Born into the life of entertainment, a health crisis inspires a fork in the road.
Former “Dancing with the Stars” and “Entertainment Tonight” host, Samantha Harris’s life reads like a movie with a predictable script until an unexpected twist changed the fairy-tale plot.
Entertainment was in Harris’s DNA despite growing up in Minneapolis, far from the glitz and glamour of her now home of Los Angeles. Her father was a rock and roll producer; her mother was a dancer; and as a couple they founded one of the country’s first renaissance festivals.
“I was thrust into the entertainment world since birth, and my love for it was strong,” said Harris. “I asked my parents for an agent when I was 12.” Harris did a lot of print modeling work and commercials before being cast in a news pilot when she was 16. “It was the first time I got to be on camera as myself, and I thought I might be onto something,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be an actor, but growing up in that world, I knew how hard it is to have success.”
So Harris decided to hedge her bets and was accepted into Northwestern University’s journalism school, one of the best in the country. “I didn’t need a degree to be a good actor, but I did need that if I wanted to be on camera as myself,” she explained. After graduation, Harris moved to Los Angeles and pounded the pavement for six years. It was at the time that cable TV was becoming popular and many shows needed hosts.
“I had about 90 percent success with hosting auditions and about 20 percent with acting,” she laughed.
It seemed that the market had spoken. Harris was hired to work with ”Extra,” “E!News”, “The Insider” and “Entertainment Tonight.”
As the host of “Entertainment Tonight,” the biggest entertainment show at the time, Harris met and interviewed everyone who was anyone, but her favorite story occurred on a press junket in Seville where Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz were filming, “Night and Day.”
Each journalist was supposed to interview Diaz while she showed off her stunt driving, then jump in the chase car to go after Cruise on his motorcycle. However, when it was Harris’ turn, she instead asked to sit on Cruise’s Ducati. Harris, who had never been on a bike, attempted to mount it the way one would a horse and the motorcycle promptly toppled over nearly crushing Cruise. He told her to try again, and this time he jumped on in front and took off with Harris holding on for dear life.
Harris was hired to work with ”Extra,” “E!News”, “The Insider” and “Entertainment Tonight.”
“All I remember is being on the back of a motorcycle with Tom Cruise with my hands wrapped around his incredibly tight abs,” she laughed. “Most importantly, I got an exclusive story!”
While Harris excelled as a host, she still had entertainment in her blood and dreamed of being a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” When her agent called and told her the show was interested in her as their next host it was one better.
“My agent called and said they wanted to see me in a few hours. Thankfully, as a TV host I had a gown, so I slapped on some makeup, drove up the road and got the job,” she said.
Harris was a success and hosted the wildly popular show for eight seasons.
“I loved every day. Watching the rehearsals and the performances, seeing musical legends, getting to wear a gown dressed to the nines and do what I love to do. I am very grateful for the experience,” she said.
The exposure helped her land the role as Roxie in the classic musical, “Chicago” on Broadway in 2009.
“My childhood Broadway dreams came true. It was a pipe dream that miraculously became a reality,” she said.
Harris, now married with two daughters, was leading a charmed life straight out of Hollywood. Then everything changed.
Just before turning 40 she went in for her first mammogram. The scan was clear, but just 11 days later she found a lump.
“Two doctors told me it was nothing, but I just had a feeling,” she said. “ I went to a surgical oncologist and she did tests and even those initial tests didn’t show cancer, but when a biopsy showed irregular cells the surgeon did a lumpectomy and sure enough, it was cancer.”
The experience taught Harris two important things. First, you have to trust your gut and be your own health advocate, and secondly, things she thought were healthy weren’t. As a trained journalist, Harris researched cancer because she never wanted her own girls to hear, “You have cancer.” What she found was that many seemingly “healthy” foods had carcinogenic ingredients, many beauty and household products were toxic, and that stress kills.
Harris opted to have a double mastectomy to give her what she felt was her best chance of getting rid of the cancer and preventing a reoccurrence. She also put into practice the things she learned and radically changed her diet and lifestyle. This May she will be five-years cancer-free.
Harris’s cancer experience changed her focus. She wrote a best-selling book, “Your Healthiest Healthy,” which presents eight shifts anyone can take to prevent cancer and live a clean lifestyle. She and her husband of 18 years, Michael Hess, founded Gotta Make Lemonade, an online community designed for people to share their stories of resiliency and positivity in the face of adversity. This year, Harris, who is now also a certified trainer, is parlaying the message of the book into a series of wellness retreat weekends.
While Harris is still entertaining other jobs in Hollywood, her focus is now very much on the wellness sphere.
This year, Harris, who is now also a certified trainer, is parlaying the message of the book into a series of wellness retreat weekends.
“I’m still looking for hosting or anchor jobs, but it has to be right for my family and me,” she explained. “Being blindsided by cancer at 40 changes how you take things on. I would approach it a much different way now. I’m loving every minute of raising my girls. I still have things I’m aiming to accomplish and goals that are set, but business is not the same as it was. I’m excited to see what comes next.”