Former Oscars Exec Jeanell English and ‘RHOA’ Star Tanya Sam on New Publishing Company and Wanting to See ‘Return of Fun Shade’ in Housewives Franchise

What do you get when you pair a former Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences executive with a reality TV star?

Try “Elizabeth & Minnie,” an independent publishing company that wants to identify and amplify stories of Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latino, and MENA communities, particularly those involving women. The company is the brainchild of Jeanell English, the former executive vice president of impact and inclusion at the organization behind the Oscars, and Tanya Sam, a recurring cast member of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Its name derives from English’s great-grandmother Elizabeth and Tanya’s grandmother Minnie.

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“Going into this year, I was praying for partnership and thinking I was going to get married,” English recalls. “And then Tanya pops into my life, and I was like, ‘Is this the partnership I wanted?’”

At the Academy, which she left in 2023 while criticizing the organization for subjecting her to a “steady flux of micro-and macro-aggressions,” English led global initiatives designed to address underrepresentation and advance the work of emerging and diverse film artists. Though Sam may be best known for her TV work, she’s also a tech-savvy investor who has made it her mission to empower the next generation of minority entrepreneurs.

Before a mutual friend introduced the women, English was trying to reimagine the process of adapting books to screen. At the same time, Sam was building “Tanya Time Book Club,” an online community of readers. “Storytelling has always been a way for me to walk in others’ shoes,” Sam says.

However, the two partners had to overcome some preconceptions before joining forces.

“Jeanell will tell you, she judged me,” Sam says after it was suggested the two go into business. “A friend reminded us that our greatest strength is when Black women work together, not separately.”

English adds: “I was thinking, “Me? With a housewife?’ But, it really is a perfect match.”

Sam’s time on “Atlanta Housewives” was brief, appearing as a “friend” during seasons 11-13, but she still watches the well-known reality TV show. Recently, she has been following the firing of RHOA star Kenya Moore for allegedly sharing sexually explicit images of a fellow cast member, which violated the code of conduct.

When asked on Zoom if she believes what happened to Moore is karma, especially considering Moore’s rumors about Sam and her then-fiancé Paul Judge after leaving the series, the entrepreneur only offers a slight smirk followed by a long pause before responding: “I miss the days of seeing Luann fall into a bush. I’m here for the return of ‘fun shade.’ We have enough darkness in real life. Let’s bring fun back to television.”

Jeanell English and Tanya Sam
Jeanell English and Tanya Sam

Regarding “Elizabeth & Minnie,” its mission is to uplift those who have not been uplifted enough, drawing on a personal legacy of strong Black women behind its founders. The company’s name and logo are derived from English’s great-grandmother Elizabeth and Tanya’s grandmother Minnie, using both influential women’s handwritten signatures.

They also shared a belief that by changing the books that Hollywood adapts, they could fix a glaring problem in the industry. In the summer of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion grew louder, with media companies making public pledges to engage in strategic investments in underrepresented communities. Four years later, it’s unclear how much progress has been made. Like English, multiple DEI executives at companies like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery left their posts in recent months.

“I don’t think some of these organizations fully understood what they were hiring,” English says. “You ended up bringing in professionals whose job it was to question everything, the entire foundation and operation of your organization and institution, and that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

English departed the organization after growing frustrated with the Academy’s response to her work.  She hopes the group’s 10,000+ members will reexamine its commitment to diversity. “It’s important to really remind ourselves that actions reflect values,” she says. “If anything, I would say any change requires a lot of reflection… How do you take what you’ve learned and what you feel and redirect that in a way that has impact.”

That shaky commitment to diversity can be seen in the books that Hollywood turns into movies and shows. In 2023, 90 books were adapted into television and film Of those, more than 80% came from white authors, and 67% from men. The lack of representation for Black people, particularly Black women, demonstrated an underestimation of the growing diversity of book consumers and audiences.

At Elizabeth & Minnie, English and Sam are filling the gap. They’ve identified a diverse development slate of books, including a young adult sci-fi written by a Latina author and a murder mystery by a Black novelist. The company is also the official publisher of the 2024 Harlem Book Fair, where they are committing to signing two authors who bring their work to the New York staple.

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