Name: Sandy Tejada
Claim To Fame: Tejada can be seen smiling down at passersby from the side of the Barclays Center. She has also been featured in major campaigns for L’Oreal, Mary Kay, Calvin Klien, Lancome, JimmyJazz, Goya, American Express, and Walmart. Recently starred in the movie Angelfish where her background as a Dominican teenager in Queens brought “authenticity,” to her character.
Before it was popular to convert one’s living room into a full fledged photography studio, Sandy Tejada’s mother was ahead of the game. She would routinely pose her children in her Queens living room, even bringing in props like roses to make sure she got the perfect shot with an eighties style camera. “My mother loved taking pictures of us,” Tejada told HelloBeautiful. “She would like, clear out the couches to make a plain wall like a studio.”
The amateur photographer wasn’t the only creative in the house. She routinely entertained her mother by imitating the children on the telenovelas they taped weekly like Luz Clarita and SabadoGigante. She knew she wanted to be one of them but there were few avenues for learning how that wouldn’t ruin their family’s finances.
“Since we couldn’t afford expensive classes at that time I’d learn dance, modeling, and acting from playing back these videos.”
She worked hard to add her “own little twist” on her performances. “I’ve always had like this big personality where I made people laugh,” she said. Her mother constantly encouraged their efforts. “She would always cheer me on. She was like my biggest number one fan,” she said. Years later as she raced from one casting to another she would use those moments to steady her because her mother was stolen from her, forcing Tejada to become her own support system.
“My mom passed tragically, when I was 14,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here doing this right now. Had she not passed away. She kind of gave me the strength to continue to chase my dreams.”
Dream chasing wasn’t easy for Tejada but the hustle offered a welcome break from her day to day. She sank herself into the characters before every audition allowing herself to get carried away in their fictional journeys. It didn’t matter what was happening at home in her mother’s absence every time that she had the attention of a casting director she could decide who she wanted to be for the next three takes.
“I love doing what I do is because I get to escape from, you know, my dysfunctional life and then be on set,” she said.
By her 16th birthday she was financing her pursuits by bartending under the table at various New York hotspots. “When I turned 18 I did a music video for Moby at Webster hall, and then I met the owner and the owner offered me a job and that I was working there, started off at Webster Hall.”
She invested every dollar she earned into her career. “I spent all my money while all the other kids were buying toys and materialistic items and you know, sneakers and clothing, what I would do is if I had $500 saved up, I would go to an agency in Long Island.”
It wasn’t always easy for her to stand out. “I started out as trying to be America’s Next Top Model. I auditioned, I’ve camped out for that show, I traveled to Boston and California, and I camped out. I slept outside waiting for this big opportunity to be on the show because I wanted to be a fashion model and I made it to the second part of the casting and then when they measured me, I wasn’t 5’7 I’m, 5’6 ½. So I was thinking this whole time for so many years, I wasted so much time pursuing a career in fashion.”
“Everybody’s story is different. You can be lucky walking down the street. I used to walk around in heels. I’m going to my castings in heels thinking I was going to get discovered on the train or in the streets of New York. And my feet would hurt. And I didn’t care. I was like, I’m going to get discovered as a model,” she said.
“That doesn’t happen to everyone because you hear people’s stories and you’re like, okay, I’m going to have a similar situation and there’s going to be a miracle and I’m not going to have to work for anything to know.”
She scoured casting calls on Backstage.com constantly. Before every casting she found a way to connect with the character. When she was working with Walmart she wasn’t the “girl in the commercial,” she was a young mom with her family. When was in an ad for American Express she transformed into someone enjoying an experience they made possible. In industrial ads she was a teacher who had been in the union for years trying to get through to her students and community. She connected to personal nostalgia to bring it for Mary Kay on a remote shoot she self-taped.
“Mary Kay is crazy because it was the first makeup brands that I used when I was a kid that my mother loved. So they would come here and they would sell us products and they would teach us how to wash our faces. And yeah, it brings up a lot of childhood memories.”
“You have to do your research and create,” she added.
She wants the dozens of young people who message her everyday to know they might have to do the same. “This was blood, sweat, and tears of me sacrificing a whole lot to be here,” she said. “I definitely want to teach maybe workshops and teach people the hustle because my DMS are blown up.”
Tejada experienced far worse than being told she was too short so she didn’t focus on the rejection.
“You can’t let the lows make you want to quit. You gotta keep going.’Cause that’s part of the dream,” she said.
She pivoted and found another way to make her dreams come true. She continued to pitch herself in New York losing a significant amount to shady scams on her journey.
“Everyone says they have a quick solution and there is no quick solution. You have to keep working,” she said.
