In the final round of VH1’s Scream Queens, three female contestants stood side-by-side-by-side. The stakes are huge: A role in the movie Saw VI, a quasi-billion dollar horror movie series. The vitals of the three contestants are stark but bound by one factor: their affinity for acting. Two of the contestants had stage experience and were 22 and 24, respectively; both received formal training. The other contestant was a movie aficionado and a theater autodidact. She was 28 years-old. To add further insult, she was of a certain demographic that doesn’t show up in abundance in the horror genre.

Yet the underdog came out on top. Some would consider this unfair and a result of politics, while others would say it’s inspirational. For those who saw (pardon the pun) the reality show, few would doubt that the right person won (except maybe the friends and family of the eliminated contestants). It is an inspirational story indeed, but a story that contains more depth than the simple “if she can do it, you can do it too” spiel.

To understand Tanedra Howard’s tears at the announcement of her win is to imagine yourself in a position of want for so long that it becomes an obsession. It is to wish for something but knowing that you don’t have the resources to make it happen. It is knowing that for you to capture your dream [fill in the blank here], you will need some help and quite frankly, you’re just not sure if anyone wants to help you that much.

Acting was the first thing she thought about upon waking up and the last thing she thought about before going to sleep. She couldn’t normally look at television; for her it was a potent mixture of agony and enjoyment. The strength of regret was a persistent bug that had to be stomped, and Howard knew it.

“It kept tapping on my shoulder. It never went away. I just always felt that pull. It kept eating at me in my heart and in my spirit,” Howard said. “My mom told me ‘I can’t afford it’ so she put me through cheerleading and dancing and all that growing up, but that acting bug kept biting me.”

Consider her win a pivotal moment in the extermination process. Howard, born and raised in Inglewood, California, now awaits instructions from Lionsgate on where to report for her first day of filming. In the meantime, there’s still work at Hooters (“I still got to pay the bills,” she laughs.), fan mail (“People have actually dedicated YouTube pages to me. That’s so crazy!”) and the emergence of long lost family members (“I have definitely discovered family that I never knew I had. They have definitely come out of the woodwork.”). Howard doesn’t seem to be affected by her newfound popularity, as indicated by her frequent responses to her VH1 page and her approachability.

“I still haven’t gotten used to people knowing me. I’m walking or riding the train to work and hear somebody yelling ‘HEY TANEDRA!’ and I’m like ‘Who the heck is that?’” laughs Howard. “People come up and tell me that I’m an inspiration to them. People see themselves in me and that’s awesome. I still don’t have any training and my resume looks like crap and for me to be in a position where people draw hope from is awesome.”

Scream Queens
started off with ten actresses in Los Angeles. Each week, one person was sent home. Howard shared quarters with women who all shared a fierce desire to streamline their lives with Hollywood.

“Being on that show was definitely a learning experience, especially because it shook me out of my element,” Howard intimated. “The level of competition from different people of different backgrounds provided an interesting experience. I don’t think I experienced anything bad in that house. Maybe a little loneliness, particularly because I was the only black girl and I would say things and people would look at me like ‘Huh?’. But I would bring these things on myself. Nobody else acted differently towards me or said anything about my lack of experience or that I was a token [black], it was me who would say these things to myself.”

The inevitable racial connotations rang loud in message forums and everyday discourse from people who watched the show. Howard wanted to squelch that fire; she even set out to set the record straight herself on a VH1 message board. Whether it did what she intended for it to do is unknown, but Howard knows her value regardless.

“To me it did seem like I was a fly in milk and that I had to prove myself twice as much,” Howard reflects. “But I realized that they put me on the show because I was talented, not because they needed one. I’ve been saying that a lot but that is so true.”

On The Road To Queen

Growing up, monetary shortcomings wasn’t the only thing that hindered Howard’s foray into the world of acting.

“I really did have low self-esteem growing up,” she said, “so the thought of whether I was pretty enough was a factor. Who would want to see me? But once I got older and put myself out there… I overcame that.”

While working as a Hooters waitress, Howard began auditioning for bit parts in plays around town. As parts were granted, her confidence soared. This early taste of success was exactly what she needed before coming across her biggest test: a chance to garner a spot on VH1’s newest reality show.

“My roommate told me about the casting for Scream Queens. We both went out there to audition,” Howard said. “I guess I ended up doing something right because they called me back for another three readings. Then they called me back and told me to bring my clothes to the hotel so they could check for logos and things of that sort. So I went and then they told me, ‘Hold up, you can’t go back. You’re sequestered.’ So they sent me to the house with the other girls and that was when it started for me. Everything happened so fast.”

Howard’s life scope isn’t confined to Hollywood. She talks as endlessly about her zeal for initiating eclectic programs for the children in her neighborhood as she does about her career goals. It took 28 years for the world to know her name, but this stage has been set many times in her mind. As a child, she watched television and movies like any of us. But unlike most of us, she trained herself to memorize lines and act them out, a la Eddie Murphy and many other actors. Harlem Nights, interestingly, was the second movie that she ever memorized. The first? Little Shop of Horrors, which isn’t to say that it’s an ironic precedent to Saw VI, but to emphasize how much humor life has at times.

Her tears at the sound of victory wasn’t merely for thrill of victory. It was a summation of her life’s desires, bared for the world to see. If anything, Howard’s tale proves that society largely determines who is going to be successful. The Horatio Alger pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap story of self-efficacy rings loud and proud in the American fabric, but it is largely wrong and incomplete. Nobody is anybody without somebody’s love and support. Terms such as will, persistence, talent and strength of character are all results of environmental stimulus and thus subordinates itself to the strength of the community around it.

It was Howard’s raw talent and honed passion that propelled her to stand as the Scream Queens‘ final person, but it was the support of her family that made it possible. Mama chipped in with bill payments. Cousin paid car notes. Grandma paid the rent. Prayers were sent and assurances were given: We got you at home, you go pursue your dream. Tanedra finally received the message loud and clear. It was time to move on with it.

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