A Convo With Tanya Sam, the Bubbly and Proudly 'Thirsty' New Face on Real Housewives of Atlanta

New cast members in the Housewives franchise rarely get past the brigade of old cast members without a rush of judgment. Kim Fields, Eva Marcille, and Shamari DeVoe all began as fish out of water on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Kim didn’t even make it to a second season. In experiencing a hazing of her own on the current season, Tanya Sam (“TAN” is pronounced like getting a tan, so TAN-yeh) has come across as, to put it gently, eager. She admits to being a people pleaser.

Sam is well aware of being perceived as thirsty by viewers. But on the show, she’s an exuberant burst of sunshine, even if such energy sometimes confuses her castmates. In an incident that reverberated throughout the season, she unwittingly got on Nene Leakes’s bad side after what, to Nene, seemed like a dig at Nene’s clothing store, Swagg Boutique. In last night’s episode, Sam rushed to share dirt to Eva about a traitorous bridesmaid who was going around town trashing Eva. Jezebel spoke to Sam, leading up to next Sunday’s RHOA season finale and subsequent reunion episodes, about breaking the ice and surviving her first season. Since she works as Director of Partnerships at the Atlanta-based VC TechSquare Labs (she’s also a former registered nurse), I had to ask about Elizabeth Holmes. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed from a roughly 40-minute interview last week.

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JEZEBEL: How much Real Housewives knowledge did you have going into your first season?

TANYA SAM: I probably never would’ve imagined myself on the show or in reality television, but I’d seen pieces of it. I loved everything from New York to Potomac to Beverly Hills to Atlanta, on and off over the years. There are probably scenes that I’ve missed and am clueless to, but I’m definitely familiar with the characters. I’m actually friends with some of the girls on Potomac. I’m good friends with Monique and Candiace.

You said you didn’t see yourself on reality TV. What influenced your decision to say yes to this show?

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The timing was everything to me. I like to help other entrepreneurs, particularly women, people of color, and generally the technology scene in Atlanta and the Southeast, build businesses. So I run a lot of accelerator programs. [Ed. Note: Programs that help startup companies with funding and mentorship.] We try to curate the ecosystem here in Atlanta. I’m constantly meeting people who are like, “Tell me your story. Let’s talk about technology.” I was really excited to show other women and people of color that there is a future for them in technology. To be honest, with a show like Housewives of Atlanta and its incredible viewership, people message me from Ghana, everywhere, and they’re like, “You come from a nontraditional medical background. Now you’re in technology. Thanks for showing me that.” It’s really about representation. That’s really what prompted me to throw my hat in the ring.

Basically, being on the show helps with branding and opportunities.

For me, as well, to be honest, I liken it to— I grew up in a very medical family. My dad was a doctor. His mom was a nurse. All his friends were doctors. They married nurses, so it was like nothing to me. I’m like, yeah I’m gonna go to college. They went to college and they did that. But people always used to talk about us being like the Huxtables. If you think back to when you were a kid, everyone was like, “I wanna be a doctor like Doctor Huxtable. I wanna be a lawyer like Clair.” If you look at TV right now, our generation is really focused on: I wanna be famous on Instagram. There are black women in tech. We’re all over Atlanta, to be quite honest with you.

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Did you think they would really show that aspect, though? It’s more about the drama and scandals. They haven’t gotten into that part of your profession.

Yeah, and I mean, I started this season as a “friend of the show.” That was very intentional for me. I wanted to see how I liked it, how I could fit it into my already crazy and busy life. And I think that, as I’ve been on the show more and more, people are very interested. It’s been amazing to me to see the kind of social media family that you grow from this. And part of that is, people get to know more and more about you, they peel that back. Everybody knows what Kandi does. You talk about what Shamari does. People know what she does. The same with other castmates. I think coming from a technology standpoint, it’s a different angle for people to be interested in.

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Kandi does a great job of using the show as a platform for her businesses or just crazy ideas that she has that turn out to work. Like the restaurant or the cabaret, or I guess sex show that happened this season.

