I became who I am today mostly by accident. Through my journey as an unexpected entrepreneur and an untaught teacher for the past thirty years, I learned that although I never had a Plan B, the universe had one for me. The unforeseen turned out to be far more satisfying than I could’ve dreamed of, and I consider myself to have a black belt in dreaming.
I started out fervently determined to become an actress since I realized that I could imagine a life beyond my reality and that I had the ability to transport myself to worlds distinctly different from my own. Acting was my destiny. I knew this in my fiercely tenacious little girl brain, which had nightly trouble sleeping because of all that was going on in my head, in my resolved heart, and in my childhood home. If five year-olds can consciously have a raison d’être, acting was mine. Oh, the thrill of it all, to dive headfirst into a role until you are entirely immersed—not pretending at all; until you become another person, at least for a little.
But “acting” as a teacher and an entrepreneur in real life were roles I never thought I could be ready, willing, or able to play. In the Dysfunctional Olympics of Life I must have had gold medalists as examples of what bad teachers and business owners could be. I consider these early “role models” as anti-mentors, perfect examples of what not to be like, filling the playbook of what not to do. Following my own #Metoo experiences as a teenager and my exposure to unscrupulous business practices that permeated show business culture in ’70's, I swore I would never be a teacher. I certainly would never want to run a school filled with students whom I would have to teach to do the very thing that I was burning and yearning to do myself.
Samantha Paris with first student Tom Applebaum
Then life, or should I say kismet, called me out of the blue and I picked up the phone. A man in his 30’s was looking for a voice acting teacher and my former husband Thom Pinto, also a voice actor, referred him to me. Thom believed that I would make, in his words, a wonderful teacher. It did not seem to matter to him that I did not have any teaching experience, possessing only a high school education, or the desire to teach whatsoever. I was only half-listening anyway because my mind was preoccupied with my busy voice acting career. When it came to voice acting, as with most things in my formative years, I was almost completely untaught and had created my own techniques out of sheer necessity, that mother of invention.
To paraphrase that funny malapropism, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”, I suggest that when you come to a fork in the road, see it for what it is. It’s a chance to grow and expand beyond your preordained ideas of your life. This surely was one of many pivotal moments in the story of my life, as told in my newly published book, “Finding the Bunny” (Voice Haven Productions, January 2018). I turned the right way in that road’s fork. Widening my perspective, I took on that one student, which eventually became two, then four, then twenty. Then, in the blink of an eye, I created the largest voice-over training academy in the United States. Now I have taught more than 10,000 aspiring and working voice actors, and I’ve learned so much about myself and this journey called life by helping other people realize their own truths, find their voices, and find their “bunnies”.
You may know that philosophical saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” In my case, the student appeared well before the teacher was ready. In hindsight, always conveniently provided after the fact, I finally understand the truth behind Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic, The King and I, when Anna speaks the words leading into her song, Getting to Know You: “It's a very ancient saying, But a true and honest thought, That if you become a teacher, By your pupils you'll be taught”. The good news for all of us is this: in business, in art, in relationships, and in life, we all can be teachers and we can be students in one form or another throughout our lifetime. There is so much to learn in life if we let ourselves be open to it. It gets even better when you make it your practice to find the bunny in all things.
"The good news for all of us is this: in business, in art, in relationships, and in life, we all can be teachers and we can be students in one form or another throughout our lifetime. There is so much to learn in life if we let ourselves be open to it. It gets even better when you make it your practice to find the bunny in all things."
Ironically, I’ve built a business helping people realize their dreams — while shelving my own as an actress — without any business training or experience. My gut instincts did the heavy lifting and my heart was the project foreman. Even so, putting aside my own acting career to play the role of “teacher” and “CEO” of Voicetrax San Francisco, created a slow-burning conflict within in me between my business and my own potential as a voice actress. Until finally, after two and a half decades, I took a sip of my own Kool-Aid and tasted the sweetness of self-acceptance and personal freedom, lessons that I had no problem teaching passionately and tirelessly to my students since day one!
So What’s Finding the Bunny?
I chose the metaphor of “Finding the Bunny” for the title of my memoir because to me, it’s the essential quest to find the hidden meaning in all things, where truth can be found. Whether it’s looking for the “bunny” in a voice-over script for toilet bowl cleansers, interpreting the nuance of an exchange between co-workers, or the subtle point of a complex story that you are watching, searching for the bunny will lead you to discover what it’s all about beyond the obvious. As I tell my students, when you hunt down the bunny in a script, you’ll surely find it. In every circumstance, when you make it your point to find the hidden bunny there’s an A-HA moment waiting for you. And you will be better off because of it.
I learned this technique from an unlikely place for an eight year-old. My older brother Larry, eleven at the time, was able to get his hands on a copy of Playboy Magazine. And having take out its’ centerfolds he had plastered Miss January through Miss December on his bedroom walls. Larry taught me that on the cover of the magazine there was always a small Playboy bunny hidden somewhere, with that recognizable logo of those big ears. Larry would test me to see if I could find it and I would spend what seemed like hours staring at the cover.
Samantha Paris with Voicetrax Student Maureen O'Donaghue (Photo Courtesy: Lisa Keating Photography)
The search for the bunny was captivating, but I loved it when I finally found one. So when I started to learn voice-over when I was fifteen years old I didn’t have a lot of life experience to use. Looking at my scripts back then and knowing I didn’t have a special voice, although possessing an extensive and essential imagination, I knew I had to try to see as much as I could in the copy. In other words, I was looking for the bunny.
This simple but profound idea formed the basis of my teaching philosophies, along with other guiding principles that were born out of necessity in my early life experiences. The beautiful truth for us all is that, whether we were nurtured and taught by others or had to figure things out for ourselves, we can always grow beyond our circumstances, transcend our stories and evolve— as long as our eyes, minds and hearts are open to it.
Interestingly, the art and craft of voice acting takes you down a road of self-discovery and self-acceptance, since truth and authenticity are the secrets to success in this field. It never ceases to amaze me how so many of my beloved students—whether they’re marketing executives, realtors, police officers, soccer moms, belly dancers, stay-at-home dads or moms, and much more—have told me that their voice acting training has transformed their lives in ways they could never imagine. I am humbled to know that they found their true selves through the process of finding their voices.
"The beautiful truth for us all is that whether we were nurtured and taught by others or had to figure things out for ourselves, we can always grow beyond our circumstances, transcend our stories and evolve— as long as our eyes, minds and hearts are open to it."
This fact transformed me. Today, I not only found my bunny but I hold her in my hands lovingly and cherish her. I am grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to give to others what I never had myself, and share the best of me to benefit the growth of another. The roles of teacher and entrepreneur, although accidentally assumed, are the best parts I’ve ever played.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.