Quiet On Set’s Giovonnie Samuels Finds Light After Enduring Dark Side Of Kids TV

Giovonnie Samuels is doing laundry when we hop on our Zoom call. What she doesn’t know is that I’ve got clothes spinning around in my dryer as well. We’re both doing a task so ordinary on a random Wednesday afternoon that it immediately reinforces why young Black girls rushed home to watch her on Nickelodeon hit series All That — she’s just like us.

The late-night kid-friendly sketch comedy show, that ran from 1994 to 2005, first introduced us to Samuels as a vibrant and charismatic star with a great sense of comedic timing. She’d jump from Dr. Botch, an unserious ER physician trying to save the life of a teddy bear, to naive-but-quirky Gail, the Black BFF in Bridgette’s Slumber Party skit seamlessly, eliciting laughter from more than just the laugh track.

All That appeared on Nick’s more mature programming SNICK, which tackled controversial commentary and pop culture for teenagers. Though Samuels joined as a season regular in later years, the moment she stepped on set alongside Lori Beth Denberg, Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, Bryan Hearne, and Amanda Bynes, she was known as The Token Black Girl —  the one who bore the unfair responsibility to represent all of us. “It’s not right or fair that I had to bear all that burden,” she says. “But that’s the way the system is built.”

Despite the utopia young viewers may have imagined it was to get paid to laugh and joke with your friends, the recent premiere of the scathing documentary Quiet on Set: The Dark Side Of Kids TV revealed that there were much more toxic, sinister happenings behind the bright lights. The five-part documentary details the alleged mistreatment and sexual abuse of child actors on children’s shows produced by Dan Schneider at Nickelodeon during the turn of the millennium. Along with the claims about Scheider’s misconduct, the doc explains the horrifying specifics of former Drake & Josh star Drake Bell’s alleged sexual abuse by Brian Peck, a dialogue coach (Peck was later convicted of lewd acts with a minor).

Since the allegations, Thompson, now a Saturday Night Live history-maker, appeared on The Tamron Hall Show to break his silence on the matter, calling for more investigation into the allegations and sending his support to the victims. “I wasn’t really aware of a lot of it but my heart goes out to anybody that’s been victimized or their families,” he told Hall. “I think it’s a good thing that the doc is out and it’s putting things on display, you know, stories that need to be told, for accountability’s sake.”

In episode two, Samuels tells her own stories around uncomfortable skits and jokes she endured hesitantly in order to keep her job. She was also well aware that her white co-stars were favored, which, as she looks back, was a blessing in disguise. “[God] definitely protected me on set while I was in the room with the predators.”

After a daunting experience in an industry where child stars often struggle to transition into adulthood, Samuels exited All That and went on to star in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Bring It On: All or Nothing, That’s So Raven, and Freedom Writers. While she’s still working as an actress and producer, she also teaches acting workshops and is looking forward to launching a new podcast, The Tokens, that she hopes will spark change. 

Below, Samuels talks about life after Quiet on Set, how she survived tokenism, and why she wants to tell more of her story through The Tokens

I didn’t want to be blacklisted… And part of me felt like, if I do this, I’m not going to be able to work again.

giovonnie samuels

Unbothered: So many young Black girls grew up watching you on shows like All That. So, let’s dive in. How has life been since the documentary came out?

Giovonnie Samuels: It’s been a whirlwind of emotions honestly. I was hesitant about doing the documentary at first because I didn’t know how people were going to respond, but ultimately, it’s been very positive and supportive. I’m receiving the flowers and understanding the impact now. Until now, I didn’t realize how much or how important it was representing Black people, because for me, [All That] was a cool summer job where I get to live out my dream, then I went back home like nothing happened.

Outside of the initial hesitation to do the documentary, what was going through your mind having to revisit that time?

GS: I didn’t want to be blacklisted. It’s very easy for Black people, let alone Black women, to be labeled something they’re not. And part of me felt like, if I do this, I’m not going to be able to work again. I had all of those thoughts. But the truth has to come out, and God has always been protecting me throughout my entire career so I felt like it was time. 

Since the doc has come out, there’s been conversation around whether or not your fellow castmates or other child stars from Nickelodeon should speak out now that these allegations are out there. Do you feel like they should?

GS: Should Amanda Bynes or Ariana Grande speak up? No. It’s completely their choice. It’s their story to tell. And they probably don’t wanna go back, and that’s completely okay. They’re gonna talk when they’re ready. And personally, leave them alone, because they don’t owe you anything. 

People don’t understand how retraumatizing it can be to revisit something like this. 