Yeah!

A springboard. Has it worked in any way for you in terms of business yet?

No, and that was for me— Well, I’ll take that back. We run a program called the Atlanta Startup Battle. It’s a $100,000 pitch competition that takes place every quarter right in TechSquare Labs. I don’t know if I can attribute it to momentum or what, but we’ve definitely seen a surge in applicants. I think I gained a social media following, and a lot of them are from the show, but there’s tremendous interest in like, Hey, you’re a female entrepreneur; tell me how you did it. I think that hasn’t even been intentional for me. ’Cause, like you say, only part of my story has even been shared on the show.

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There’s this sense that Silicon Valley is built a bit on the art of bullshitting. I want to get your take on that and how different it is in Atlanta.

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We definitely spend a lot of time there—we have an apartment in the Valley. What do you mean by the art of bullshitting?

So, I don’t know if you saw this documentary, The Inventor, about Elizabeth Holmes. 

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Oh yeah, I’m very familiar with the story. I read the book. I haven’t seen the show. You know, I think that’s really such an outlier story. It really really is. It’s hard enough to raise money in the Valley. It’s hard enough to raise money for any company, and Elizabeth Holmes was so successful at pushing her vision and pushing her dream. I think that you can definitely point to that as an example of: Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that happened. But as far as business-building and the startup technology world, both in Atlanta and the Valley, I think there are so many people that are building really incredible businesses from scratch with their blood sweat and tears that I really hope stories like that don’t overshadow the whole industry. Because that story is incredible and bizarre.

Right.

There’s a part of me that understands, especially as a black female, people really want to root for minorities and people of color so that we can achieve greater equality in both of those industries, so she had people who were cheering her on because if she could’ve built what she [envisioned], it could’ve really— If her vision was as great as it was, it would’ve changed the world. People want that. I think it’s rare that we see that happen.

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There’s a sort of hazing that happens when a new castmember joins Housewives. Did you feel like you were treated differently when the cameras are rolling? More shadily?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I think being a new person on the season, you’re going through a group of women who most of them have known each other for years. And you really want people to take the time to understand you and get to know your personality, your quirks, and all those things. I think I’m definitely a different character from the [other] women, and they didn’t know what to do. They’re confused by this bubbly Canadian on the show. So I definitely felt some hazing. There were days when they were up and down. For the most part, that stuff doesn’t really faze me too much. I’m the type of person who you push the wrong button too many times, I will tell you.

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Obviously, the Nene relationship was focused on with you. I don’t know if it was you pushing it or Nene pushing it. You made the Swagg boutique comment.

I mean, the Swagg Boutique thing— It was a talent show. My intention there was to shout out her store. I was having fun, and then I was kind of apologetic afterward, like, Oh sorry, didn’t mean it to come out like that. Things like that, you have to understand how different people’s personality are. I think the reaction to calling me ignorant, shallow, small-minded, was kind of heavy-handed compared to just saying, “Hey, I’m shouting out your sunglasses.” I don’t know if you call that hazing or what you call that, but does the punishment fit the crime and what are you supposed to do with that?

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And you were offended by the comment she made that she didn’t care about your fiancé.

For me, that was really about— I try to be impeccable with my words. So I was commenting that I didn’t think wishing negativity or anything like that about my relationship was appropriate. I was trying to figure out, was it a joke, why would you say something like that. I kind of liken it to if your kid’s going to school, and you’re like, “Maybe they’ll graduate, maybe they won’t.” That’s such a flippant comment that I wouldn’t have made. I’m going into these friendships, and I’m just trying to explain my perspective, my point of view. And if you are my friend, you’ll be open to understanding where it came from, for me, and I feel like that understanding was not accepted at all, and it escalated dramatically.

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I guess she was going through a lot [her husband Gregg’s recovery from cancer treatments], so that colored the situation.

Yeah, and that’s completely acceptable. You’ll see that through the whole season where we all understood that she was going through a lot. Like, we’re all going through a lot in our lives. We didn’t really get to see a lot of what [I was] going through. But it’s what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable and how you treat your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people in general.

