decades before american idol opened the floodgates for the talent show genre of reality tv, there was the ultimate variety 80s show “star search.” hosted by ed mcmahon, “star search” was a weekly hour-long syndicated show billed as “the world’s greatest competition” was an immediate ratings winner with over 25 million viewers upon its 1983 premiere. 

one of the show’s first breakout stars was sam harris whose rousing performances, including his patti labelle inspired rendition of “somewhere over the rainbow,” helped him win the male vocalist category 14 weeks in a row and eventually winning the $100,000 grand prize.

sam dramatically performed songs typically sung by women while garbed in an oversized tuxedo jacket and converse sneakers. everything about sam was over the top – even for the 80s – and was unlike other male vocalists. sam’s theatrical performances were a wink to young queer kids like myself.

even as a kid, i knew sam was queer and i also knew why it was never to be spoken about – out loud. being out as a gay man in 1983, just as the shadow of the AIDS crisis began to loom and as reagan’s america was taking shape, was a liability.

harris signed with motown records following his “star search” grand prize win and released his debut album in 1984. the album’s lead single was the queer and campy synth-pop “sugar don’t bite.” sonically different from the soulful tinged “star search“ performances that won the hearts of millions, “sugar don’t bite” peaked at #36 on the hot 100 in november 1984 – the same week george michael and wham! were at #1 with “wake me up before you go-go)”.

after the gold-selling success of his debut album, sam released his sophomore effort in 1986 but parted ways with motown soon after. sam faded out of the mainstream limelight but continued to perform. in 1989, sam suffered a devastating loss when jerry blatt, his longtime mentor, died from AIDS complications.

the multi-faceted harris found success later in life as a writer, producer, director, activist, and tony nominated broadway star. in 20q14, with the support of fellow theatre star billy porter, also a star search grand champion in 1992, harris developed his one-man autobiographical stage show “HAM: a musical memoir.” the stage show has since been adapted to a film and released in 2020.

now age 60, sam’s rainbow continues to shine. most recently, he premiered his new stage show “openly grey.” he still performs at AIDS benefits, and lends his support to several social justice issues. he is married and a parent of a teenager. 


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