Health for the Hungry
April 10, 2017

An Interview with Samantha Harris

by Derek Hockenbrough

The usually anxious valley traffic is oddly placid on the Southern California afternoon when I arrive at Samantha Harris’ Los Angeles home, greeted at the door by her youngest daughter. Hillary, brimming with unadulterated excitement, invites me in and proceeds to gift me with her newest dance moves before embarking on a jet-fueled sprint around the gorgeous foyer. Cleary, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Samantha appears in casual yoga-garb, looking just as beautiful in her at-home comfy clothes as in the most gala-infused dresses she has worn under the burning bulbs of the television lights. Samantha is best known for her multiple-season run as the host of “Dancing With the Stars,” however her career is frosted with numerous accomplishments. She hosted countless shows and specials for “E! Entertainment Television” before moving on to many beloved programs such as “The Next Joe Millionaire,” “The View,” “The Insider,” and “Entertainment Tonight.” Her palpable kindness and down-to-earth realness exudes naturally as we get comfortable to discuss her exceptional childhood, personal journey, motherhood, and humanitarian efforts.

BFM: Your parents were in show business. Did you know early on that you would find your own way in? Samantha Harris: I knew very early on that I wanted to be in entertainment in some form or other, performing and being in front of an audience. I was a ham as a little kid and would use every opportunity for a photo op. I suppose that’s not a far stretch of the imagination from where I am now. My kids are similar, especially the little one [Hillary].

Photo by Natalie Fetini
Samantha Harris

Samantha laughs as Hillary explodes through the living room and into the kitchen.

SH: My parents created one of the country’s first Renaissance Festivals. So my playground every summer was this sixteenth-century medieval festival with jousting knights on horseback and a King and Queen. I played a Princess, a Gypsy dancer...

Hillary re-appears announcing, like a town herald, that the photographer has arrived. Samantha thanks her with a giggle before Hillary wisps away just as quickly as she arrived.

SH: My two-and-a-half year old has the same energy I have, though in a slowing pace as I get older. It’s fun to sort of see that same energy... But, yes, I grew up in this wonderfully theatrical family and during the school year my playground was backstage at rock concerts. My Dad produced all of the rock concerts that came through the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, so it was a really surreal celebrity-entertainment lifestyle for a Minnesota kid. I feel grateful looking back now at my childhood, being able to have the grounding that a mid-west upbringing gives you and being able to also experience the entertainment world. When I was twelve, I asked my parents to go find me an agent and they said “sure.” 

Thankfully in Minnesota, even though it’s not a big industry town for film and TV, there are a lot of corporate headquarters. A lot of commercials are shot as well as catalogues and ads. So I did everything from the cereal box cover... “Rocky Road” was the cereal, but it doesn’t exist anymore. It was an embarrassing cover, but it was the first day of seventh grade and I got to leave early. So it was very exciting. But I had these flowery bangs, and I think in post they put a sheen of two shades darker skin tone on me. I think they decided that they needed someone more ethnic, so all the sudden this very pasty-white Minnesota-bred girl got a nice tan... But I really was focused from an early-age-on wanting to be in show business to some degree and kept pursuing it.

BFM: Did you feel that you wanted to act, or did you just know that you wanted to be part of it? 

SH: Well, first I wanted to model. As a kid you see these 5’ 10’’ supermodels and especially in the eighties which was the era of the true supermodel. I knew it was what I wanted to be. I realized later that you can’t just choose to be a supermodel; you have to have all the parts that go with being a supermodel. I stopped growing at 5’ 4,’’ so that was out of the cards. I was never that tall, lanky girl that could sashay down the runway. I think from there, I changed my focus to acting. When I was sixteen I was cast as myself as the host of a pilot for a nighttime entertainment show that was filming in Minneapolis. 

Photo by Natalie Fetini
Samantha Harris and daughter

They brought me in not knowing that I was only sixteen and I had to go into nightclubs, so they said they were going to create a segment just for me. In the pilot, I was going to have this teen-celebrity angle and would have a segment for every show... it was my first experience being able to be myself on camera. That was a foreign concept; I didn’t know that was a possibility. My Dad said to me early on, “You are really good at being yourself on camera”. But because I wanted to be an actor, I took it as a huge insult that I wasn’t good enough to create characters. Later, I realized that he had something there.

BFM: Your image has become a conduit for reaching people. What was it like beginning to understand your “image”? 

SH: Going back to the fact that I stopped growing at 5’ 4’’ and had very puffy cheeks, not the high cheekbones that models have. I didn’t have that gazelle body. What I realized was that I needed to find myself and who I was; to find my own way to be in magazines and on covers. Much later, even after graduating college and knowing that I wanted a career in journalism and on TV, I realized that finding my best body and my own skin was what I needed to do in order to get the things in life that I wanted to achieve. 

For me, I found that I had this fit body that was hiding underneath the adolescent fat layers. Once I started to exercise and eat right in my early twenties out of college, I discovered this muscle tone that I never knew was there. That’s what ended up getting me my first fitness shoot for Shape Magazine. I was hired as just an “XYZ model”, doing an ab spread to get celebrity abs. It’s funny how it all goes around now that I’ve done so many celebrity interviews. And now, I’ve just shot a cover for Shape Magazine, so total full- circle. It’s my eleventh fitness cover I’ve done now. It’s exciting, but it took a while.

