Tami Smith: Eye for talent, heart to help

IN PERSON

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Tami Smith, president of Nova Model and Talent Scouts, is the national director for the World Championships of Performing Arts in the United States and Canada.

COEUR d'ALENE - As national director of World Championships of Performing Arts, Tami Smith, to put it mildly, is a busy woman.

Add in that she's a motivational speaker, a personal coach, the president of Nova Talent and Talent Scout in Coeur d'Alene, a wife and mother of two, Smith has more to handle than most.

She does so, very well. And she pulls it off with a lifestyle of high energy, exercise, enthusiasm, discipline and community involvement.

"I fly all over the world. I still make dinner every night and sit down with my family," she said.

Smith oversees 60 performing arts schools, and owns 12, around the country. Since she opened Nova nearly seven years ago at her home - since expanded to a building on Lakeside Avenue - she has worked with thousands of kids and adults, honing their talents, whether singing, dancing or modeling, and building their confidence.

She recently returned from Hollywood, Calif., where her clients competed in the 14th annual World Championships of Performing Arts, and earned numerous awards and titles, and she won the Outstanding National Director award.

But Smith, a survivor of a head-on crash in 1994 that nearly killed her, repeatedly comes back to the point that it's not about her, but her staff and students.

"I love helping people," she said. "I love helping people live their dreams."

•••

What is your role with World Championships of Performing Arts?

I'm the national director for the United States and Canada of the World Championships of the Performing Arts, which is formulated to look exactly like the athletic Olympics, only as performing arts. There's instrumental, there's dance, there's acting, there is vocal, there is vocal group, there is vocal with self-accompaniment like guitar players.

We oversee 50 states and 10 provinces of Canada, right from Coeur d'Alene.

How important is the World Championship of Performing Arts to you?

This event is the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life. The Olympics, wouldn't it be awesome to have a kid in the Olympics?

What kind of a commitment do the kids need to make to be there?

We do everything on bare bones. But these kids have to get there. They have to stay there for nine days. They have an Olympic village just like the Olympics. They stay there with their families. When a kid puts on a Unites States of America uniform and they wear it there, it changes them for the rest of their lives.

How does the talent from this region stack up?

The long and the short is, our talent and what grows up here seems to do the absolute best. There's over $150,000 in scholarships given out at the event. This year alone, one gentleman from this area, and he actually moved here from Montana to train with us because we're the official Team USA Training Center, he won male model of the entire world. He used his actual college money to go to this event. And he won a college scholarship, he won a New York conservatory for film and television scholarship and he won a dance scholarship to the Millennium dance academy in L.A.

A singing group, the Broadway Babes, they're actually from the Tri-Cities but came here for their training, they won vocal group of the world. We had a student named Isaiah, and he won instrumentalist of the entire world. He also won dancer of the entire world. He also won a dance scholarship. We have a little girl I scouted in New Jersey, we trained her out of here via online, and then I trained her parents, because if you're going to have a child in this business, you're going to need to know how to do this, and she won vocalist of the world and she won world champion junior performer for the entire world. She beat out every kid from all over the world for the title.

We had kids in every single category of the finals, which was cast live. This was their first year Web casting it. They are now shopping it to the networks so they can put it on television. They have signed a contract where they're going to do a documentary on my life and show what I've done and how I've done it and how I've been able to run it from Coeur d'Alene. They think of Idaho, they think of potatoes.

How did you get in this business?

I started in the business as a kid. I grew up in Rockford, Ill., outside Chicago. I took dance and I took gymnastics and I took acting and I started modeling.

Is this something your parents wanted you to do?

No. My parents didn't want me to get into it at all. Matter of fact, my parents didn't support it and my father didn't even see me in a play until I was a freshman in college. And I wrote most of the shows when I was in middle school and high school. My dad always wanted me to sell insurance. I'm a little colorful. I like the arts. I like fashion, so I started modeling as a kid, can you believe it with my short height and stature? I kept getting more jobs. I was a gymnast competitively and a cheerleader. I went on to cheer semi-pro football. Then I landed the job of a lifetime in Georgia, I became a celebrity stylist. I dressed the anchor people for CNN. I dressed Morgan Fairchild, I dressed Bob Hope's wife, the Mandrell sisters. My career kept going.

I worked with improv groups in my teens and 20s. I did theater, I studied theater and improv. I can't sing, it's hard to do theater when you can't sing. I can dance and I can act.

I always thought I could direct better than taking directions. Like a lot of people, I don't like being told what to do. So I started working behind the scenes. I ended up back in Chicago for years after being in Atlanta for eight years. I ended up in L.A. for a couple years, I was a personal stylist out there. My career, it was like the old saying, being in the right place at the right time, just kept happening for me. I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. And I've always loved people.

What do you tell folks who come to you?

The very first thing I do with every kid and every parent when they come in here is I ask them what's their mission out of this. What are they trying to get. As a parent, if it's your dream, it's not going to work for a kid. And I'm not going to do that. If this is something a kid wants to do, we will find money. I've trained kids for as little as $5 a week in here because that's all that family can afford.

But I've got to pay the coaches. I've got to turn the lights on. But money is not what drives me at all. I love the arts. I love people. And I just want to give it to everyone. I can't tell you how many kids out there are hurting because their parents aren't even involved in their life anymore.

Are you involved with your students outside Nova?

Do you know I make the kids keep their rooms clean? I send a note to parents. And they turn their report cards in to me. Education is first. If they're not getting a B average, then I don't want them in the arts program, and I will put their stuff on hold and let them come back, or get them a tutor. Education is everything to me. You don't get to come here and try and be an actor and get Ds in school. But 99 percent of the kids, their grades come up because it builds their self-confidence.

