When it comes to his friend, Emmy award–winning TV personality Samantha Brown, James Beard award–winning TV personality Andrew Zimmern has a specific request: Make sure this all gets included. It’s understandable, the wish to speak to Brown’s dynamism, given that 22-year television veteran is typically shoved in a certain box. Pleasant. Laid-back. Bubbly. Accessible. Perky. Mister Rogers-ish. It’s understandable, since Brown, humble as she is, would probably never say any of this stuff. So here it is.
“Samantha Brown needs to be seen in two ways that she’s not commonly viewed,” Zimmern writes by email. “Everyone adores her as the longtime award-winning TV host, producer, and writer of multiple series over the years. What is underreported is that she broke the glass ceiling for women in the genre, and frankly, we need lots more women and people of color in a variety of roles in travel shows. I thought we would be further along on that journey. We aren’t. But before Sam, it was all boring, bland, tired formats in the TV travel space, all hosted by men.
“Secondly, she is—to this day—one of the most underutilized television docu-follow reality talents out there. Her skill set is immense, and we only get to see the tip of the iceberg with Sam. She’s a superb actress and devastatingly quick comic. . . . I’ve seen all sides during our 15-year friendship. For those who think she’s all sunbeams and unicorns touring us through Akihabara in Tokyo with a huge grin on her face, that’s just Sam’s surface talent.”
Ask anyone in Brown’s circle, and they’ll echo Zimmern: There’s so much more to the story of Samantha Brown.
For Samantha Brown, childhood vacations started like this: being woken up at 4 a.m. and stumbling along with her two sisters, still half asleep, in her pajamas to the family station wagon. Once the family dog, Gidget, and a cooler full of bologna sandwiches were accounted for, Brown’s family would take off from their home in Derry, New Hampshire, settling in for the eight-hour drive to see relatives in Pennsylvania. Brown, who today has visited more than 250 cities in 62 countries and 40 of the United States, would not travel internationally until she was in middle school and her family drove across the border for a Quebec vacation.
Brown attended Pinkerton Academy in Derry for high school, where she was active in cheerleading and musical theater. (She’s now a Pinkerton Hall of Fame honoree alongside astronaut Alan B. Shepard and poet Robert Frost, who taught English at the academy from 1906 to 1911.) After high school graduation, Brown attended Syracuse University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1992. A week after that graduation, she had packed her bags and her cat and moved to New York City, where she spent the next eight years waiting tables, auditioning, and acting in various roles in Off-Broadway productions like Brutality of Fact at Primary Stages and June Moon at the Variety Theatre. She did improv, performing with the comedy sketch group Mouth. Eventually, she started getting small television gigs—as “Wendy Wire,” the spokesperson for Century Cable, the “Super Mom” in an HP Pavilion commercial—and this work led to her biggest opportunity yet, in 1999: a producer recommended her to the Travel Channel to audition for a new show, Great Vacation Homes. But first, Brown had to actually get to that audition.
The initial attempt didn’t go so well. Brown, who was traveling from New York City to the audition in Jacksonville, Florida, was beset by delays: Her first flight from LaGuardia left late, and her 45 minutes of connection time at D.C.’s Dulles vanished. She missed her connecting flight to Jacksonville. Sympathetic, the producers rescheduled the audition to a week later. Again, Brown’s first flight from LaGuardia was delayed, but not by as much: She had five minutes to make that second flight, but the final boarding call had already been announced, broadcast throughout the terminal. She sprinted anyway, running so fast she thought she would throw up.
By the time Brown arrived at the gate, the plane had been boarded and was in its final preflight stages. But after hearing Brown’s rushed story, a gate attendant let her walk out onto the tarmac, where the 50-seat plane was waiting. Brown was intercepted again—this time, by a dispatcher—who informed her that because the flight list had already been registered, she could not get on the plane unless the pilot authorized the addition. Brown pleaded with him to try: I’ve been waiting tables for eight years, and I think I can get this job. I have to get this job. He requested she stay put while he asked. Brown did not.
Instead, as the dispatcher boarded the plane, she ran under the nose of the plane and looked up at the cockpit. “I stretched out my arms and said, ‘Please,’” says Brown. “The pilot looked down and gave me the thumbs up. I got on the plane and as soon as I sat down, I knew that I got the job. I felt so good about the decision and the balls it took to put myself in front of a plane that I just knew nothing was going to stop me.”