GS: The spotlight is being thrown back on you, and you don’t know how people are going to respond. And with social media now, it’s in real-time, so the tides can turn very easily. People are with you one day and against you the next.

This documentary highlighted how dangerous environments become when power and privilege go unchecked. Do you feel that’s the case in the industry today? Or do you feel the industry is getting better in any way?

GS: There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t put into the documentary, especially my story, which is why I’m doing a podcast called The Tokens, where I’m going to continue that conversation. The things I experienced being the token Black girl on set are still happening today — the microaggressions, unequal pay, and stereotypical things that happen within scripts. Having to be that advocate, that voice, that representation comes with a lot of responsibility. On one side of the coin, I was representing all of us. But on the other side, how can I do me? 

Will more of your story be shown in the upcoming fifth episode that was just announced? 

GS: I don’t know how much I’m allowed to speak on it, but it will be airing on April 7.

Having to be that advocate, that voice, that representation comes with a lot of responsibility. On one side of the coin, I was representing all of us. But on the other side, how can I do me? 

giovonnie samuels

In the parts of your story that did air, it’s obvious how deeply affected you were by tokenism. Having to represent the entire Black community restricted you in many ways emotionally and can take a toll on your mental health and well-being. Post-Nickelodeon, how did you work through those insecurities and traumas?

GS: Therapy, God, my family, building a life outside of the industry, and gaining a sense of purpose for myself. When you’re a child actor, you’re spending your developmental years pretending to be somebody else. You don’t get the time or the space to do that, to live a life. And that’s why a lot of them end up rebelling or going to drugs or having really bad depression or stints with the law because they don’t have a sense of identity. They have a sense of a character. With people and fans or whatnot, they expect you to be that character as soon as you step outside the house. There’s no space or time to just exist. And I’m thankful for being able to just step away for a little bit. I’m very private with my personal life, but I’m married and I have a son, and nobody knew for a long time, but this is what anchors me. So I protect that at all costs. 

Tell me about your upcoming podcast that’s coming this summer and what listeners should expect. 

GS: This industry is small, Black Hollywood is smaller, and young Black Hollywood is even smaller. Before Quiet on Set came out, these were the conversations we had with each other, and fans will finally hear our stories that aren’t being highlighted. The podcast also makes this conversation a little bit more public, so that it can affect change within the industry. Week to week, I’ll have different Black tokens in the entertainment industry in front and behind the camera. Arlen Escarpeta has agreed to come on, Andrea Lewis from Degrassi, and Trina McGee from Boy Meets World. These conversations are commonplace for us, but I felt that our listeners, or people who support us, should kind of be a fly on the wall and hear what we’ve had to deal with and endure. 

What advice would you give Black women and girls who find themselves to be the token in their circle or one of very few? How should they navigate these situations?

GS: They should know that what makes us Black people beautiful is that you can’t put us in the box. All of us are different. Back then, I was going against the grain by being the third person in Nickelodeon history to have locs. So it’s more than okay to stand toes down, chin up and be proud. I didn’t understand or realize the impact I had on several people’s lives, especially young Black girls that come up to me like, ‘You made me celebrate my natural hair. You made me feel like it was more than okay to be thick and have full lips.’ I opened the door and made it okay for everyone else to come through, and I’m okay with that. If you are the one of one, walk proudly. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it sucks sometimes. Yes, it is lonely. But you will find your tribe.

Reaffirming Black women and young Black stars in all-white spaces is so important because tokenism does infect so many parts of their lives, from their hair to their lips to their complexion. Besides the podcast, did your experience on set at Nick also motivate you to become an acting coach?

GS: Yes, I was touring around the country teaching acting classes, and I didn’t like how people were getting scammed, especially us. This is one of those industries where you have to learn on the job, and people don’t know set etiquette or what to look out for, so I wrote a book, All That You Need To Know About Show Business. Eventually, I’m going to expand upon it because everybody can’t afford classes, but they need something.

What’s next for you? 

GS: I have two projects, one with my friend Marcus London Hall that I executive produce and star in called Good Judys. That’s hit the film festival circuit. And this new project that I did in January called The OG Bootcamp that I’m really excited about. So I’m still working. I may not be in front of the camera as much, but I figure the only way to get our stories, or even for me to get back in front of the camera, is I gotta produce my own stuff.

But purely speaking for myself, I’m just thankful. I am thankful for my career. I am thankful for the support. I am thankful for people giving me my flowers and recognizing me. And I’m thankful that I have been able to speak up and to do the next thing to help the next generation of child actors be protected on set. My main reasoning for doing all of it is so that what I went through doesn’t happen again.

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