How did you start Nova?

I used to be vice president of Barbizon, the largest modeling school in the world. When I left Barbizon I started Nova. Literally, I was sitting in Lake City Community Church listening to some missionaries that were here talking about making films and how they were going to other countries and reaching people for God through these films. I'm sitting there listening to them and I'm thinking, 'My gosh, I could go all over the world and reach kids through the arts and I got this whole vision in my head about Nova.'

I didn't know how I was going to get the money to do it, we just bought a new house and I just went home and I really prayed about it. I talked to my husband, he worked at Wells Fargo, he was a banker, and I said, 'God told me to quit my job.' And he said, 'Well, God didn't tell me that.' I said, 'I'm telling you right now as plain as I'm sitting here, I know I'm supposed to quit my job.' I said I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I know I'm going to do it. I have this entire vision of what I'm going to do. We're going to start a talent scouting agency and we're going to scout talent all over the world.

How did it go in the early years?

I started as a talent scouting agency called Nova Model and Talent Scout Incorporated. I scouted talent and within the first year I went from having six clients to 25. Talent managers and agents would have me go scout talent for them. World Championships started courting me, and they said, 'We want you to be our national director.' I said, 'I don't know what a national director does.' What's a national director? I'm a talent person.

They flew me in, they showed me their event. I literally sat down and cried when I was there. It was everything my heart is. I love the arts and I like peace and harmony. The world needs to be united and forget who your god is and their god is. Everybody is fighting over this stuff.

I saw all these countries singing and dancing and they don't even speak the same language. I knew it was right where I was supposed to be. I said, 'I'll do it.'

I was to oversee all 50 states, and in two years, they gave me Canada. Within two years of Nova, my husband was able to leave his career of 25 years, he worked at Panhandle Area Council and he was at Wells Fargo as a business banker, and then he came to work with me and the company grew to where we had six full-time employees in our house in Coeur d'Alene.

When did you move into this Lakeside building?

We've been here now three years. We really took a step in faith to get this building, because we didn't know how we were going to financially afford it.

How young of kids and how old of adults do you work with?

We work with infants, too, because one of the things we do is raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation. We do a calendar every year with babies and kids and the money that comes from it, 60 percent of it, goes to Make a Wish. The other percentage goes to making the calendar. We work with infants to 70-, 80-year-olds. I've got a 78-year-old tap dancer.

How many kids have you worked with?

Oh, thousands. I audition 12,000 to 15,000 kids a year.

What do you look for in a kid who comes to you?

What I look for is a heart and a passion. It's the same as a sport. If you're a football player or a baseball player, if you don't have the passion for the sport, you will not go out there and catch and practice and bat and go to the batting cages. You'll just show up to practice and play and you're mediocre. I'm not looking for that kid.

There's two different kinds of kids here. World championships, you've got to be great. This is not the place that every kid gets picked. You're competing on behalf of the country with the top performers of the world.

The performing arts school here, we teach everything from dance to every instrument from saxophone, drums, piano, vocal, we teach private and group. Even creative writing. All of our coaches are industry professionals. Any kid can come and try it. That's why I make it affordable. I do the pricing on a sliding scale. If they can't afford it, I'm going to find a way for them to afford it as a family. Whatever I can do to help them, that's what I'm going to do.

What are the chances of a kid landing a career in entertainment?

I'm more about building the child from within and self-confidence. I don't ever promise any kid a career in this business. I would never tell a kid, 'You're going to be a movie star.' Do I know the people who could help their career? Yes. Do I ever tell a parent if their kid comes here, they're going to be a movie star? No. One percent of the people that go in the business are the ones that work. It's not because they can't. It's because they don't persevere.

The thing that's cool about the business today, character actors. They're making people look more like everyday people. But it's work. Kids come in with stars in their eyes. That's not the kid I'm looking for anyway. If they're not here to really learn, then they shouldn't be here. Unless the parent wants me to work with the child's self-development. There's two different things going on here. The world championship and the performing arts school.

What about just making a living?

You can make a living in the business and not be a movie star. Have you ever seen the Progressive Insurance ad lady? That lady is making a killing, but nobody knows her name. Do you know her name? I don't know her name either. But she and her agency are making some money because she's everywhere. She's on TV, she's on the Internet, she's in magazines, everywhere you go, there she is with her big red lips. That is realistic.

How is it operating a talent agency out of Coeur d'Alene instead of Hollywood?

It's fabulous. You don't get caught up in the garbage. You go outside and you look out on the lake, it's much more relaxing. You don't get caught up in anything superficial. The people I work with in L.A. and Seattle and New York are just like you and me. They're moms and dads.

Is this still a fun business for you?

I'm more exited. I love these kids. It's all about these kids to me. I'm getting ready to start a nonprofit just so I can help more families. I honestly don't care about the money.

Family: Husband, Kurt, one son, Kole and one daughter, Kristen

Number of hours on average you work in a week: 60

Number of hours on average you sleep in a night: 4-5

Hobbies: Fishing, cooking, skiing at Schweitzer Mountain

Favorite movie: "Gone with the Wind"

Favorite book: The Bible

Favorite type of music: Classic rock

Favorite spectator sport: Basketball

Best advice you ever received: Listen to your gut

Quality you admire most in a person: Honesty

Any one thing you consider your greatest accomplishment: Being a mom and wife

Person who most influenced your life: My mom and dad. My mother gave me the confidence to go out with my dreams and try anything without fear. Trying isn't failing, as long as you do your best. My dad raised me to be a boy, that's why I'm good in sports and good in business.

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