BFM: When you started to understand that you weren’t eating right or exercising as much as you could, what did that realization feel like to you? 

SH: Liberating. I was always so focused, and I still am, on other people. My family members tell me that I’m so much of a people- pleaser. And that, sometimes, is a downfall for me. As I think any Mom would, I put my kids first and my husband first and then work and somewhere way down at the bottom comes myself. So, the one thing that I have made a conscious choice to do for myself is to exercise and eat healthy. That realization became empowering. It happened after a break-up with my first boyfriend, who was the only boyfriend I had before I met my husband.

I was a late-bloomer, I had dates here and there but it wasn’t until my early-twenties and I was out of college that I had my first real relationship. But, I always catered to him and workouts only came if I could fit it in around what he wanted me to do. So when we broke up, there was a bell that went off. I said, “I don’t care what comes next, exercise is going to be important and I’m going to make sure that’s a priority.” It has been ever since. Actually, a month after that break up is when I booked the Shape Magazine spread.

BFM: Have you found exercising to be key in reducing stress?

SH: Yes! When I don’t have exercise, I can’t focus. If I can get my workout out of the way at some point in the day, the earlier the better, then I am yours. Whether it’s yours meaning my boss at a show or my family or my husband, [after exercise] I feel like I can do anything. My workouts center me, even if I can get 20 minutes in. It’s something that I am so passionate about and that I am often asked to talk about, that I went back to school and passed my exam to be certified as a personal trainer. I am looking to go further and get certified as a group instructor. Something that I did when I first moved out here was teaching fitness classes while I was auditioning, but I was never certified. The two gyms that I went to both asked me if I could teach, so I did part-time.

BFM: Do you find yourself trying to share with other people how important exercise is? 

SH: I do. I think that when you’re passionate about something, you tend to talk about it a lot. Much to the chagrin of certain people in my life, I’m sure. But because it’s something that can better you as a person, and everyone in the world can benefit from eating right and exercising. I’m not saying the extreme of what people think Hollywood is with personal trainer and five-hour workouts. I’m talking about getting in a half-hour to an hour a day. Even if you have to break up the 30-minutes into ten-minute segments three times in the day just to get it going, it’s about being there for your kids. I lost my Dad when he was just 50, and I want to survive to see my grandkids and great-grandkids if that’s possible. It comes to the kids too. I want them to see us exercising and know that it’s important to me. We do a lot of weekend stroller walks with the girls. My husband and I get our exercise in, and we get to have family time because we’re laughing and singing songs. We get to our breakfast destination after a forty-five minute walk. The girls now, even the little one, are starting to hop out of the stroller and walk the mile back. They’ve made it about three-fourths of a mile and I’m going to keep encouraging them until they make it the whole mile back.

BFM: Is being outdoors and active something that is important for you to encourage in your girls? 

SH: We do a lot of running around, especially in the house. I know there’s that old family rule: No Running in the House. For some reason it’s a rule in our house to run around. Especially after dinner to burn off that energy and the girls will literally chase each other around in circles, giggling with glee. I love the cackles of laughter. So, to me, that is ok because they’re being physical. They know the lay of the land enough that they thankfully, knock wood, haven’t been hurt. And I think we, in Southern California, are lucky to able to be outdoors most of the year.

BFM: When did you begin to start focusing on humanitarian efforts, or realize that you could help? 

SH: When I had my first daughter [Josselyn] and I became aware of Feeding America, which is the world’s largest hunger-relief organization, there was a statistic that was brought to my attention that one in five children are struggling with hunger in America. Not in third- world countries, which is what most people think of... but right here in our own backyard. It could be your neighbor, co-worker, friend or schoolmate. This idea that as a parent you can’t necessarily put enough food on your table to nourish your children to get their minds developed the right way, and have proper nutrition so that they are developing cognitively and physically in every aspect, was really disheartening. And it’s something that is solvable. 

The more I learned, I saw that there is more than enough food in America to feed every one of our hungry. It’s a matter of access, transportation, and getting the food cultivated and onto the tables. That’s where the difficulty lies. I thought, ‘this is a place where I can lend my voice and anything I can do to promote the efforts that Feeding America does will help.’ One dollar provides eight meals; it’s something so easy. I volunteer at our local food pantry and I brought Josselyn, who is my 6-year-old, with me when she was 3. She loves organizing, so she was stocking shelves and having a good time doing it. I liked that I was teaching her at an early age that not everyone has the things that we are very fortunate to have. So, whether it’s donating books or toys, she knows that there are other kids that are in need. I want to teach her that and do any part that I can do.

BFM: Was there a specific moment when you said, “I need to get on this”? 

SH: Feeding America reached out to me and it seemed so obvious: ‘This is the statistic and do you want to help?’ There was no way I could say no. And it’s not like there aren’t so many other viable organizations, but you only have so much time. The other organization that I’ve done a lot of work with is March of Dimes, which has done so much work to make sure that babies are born healthy. So many things that we now as women having babies take for granted, certain screening and tests, are standard now but to a large part that is because of March of Dimes.