She spent money on photo shoots and transportation. “People think I’m like rich and I’m like, oh my God, you don’t have no, you know, how much money it takes to just to run around the city four or five times, change your outfit four, five times a day, going from East to West, to downtown, to uptown,” she said. “Sometimes you have to take a lot at Ubers because you’re running on a tight schedule.”
“You know, you have to respect your appointments. You know showing up on time is late. You gotta be there 15 minutes prior to your call time, you know, and respecting their time. Don’t show up an hour early. Don’t show up late, but show up maybe 15 minutes earlier than your call time. So yeah, it’s a real big expense,” she said.
Tejada also invested in her education. She supplemented her Presidential Scholarship with the money she made in nightlife. “My mother was big on education. I always tell people, get your education first, go to college, get your degree in something so that you can have a backup plan. Um, you know, it’s always good to have. I always tell kids, prioritize your education first because with this business, you don’t know if you’re gonna, when you’re going, when your next job is going to be, you don’t know when you’re going to work next,” she said,
“I’ve been bartending for over a decade,” she added.” “That’s how I have been able to go to school, graduate, build my career, and work for free. You have to work for free. When you first started as a model or an actor you need to build your resume. You need to build your connections to get in an agency. If you don’t have anything on your resume, you need to invest in pictures. You need to invest in headshots. You need to have a portfolio. You need to be willing to work for free. You need to invest in classes, workshops, meetings,” she said.
She described the other forms of unpaid labor models do in exchange for a chance at opportunities. “You’re huffing and puffing. You’re going to all these castings. You go to callbacks, you finally get a booking when you get that booking, guess what you’re doing on your lunch break. And every time you have a little break is answering emails for the following future bookings or the following day for the following a self-tape that you have to do.”
“I went to school for film and broadcasting, I minored in it. And then afterwards I learned the business through Googling trial and error, doing my research, seeing what works for me,” she continued.
She expanded her education by diversifying her skillset. She headed to her local camera shop whenever she had a free moment. “I would play with all their cameras, the lighting, I would buy used equipment. I would ask questions. I spent maybe a thousand hours,” she said. Over the years she acquired every tool she needed. “I have a professional photography and video studio in my apartment.”
Her life is filled with other dreamers she would meet in the endless string of waiting rooms lining her path to success. “I’m on set with a pretend family for the day, which ends up becoming a real family in real life.” They’d share information about opportunities and celebrate one another. “It’s a bond that you create on set and it just lives on because of social media,” she said. “You have to have your community and your neighbors and everyone around you supporting you to uplift you.”
“I’ve invested my entire life in this. I’ve been in situations where I’m out on a date or something, we’re out with friends and I literally get a text message or an email,” she continued. “The people that are in my circle are in my life, understand that, you know my career comes first. If I can’t make your birthday party, man, I’ll make it up up to you next month. And they don’t get mad at me. And vice versa.”
“Those are the types of people that I keep in my circle, the positive ones, the ones that are out there hustling, chasing dreams,” she added.
Seeing her hustle paid off filled her up. “When you book that one job it’s a blessing, but when you actually see your work and you see the final product where you see like the campaign in a billboard, I mean, that’s like the best feeling, the best adrenaline rush, the best high that you want to chase for the rest of your life,” she said. “I feel so honored and blessed to even see my work because it’s, it’s a blessing to book the job out of, like, let’s say 100, 200 people that look like you,” she said.
Until she can get the opportunity to create jobs she looks for ways to help her competition which included many of her doppelgängers all competing limited work. “People that I even knew or knew that were in the same business, didn’t give me a hand and now I give everyone a hand,” she said. “If there’s like a girl that didn’t bring her business jacket, and then casting is yelling at her, you need a business jacket, blah, blah, blah. I’m like here, you can use mine.”
“What’s for you is going to be for you and you have to just cheer people on,” she said. “If you didn’t get it because it’s not your time. They remember you. Yeah, exactly. And that’s how you build relationships and that’s how you earn respect in this business. And that’s how you continuously stay busy. This whole pandemic. I paid my dues to be this busy.”
Shifts towards making room for more diversity excite Tejada. “I love to see how much the business has drastically changed from 10 years ago,” she said. That shift has included slight representation towards the vast nuance in the Latinx community but stereotypes still exist.
“I’m Dominican, but my dad was Black. My mom was White, both Dominican,” she said. “I have cousins that are dark skin, light skin with blue eyes and we’re all Dominican.”
She hopes to step behind the camera and aid the diversity efforts. “I definitely want to direct and be on the production side. I mean, I’m doing the production side from home.I literally shot my portfolio. Two times. I’ve built studio storyboards in my home.”
She’s looking forward to the production process returning her the comfort of playing make believe with her mother.
“I’m still growing. And as long as I’m still growing there’s somewhere to go.”