How Sam Smith turned a disability into a winning weapon on The Traitors
He's worked in the Kiwi TV world for more than 10 years, and is well known in the industry for his roles as a writer and "audience warm-up guy" for shows such as 7 Days, The Project, Paddy Gower Has Issues and Taskmaster NZ. But comedian Sam Smith certainly wasn't a household name until his starring role in The Traitors NZ – and he was shocked when the reality show's producers came calling. "I thought they must want me to write some scripts or be a warm-up guy for something," he marvels. "It's so cool that I'm the main character in this show! But honestly, my game plan was just to survive and be alive in the world. My way of doing that was to fully commit to trusting everyone and being aware I was going to be manipulated." Sam's tactics clearly paid off, with the comedian splitting the $59,100 prize money with fellow winner Anna Reeve. It's an amount that's enabled him to build his own home office, where he's talking to Woman's Day, and move his and wife Meg's sons Charlie, eight, and Harry, five, into their own rooms. Sam, 38, jokes that eagle-eyed Instagram followers may have guessed he won Traitors from his recent trip to Europe, but he's pleased to report his jaunt to Germany and the UK was made possible by a grant for people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Sam was diagnosed with the chronic disease in 2015, while he was on paternity leave from his job as a dentist after Charlie's birth. "It was a tough time," he recalls. "My body wasn't working like it was meant to. I'd just become a dad, which was the greatest thing that ever happened to me – winning Traitors is third, after marrying my wife!" The first sign anything was wrong was losing sensation in his arm and leg. Then he lost feeling in both his hands, "which makes it very difficult to do dentistry work", laughs Sam. "For the next couple of months, I had to rediscover who I was. I had gone from being a childless dentist to a dad who had no job security." A couple of years later, Sam had another "MS attack". His foot would stop working and then go back to normal. "That's the version of MS I have – remitting relapsing. Then while being on this medication that lowered my immune system, I got a virus that affected my immune system and attacked my optic nerve, so that made me legally blind. "I use the term 'legally blind' because that's what people know, but the proper term is low vision or optic neuritis. That put the nail in the coffin so I couldn't go back to dentistry."
While the first few years after his diagnosis were tumultuous, Sam is now proud to be an ambassador for MS Auckland. When we talk, he's in the throes of organising his annual comedy fundraiser – on this Tuesday at Auckland comedy club The Classic, featuring Taskmaster's David Correos and Celebrity Treasure Island's Courtney Dawson – during MS Awareness Week. Determined not to let his MS get in the way of his Traitors experience, Sam made sure he was in the best shape of his life before starting the Three show. He explains, "When you have MS, the aim is to not get stressed, so I thought I'd go in ready for whatever comes my way, being at my peak physical strength. "I had to tell all the contestants about being a disabled person with MS and low vision, but it came with the added bonus of them feeling sorry for me. I think it shows how nice and supportive everyone in the cast was. "The person with MS and the person with alopecia [Anna] won the game – I would highly recommend that if you do have a disability, go on a reality TV show and use it as a weapon!"
Sam was delighted to share the prize money with Anna. "She had my back more than anyone. One of the greatest moments was having that chat with her where she told me about her alopecia." MS and alopecia are both autoimmune conditions, notes Sam. "So getting to the end together was really special". He talks to Anna every day still, but mostly just to say, "Can you believe we won Traitors?!" Sam's family has always been his greatest support. His wife Meg, 37, and their two boys wrote notes for him to read every morning while he was away. Sam tells, "I think the message from Harry on day four was just the word 'poo', which I very much enjoyed." He tried to keep his win a secret from his family, but he says, "When $30,000 appeared in my bank account, I kinda had to explain it to my wife."
Post-Traitors, Sam is busy writing children's books. Snake Brought Cake has been out for a while, but he has two more titles coming to shelves next year – Don't Scare The Dentist and the graphic novel Miles And Jones. He's also hosting a podcast called ReVision, which is about "great people doing great things in the blind/low vision community". Determined not to let his MS get in the way of him leading a normal life, he also boasts that he's back playing the guitar and still throwing his kids in the air. "I'm gonna keep doing it till I accidentally drop one!" But turning serious for a second, he concludes, "My goal is to make everyone in New Zealand aware of MS. New people who get MS can
be scared, but you shouldn't be scared of it. They should know that someone like me can have a pretty normal, functional life." And just sometimes they win thousands of dollars on reality TV! This week is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week. For more info or to donate, visit msnz.org.nz or msakl.org.nz