Initially, Brown says, she thought of the job as a stepping stone to get where she really wanted: Hollywood. She needed a reel—proof that she could act, proof that she could carry a show—and so found in Great Vacation Homes her opportunity. It would be a year of work, she thought, then she would be done with presenting. “I would move to Los Angeles and that would be that, and I would be done [with hosting],” Brown says. “Luckily, that’s not what happened.”
“I wanted to be a real human being that people connected with. I wanted to show my emotions, and to feature real goals, disappointments, and excitements. I wanted to make mistakes, because that’s what real people do when they travel.”
Brown stayed with the network, building on her successes and hosting the series Girl Meets Hawaii (starting in 2000) and Great Hotels (2001–2006), for many years the Travel Channel’s only marquee woman travel host. It was hosting Passport to Europe (2004–2006), she says, that she began to have more of an itch to show her flaws and foibles. “Twenty years ago, when you were a host, it was very presenter,” she says. “You stand in front of the camera, and you have one emotion—overall pleasantness,” says Brown. “Then it goes to the segment. But I wanted to be a real human being that people connected with. I wanted to show my emotions, and to feature real goals, disappointments, and excitements. I wanted to make mistakes, because that’s what real people do when they travel, and that really hadn’t been explored yet. Because I knew right away, I’m not an expert. I’ve never traveled before. This is me figuring things out.”
It was filming Passport to Latin America (2007) that Brown says she “finally felt she was a traveler.” There was less of an agenda than filming in Europe—where she “felt that pressure to be like a Rick Steves”—and where she had the armor of the Grand Tour’s monuments and museums to help her with the outline of the shows. Instead, Brown found her stories in people and continued to register all those things she thought made her her: those real goals, disappointments, and excitements. The approach was a hit with viewers, who raved in comments about Brown’s brightness, humor, and try-anything approach, calling her “witty,” “quirky,” and “wry.” “Samantha Brown is delightful, totally unpretentious and not afraid to make fun of herself,” wrote one reviewer. “Samantha is one of those people who can go anywhere and find the joy of living,” wrote another. Brown’s attitude also resonated with fellow television personalities: Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible, calls her an “icon” and a “leader that I am truly fortunate to call a friend,” and says it was Brown who inspired his own television career.
Brown continued to work with the Travel Channel, hosting Passport to Great Weekends (2008), Samantha Brown’s Asia (2010), and Passport to Asia (2010). She says the Travel Channel gave her “tremendous creativity in terms of how I approached scenes and what I brought up.” But 15 years into her relationship with the channel, Brown owned none of the footage. She had no editing rights, which meant that though she understood how “undiversified” her shows were, there was a gulf between what she wanted to feature and what the channel chose to do. They were her shows, but they weren’t hers. And that really started to grate, she says.
It was largely for this reason that Brown in 2017 moved to PBS to work on her new show, Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, where she is the writer and host. That, and she just got tired of pitching herself, and advocating for change when change was slow to occur.
“You get tired of saying, ‘You could be more diverse, you should be more diverse, and why don’t I have a job?’” she says. “You get tired of having that conversation with the people who are in charge, and finally just say, ‘I should be in charge. That’s the only thing I can do.’ And you see a lot of women forging that path, which is great.”
Scan cable television programming, and the tilt of the representation quickly becomes clear. From Travel Channel to National Geographic and everything in between—think Animal Planet, A&E, Discovery, Food Network, History Channel, SundanceTV, Spike, Science, Syfy, and truTV—men are at the helm of a majority of travel (and travel-adjacent) shows. (Since Brown left the Travel Channel, it has increasingly become more focused on action, adventure, and the supernatural, though it does count women-led shows like Mysterious Islands with travel journalist Kellee Edwards and Alaska 1,000 Ways with bush pilot Ariel Tweto among its programming.) Netflix is similarly disappointing, though it has more diversity in its male hosts. Hulu is slightly better, if only thanks to the advent of Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, which debuted in June 2020.
Saying that men don’t like women travel hosts is too “basic,” says Brown. Instead, she attributes most of it to perception—the idea that only men watch shows at night, and that women watch the shows men want to watch. Regardless of the reason, Brown says, representation of all kinds is incredibly important—and needs to improve.
“When a woman sees me traveling somewhere, she knows right away, that’s a safe place to be. It informs a certain audience,” she says. “But in that same respect, as a white woman, I can’t really inform a woman of color how she’s going to be perceived. So that’s why we need even more diversity.”
