in England and Wales. I'm also a spokesperson for this area of work.

My job is hugely varied. A few weeks ago, we released an animation featuring Stephen Fry explaining non-religious ceremonies, so I was whisked off to be interviewed by Sky News about it. But on another day, I'll be chairing a six-hour training and development meeting with our training leaders, debating what the training and assessment should look like, dealing with a complaint or encouraging people to lobby MPs for recognition of humanist marriages.

I was a celebrant for four years before I came into the role, so I sometimes still lead ceremonies. I took the memorial ceremonies for Doris Lessing and Victoria Wood.

I spent 20 years as an actress on radio, on screen and in theatre but I wasn't finding it satisfying. When my son was born he had a lot of allergies and health problems, which made it hard to continue. When I looked around I found being a celebrant ticked a lot of the boxes for why I'd gone into acting in the first place: performance, connecting with people, telling stories worth telling and communicating deep emotions.

But the creativity of this role really appeals to me too. It's amazing to go into each individual's life situation and understand what their needs are, then create something that makes sense and is meaningful for that person and helps them on their journey through life.

When people hear what I do, they are sometimes a little confused. One described me as "like the secular pope, then?", which made me laugh. Someone else mixed humanist up with naturist.

But when I begin talking about it they're interested because it's about birth, deaths and marriages and, ultimately, those are things that touch all of us.

The British Humanist Association is a national charity that works on behalf of non-religious people

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