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Do you guys feel pressure to be shady or interesting while filming? Is there a tendency to try to push a good storyline?

Yeah, of course people are very cognizant of: What’s happening in my life that people will be interested in. Those are two very good examples of [how] that wasn’t the case and it was just natural explosions, [which] none of us could’ve scripted or created. And it just makes you go, okay well where is this coming from. Everyone very nicely said [to Nene], “Well, you’re going through a lot.”

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Were you getting immediate positive feedback, immediate negative?

I am super grateful for the response I’ve seen, mostly on social media. I think people were really excited to see a different type of sister on the show. I have a background that spans from Ghana to Britain to Canada, living in different places. So you’ll get people that support you, like, wow you’re a nurse. Some of the stuff that I see is like, Oh she’s a breath of fresh air, she’s bubbly, she’s kooky, but we get it. And I’m fine with that. I love it. I think that’s one of the biggest bonuses I’ve had about being on the show. I’ve just had such a really welcoming reception.

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There’s this first-season thing where viewers look at new people as thirsty quote-unquote. Shamari also gets this label. Do you think there’s something sometimes lost in translation in the way you come across in the first season? Have you gotten this “thirsty” label?

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No, I find “thirsty” among women such— To be honest, it’s fairly offensive, because what does that mean? Like, you’re ambitious? You’re going after something you want, when people call you thirsty? People wanna call me thirsty, they can call me thirsty. I would tell more people to get thirsty.

You should make a t-shirt with that.

Yeah, like I’m working on a show with women who’ve been there for a very long time. And I’m the type of person who’s like, there’s plenty of room for all women on the couch. And I think it’s the people that say, “Oh she’s thirsty,” that would like to not help others have a hand up. I know what I’m doing and why I’d like to help other people and share representation, so I always balk at the term “thirsty” thrown out casually among women. Because I just never feel like it comes from a good place, and it’s kind of destructive. And I’m not saying that to you. You’re asking questions that people ask. I’m throwing back at: What am I thirsty for? Success in business? More Instagram followers?

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I’m curious how friendships work when you have this atmosphere where part of it is set up. You have to go on trips and things like that. How do you define friendship on a show like this? Do you value the friendship the same as your off-show friends?

Sometimes the girls on the show laugh at me about this or people who meet me in general, they’re like, “You’re everybody’s friend!” And I genuinely am like, “My friend, my friend.” And obviously there’s levels to that, but I really kind of have this optimistic view. You meet people, and I feel like you can see people’s intentions pretty clearly and who they are, and you connect with people. I went into this being like, you guys are my friends until you’re not. Which is probably a little bit of a naive Canadian attitude. But I did. I was happy to meet new people, happy to make more friendships, and mix different circles. I’ve made a lot of good friendships with people on the show, and they probably don’t compare to— I have a lot of friends that I’ve literally known for 20 and 40 years, and that’s just different. But that’s kind of the beauty of life and meeting new people. Seeing who you like and who you don’t like.

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You just filmed your first reunion. Was it therapeutic?

No, I wouldn’t call it therapeutic. I would call it, like, emotive maybe. But I don’t know if I’d call it therapeutic. I’ve had way better therapy, like a massage or something like that [laughs]. But it was much-needed, how ’bout that. It’s one of those things where you’re like, I should’ve said this, I should’ve said this.

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Did you have a lot of those moments watching the episodes?

I definitely watched all the episodes. I never went home after filming and said, “I should’ve said this.” ’Cause you’re really just being yourself. The reunion was a little bit different.

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That’s your chance to clear the air before an entire next season.

Exactly.

Were you happy with your portrayal overall?

I think so. People are always like, Does Tanya really have that much energy?The people that really know you, they’ll come back and be like, I just wanna say that I love you because you’re on this reality TV show and you’re exactly like how you are. That’s the part that confuses me because I’m like, I don’t know how to be anything else. But I think it’s pretty true to form.

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