BFM: Is there a particular memory during your work with these organizations that really stuck with you? 

SH: I hosted a March of Dimes benefit at Disney World and there was a little boy, maybe 8 or 9, who had been born extremely pre- mature at something like twenty-some weeks. To see how he now is thriving and becoming a spokesperson for the organization was really a powerful thing. To see the pictures of how tiny he was when born, and then to physically see how he had become this fully formed child who has developed well, was amazing. But the other thing that is really touching is going to the food pantries and seeing the families that are lined up who only get to make a trip to that particular food pantry once a month. They wait for an hour or more some days just to have a few bags of groceries that will last for four or five days. That has a tremendous impact on me every time I go to a food pan- try and see the families, and they are so incredibly grateful. They take the groceries as you are bagging them up and they say, “Bless you.” I think, “No, Bless you. You’re the one that has to make such an effort just to get food.” I really hope that these families can see an end to that struggle at some point soon.

BFM: When you discovered that you were in a unique position to use your voice to help these organizations, was that inspiring for you?

SH: Kind of going back to exercise being empowering, being able to lend your voice to a cause and have people respond... I know people say, ‘If I could just change one person’s mind,’ but seriously if I could just have one person know that by donating that dollar they can give someone eight meals and they actually donate that dollar. Knowing that the information I am giving them is compelling them to act, that is an impact that I want to be able to have whether I am able to reach a dozen people or twelve million.

BFM: Do you make an effort to impart the importance of your humanitarian efforts to your girls? 

SH: Of course, but it can be kind of tricky. My husband and I went to a charity dinner for a kids camp that deals with children who have either lost or have a parent who currently has cancer. My kids were really upset that we were leaving for the night. We weren’t going out of town, we would be back while they were sleeping but they didn’t like the fact that a babysitter was putting them to bed. We had to be careful when explaining why we were going because, as a parent, you don’t want to open up their minds too much to this. You don’t want to shatter this beautiful innocence that childhood brings with it, but I also want them to be aware that other kids aren’t as fortunate. Even though I lost my Dad to cancer, I haven’t really sat them down and explained what [cancer] is or why he’s not here. My six year-old understands that he died and he’s no longer with us, but she doesn’t re- ally understand why. Just the other day, my 2-year-old said, “Where is he?” I just had to say, he’s not with us anymore.

Thankfully, her very tangential brain was off to the next subject which was probably about play-Doh, because it’s still painful for me to talk about it. But, there’s that protective bubble that you want to keep them in for as long as you can.

BFM: There’s a very tangible correlation between you being a strong image for physical health and an advocate for feeding the hungry. 

SH: One thing that is frustrating for me in straddling those worlds of being health conscious and also wanting to feed our hungry in America is that food that is healthy is expensive. And that’s a shame. Because this is why we also have an obese country when you compare it with the rest of the world. I think some of it comes down to the statistics of the hungry, and because a package of Ramen or canned corn is going to be a lot less expensive than organic whole fresh fruit. Your farmer’s market, Albeit maybe less expensive than some of the grocery stores, is still very expensive. I am even wary of what I choose to buy organic because of cost. I would love for everything that I put in my fridge to be organic, but we all need to choose where we can spend money. So, I pick and choose. But it is frustrating. There was a campaign I did a couple years ago for a big brand that was bringing fresh fruit, some ten million pounds, to families in need through the summer months. And I loved that. I loved that it was about fresh whole fruit because even drinking juices, especially concentrate with the sugar added, it’s just not as good. And kids aren’t supposed to have more than, I think, six ounces of juice a day even if it’s 100% juice because they aren’t getting the fiber in the pulp from the whole fruit. It’s a challenge.

BFM: Is this something that Feeding America is making an effort to change? 

SH: Yes. I believe that they are continually trying to expand their programs to get fresh produce into the hands of those who need it most. Even at the food bank, you’re able to request things you really want. So you kind of get a grocery list of your needs, and in addition you get a whole bag of fruit or some sort of produce that is avail- able. Every so often there will be a whole pallet of, say, strawberries that were going to go bad at the grocery store so they donate them and we’re able to give out huge flats of whatever the produce is.

BFM: So, what’s in the future for Samantha Harris?

SH: Continuing my work with Feeding America, which I plan on lasting for a long time to come, and expanding in the fitness and health space. It’s very nice to be so passionate about something and find that I can help people discover their best body. I think there is this perspective that you must be a size two or four, or whatever ever it is for a woman or man, and that’s what Hollywood says is best for your body. It’s not about that; it’s about what’s best for you and finding your best body or shape. That might be a different size or a different number on the scale than you think it should be, but once you find it there’s this intense bliss.

Feeding America Organic Health

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About The Author: Jacqueline Romano

Jacqueline Romano is the Creative Director & Editor of Blindfold Magazine. She feels it is her personal vocation to use her creative skills to raise awareness for people and organizations who are making positive change, both globally and locally.

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