The former Travel Channel host is back with a show of her own — and she didn't have to become “the next Anthony Bourdain” to get it.
As quick to crack a joke at her own expense while navigating a new place as she is to bond with a complete stranger on the other side of the world, Samantha Brown has been making travel look like pure fun for more than 15 years. But when the veteran host sat down to talk about her new show at a quaint Parisian cafe near her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on a chilly December afternoon in the midst of the holiday rush, the word that came up most often was “effort.”
“I draw upon what I really love about travel, which is simply getting to know the people on a more personal basis,” she says of “Samantha Brown's Places to Love,” premiering this Saturday on PBS. “Really understanding their effort that goes into creating the experiences that we as travelers get to be a part of, whether it’s the effort to create a meal that you eat at a restaurant, a piece of music you hear at a concert, a piece of art.”
The purpose, Brown says, is to “understand that when we’re a part of that cultural movement everyone wants to be a part of when they travel — go where the locals go, do what the locals do — what that really means is we want to be a part of the effort.”
And it isn't just the locals making an effort in the 13 destinations in the show’s first season. For “Places to Love,” Brown went far beyond the typical duties of a TV host: She’s the writer, the editor, and even the fundraiser.
Brown gives credit to her crew, to her husband for encouraging her to take on the challenge of self-funding a series for national public television, to the people behind the millions of dollars it took who saw a need for a female voice, and even to the Travel Channel for pushing her to change until she realized she didn’t want to be pushed anymore. But it’s clear that at its core, this new show is hers, and hers alone.
Brown says she aimed to veer away from an itinerary-based travelogue and create a “more intimate, more personal look at the emotional value of travel.” Maybe that’s because her career has put her through much more than the simple pleasures of eating gelato by the Pantheon or marveling at the Great Wall.
Since “Great Vacation Homes” premiered in 1999, Brown says being a woman in the travel entertainment industry has only gotten harder. Statistics show women travel more than men, yet there are few female faces of travel on TV. As Brown puts it, “it just doesn’t add up.” As we talk, I struggle to think of one female host other than Brown. Darley Newman, Kellee Edwards, and Megan McCormick hardly have the same name recognition as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, or Rick Steves — even though they also travel the world and share it with the rest of us.
“Television is very tough and I think the television world just feels like travel is the man’s space, that travel and adventure are for men,” Brown said, adding that at least today there are more potential opportunities for women online, where the audience decides who to watch. “And so they put men at the helm of those shows. [TV executives] don’t see a woman as that ... and that’s really surprising to me.”
About 10 years ago, Brown says, “I was even told, ‘Listen, we don’t want women anymore.’ Because at night, if there’s a couple — a man and a woman couple — the husband has control of the controller, and he doesn’t want to watch a woman travel. That was their thing; that’s what was passed down to me.”
In spite of this, Brown managed to maintain her optimistic on-screen persona. (Off-screen, she’s just as warm — our photographer had to request she try some photos without smiling.) But in talks with other networks, Brown said she was repeatedly asked one question: Would she “go negative?”
“Anthony Bourdain was everything. Everyone wanted the next Bourdain, and they wanted me to be the next, kind of, off the cuff, too cool for school [host],” she said. “I love Anthony Bourdain, but we’re very different. And the reason why Anthony Bourdain is amazing is because he is who he is. He’s very authentic. And so everyone asked me, can you be more like him? I just said I can’t, so I’m not going to do this show.”
Ironically, Bourdain himself, at a party “many, many years ago,” gave Brown advice that helped her come back stronger after parting ways with the channel that launched her career.
“I was kind of commenting on the fact that he got to do all these great things and I’m like, ‘They’d never let me do that, they always make me do this,’ and he said, ‘You don’t ever have to do anything you don’t want to do.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s you’ ... and now that’s me, and he’s right. You don’t ever have to do anything you don’t want to do. That’s always stayed with me because he had such confidence, and it took me another 10 years to get there.”
Though she admits she once doubted if she’d ever be a TV host again, at 47, Brown is finally doing what she wants to do: using the power of travel to tell stories that resonate across borders.
“Places to Love” starts out in Houston, Texas, before moving on to Huntsville, Alabama; Gowanus, Brooklyn; Xi’an, China; and Donegal, Ireland, among other cities big and small, domestic and international. “We wanted to really show these up-and-coming places that don’t get any credit for being travel-worthy,” she said.
Reconnecting with the people they had filmed in Houston after Hurricane Harvey was an especially meaningful experience, and one Brown deliberately chose to open the series with. “We had to go back to everyone we were with and say, ‘Are you OK? Because we’re about to show this show and we want to make sure that when people see how wonderful you are, you’re still up and running.’”
“What we found was just ... this phoenix rising,” she said. “We’re really proud of that episode. The stories there are unbelievable.”
In this way, the premiere episode is sort of a microcosm of the series’ main message: that travel is a fresh beginning, a way to see the good in the world in spite of what you’ve been through or what you see in the news.
“We’re all on this journey to understand ourselves, and to be better than we thought, and nothing gives us that opportunity like travel,” Brown said. “You’re not in your controlled space, you’re not in the known world where you think you can predict what happens next, you know you’re out in the open and it allows you to think very differently, it allows us to be a different person, and that acceptance of meeting other people, and allowing them to affect you ... I feel like is what this world needs a heck of a lot more of.”