TV host, cancer survivor and author Samantha Harris, 44, was born and raised in Minneapolis and spent her summers in Carver, where her family continues to operate King Richard’s Faire. She made her Broadway debut in 2009 as Roxie Hart in Chicago, and for eight seasons she co-hosted Dancing with the Stars. Previously a correspondent and weekend host on Entertainment Tonight, she has also hosted Gordon Ramsay’s Culinary Genius, E! News, Extra, The View and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. She and Regis Philbin co-hosted the official red-carpet show for the 80th Academy Awards, and she is also a certified personal trainer who has appeared on the covers of numerous health and fitness magazines. At the age of 40, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the book that resulted from her experience, Your Healthiest Healthy, will be published in September. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.
Jonathan Soroff: Is breast cancer the worst thing that ever happened to you?
Samantha Harris: I would say that losing my dad to cancer was the worst thing that ever happened to me. The reason I say that is that I was able to learn and grow from my own cancer. It helped me find the positivity among the horror that it was.
With your book, is it all you or did you have a collaborator? It’s all me. This book is basically the road map that I wish someone had handed me when I was diagnosed. Actually, maybe even prior to that, because then maybe I never would have been diagnosed. After doing a lot of research, it became abundantly clear that I got cancer because of what I put in, on and around my body. I live in the smog-infested Los Angeles valley, and I’m not moving anytime soon, so it was about taking more control over the factors I can control. I’m not smug enough to say I’ve got it all figured out, but I have definitely discovered my healthiest, most energetic and fit self.
How do you go through cancer treatment with two little kids? It was really challenging. I was in bed for three weeks post-surgery—twice—and I had a lumpectomy before that. That’s when you really have to depend on your family or support system, or seek one out. I’m lucky to have a rock star husband, my in-laws, my mom, my sister, all of whom helped me get through it.
Do you still rock a bikini? I would rock a bikini, except that I’ve discovered that I don’t like slathering on as much sunscreen as I would need to. So I tend to go for fashionable rash guards and a big sun hat and seek shade. And this is coming from the sun-worshipper who grew up in Minnesota and baked with the tinfoil and Bain de Soleil Gelee.
Environmental toxin that most people don’t realize they’re exposed to? Overall, probably our cleaning supplies. This is coming from the mom who wanted to sanitize everything in our home. What I came to realize is that all of the cleaning supplies I was using were actual health hazards. That’s been a huge revamp.
Toxin most people are ingesting without realizing it? Trans fats are pretty much gone in this country but still used all over the world. High-fructose corn syrup is the one thing I talk about in my pantry purge. One of the easiest, small steps to do is to read the ingredients, and anything that says high-fructose corn syrup, throw it out. It’s in so many things you wouldn’t expect.
Tell me a secret about Gordon Ramsay. He’s a teddy bear. Don’t let it get out. I don’t want to ruin his street cred, but it’s true.
Do you have a guilty pleasure with food? French fries. Especially truffle fries.
Most harebrained or dangerous thing you ever did for TV? I rode on a motorcycle behind Tom Cruise, clinging onto him without a helmet, when I continually tell my kids to never go on a motorcycle and always wear a helmet, even when they’re using a scooter in the driveway.
Do you think you’ll go back to Broadway? I hope I do. It was the highlight of my career in my mind, because I grew up in a musical theater family. My love of the stage knows no bounds. I am such a theater geek.
Would you rather win a Tony or an Emmy? A Tony. Not that there’s a shot in Hell, ever, that would happen…and I have already won an Emmy.
Three biggest diet myths people believe? I think one is to follow any “diet.” It’s not about changing what you eat but the way you live. That’s number one, and what goes along with that is that there are no quick fixes. You can’t do it overnight. Taking small steps is what will give you success in the long run. And barbecuing is the most American thing besides baseball, and yet charring your meat or your vegetables is carcinogenic.
Three biggest workout mistakes people make? That you have to kill yourself to actually make a difference on your body. You don’t need to exercise at such a high intensity. The burn zone is actually quite low. For longevity, you want to preserve your joints and not tax your system.
Were you ever chubby? I was full-faced and soft-bodied. I remember asking my mom, who’s always had the best cheekbones, when mine would show. Post-college, when exercise and more healthy eating happened, the butter- and cow-fed girl from Minnesota did lean out.
Favorite form of exercise? Outdoor stair-climbing.
What’s the appeal of Dancing with the Stars—the stars or the dancing? The storyline. The transformation is what appeals to people. A lot of the contestants might be someone you’ve never heard of, but they become your favorite because of their stories. Or maybe it’s someone you didn’t think you liked, but they endear themselves to you because of what you learn about them. The dancing is just a conduit to see who these people really are.
Best celebrity dancer, as far as you’re concerned? I think Derek Hough is one of the most talented dancers.
Your favorite ballroom dance? The jive, which I was able to do in season two.
Celebrity you most wish you could dance with, living or dead? Hugh Jackman. That man can dance.
Best location you ever went to on assignment? It’s a toss-up between Northern Ireland and the south of France.
Worst? Oddly, it wasn’t because of the location, but it was Napa, and it was because what we had to do. We were on “stakeout” for Christina Aguilera’s wedding, literally hiding in bushes for hours in the cold.
Most glamorous event to cover? The Oscars. And the Cannes Film Festival. And then once you’ve done it a few times, you’re all set. But the best part was when I got to host the live red-carpet show with Regis Philbin.
In all your years covering celebrities, was there one who intimidated you? No. I grew up at rock concerts, backstage, in Minneapolis. My dad produced all the big concerts there, in addition to my parents creating King Richard’s Faire, so celebrities never really intimidated me. What intimidated me was pressure from the higher-ups to get a specific soundbite.
A star who was rude to you? There were a couple, and I made the mistake of speaking about it in an interview a long time ago, and I got in trouble with my bosses. So I learned that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
How are your jousting skills these days? Pretty sweet, lemme tell ya. I did a joust on a fake horse where you’re on a wire. It’s called Slay the Dragon. It’s a ride at King Richard’s Faire.
You must have grown up eating a lot of turkey legs. A lot. Those are in my past.
Favorite thing about growing up there? Being able to perform with the gypsy dancers. I used to have the costume, and I learned the choreography, and I got to dance on the stage. Last year, my 7-year-old convinced the stage manager to let her have stage time and perform on opening day, and she did it with the gypsy dancers.
Can you still speak Middle English? I shalt not ever lose my love for my native tongue. I always loved putting on the accent and hawking the wares of the Remembrance Shoppe. That was my main gig.
Can I pet the liger? Oh, the most beautiful animal. We no longer have a liger. But being able to experience those animals up close and personal was always the most fun. Even going to the stables to pet the horses and feed them.
You grew up at the circus. Did you grow up and run away to join a different circus or real life? [Laughs.] I think because I ran from the Faire to the entertainment business, it was more of a continuation. I was so enlivened as a kid in that environment that I wanted nothing else but to entertain people for a living. ◆