That Brown landed at PBS—and has seen remarkable success—is of little surprise. Statistically, public broadcast viewers are 25 percent more likely than cable viewers to have taken more than three vacations, are 28 percent more likely to buy foods produced locally, 37 percent more likely to engage with a travel agent, and 34 percent more likely to have taken two cruises in the last three years, pandemic notwithstanding, according to the public broadcaster. (Still, unlike with cable networks, Brown raises her own funds for the show, though it is open to sponsorship.)
Also unlike cable networks? PBS has a slate of women TV travel hosts: Travels With Darley premiered in 2016 and is currently shooting its seventh season; Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi began in 2017. There’s also Family Travel With Colleen Kelly (since 2013) and Curious Traveler (since 2015), hosted by Christine van Blokland. In September 2020, Kim Haas debuted a new show, Afro-Latino Travels With Kim Haas. Brown, however, is one of the channel’s most recognizable faces.
Samantha Brown’s Places to Love first aired in January 2018 with 13 30-minute episodes. Brown opened the season in Houston, which was recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and then took off around the world, covering Switzerland, Brooklyn, Shanghai, Huntsville (Alabama), Vancouver, Texas Hill Country, Big Sur and Monterey, Xi’an (China), Donegal (Ireland), Orange County, Montreal, and Oregon.
“I thought travel was about seeing things. And now I know it’s really about connecting to people.”
Seasons 2 and 3 followed: Brown played mahjong in Hong Kong, ate breakfast burritos at Tia Sophia’s in Santa Fe, learned banchan etiquette in Seoul, went rice harvesting in Charleston, and visited a penguin colony in New Zealand. In Budapest, she bathed at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. In Key West, she met lionfish huntress Rachel Bowman. She learned to make a bell in Phoenix and took cooking lessons from two “grandmother chefs” in Vienna. Whatever the activity, whatever the event, Brown was game, always saying yes instead of no—a lesson she says she learned in improv.
“There is no script, but as a host, it is your responsibility to entertain, to inform, to drive the scene, and to cap it—to have your mission in the other person,” says Brown, who won the Daytime Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Host for a Lifestyle, Children’s or Special Class Program. “It’s never about you.”
Brown and her team began filming season 4 of Samantha Brown’s Places to Love in early 2020, and shot one episode in Quebec City before borders began to close and quarantine measures were put in place. They were set to leave for Austria on March 12, but still haven’t gotten there. For now, Brown says, they’re focusing on knocking out the domestic episodes they had planned: in New York’s Hudson River Valley, in Florida, in Colorado. Unlike previous episodes, the team now has to go into businesses when they are completely empty, and masks are worn at all times up until the cameras are rolling and the interview has begun. Though Brown says there are now so many more logistical layers to consider, she’s excited to be back on the road. “When we realized we could still shoot the show, we went for it,” says Brown, who is based in Brooklyn and travels with her husband, Kevin O’Leary, and their seven-year-old twins Ellis and Elizabeth.
Pausing the show and resuming it has meant more time for reflection, and Brown says she has better learned what she loves and what she has missed most.
“I love to meet people—not just monuments and must-sees—but people in their everyday lives, because I’ve found that everyday life for other people is just extraordinary. And when you see how extraordinary someone else’s life is you think, Well, mine’s pretty extraordinary, too. That’s what I love. I didn’t know that when I started this. I thought travel was about seeing things. And now I know it’s really about connecting to people.”
Twenty-two years into the business, and Brown says she has finally learned to balance what she first felt all those years ago: responsibility and authenticity. To appreciate the moment while also being honest about confusion or setbacks, and to ask questions when she has them. When asked how she sustains this, Brown cites poetry, a volume of which she carries with her on her Kindle.
“I need something that takes me away from the day but also heightens a moment,” she says. “In a short amount of time, poetry gives you an intense perspective. It also kind of works with what I do. We’re with people for such a short amount of time and it’s intense, but what we’re trying to make out of it is poetry.”
Weeks after I speak to Brown, she sends me a Mary Oliver poem, “Don’t Hesitate”: It helps remind her, she says, of taking the time to enjoy what’s happening around her—a lesson we would all do well to heed during these days.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,/don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty/of lives and whole towns destroyed or about/to be. We are not wise, and not very often/kind. And much can never be redeemed./Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this/is its way of fighting back, that sometimes/something happened better than all the riches/or power in the world. It could be anything,/but very likely you notice it in the instant/when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the/case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid/of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.