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you’ll love her

Dominique Bañas just shines.

I don’t even want to tell you what she’s wearing in the first photo I saw of her, because women are so often reduced to literal threads, but at the same time, I want you to know that she’s one of those people who wears their clothes and not the other way around. This little kernel is emblematic of her whole pop.

I don’t want to tell you who she works for either, lest it overshadow her own story, but there’s no way around it. Just keep in mind that, as big as his name is, she has a lot going on that doesn’t involve late-night’s benevolent overlord, Stephen Colbert. That one of the most famous faces in the world is only one of many knots in her life’s giant net of connections is also emblematic of her nature, and that’s exactly why I want you to know her– her everyday life is busily chaotic but intentional, genuine but complicated.

Maybe that sounds familiar to you.

It’s perplexing for all of us, even when we make it look easy. How do we end up where we are, as life flows along? Sometimes we float, sometimes we swim or surf, and maybe sometimes we get caught in eddies and riptides.

Dominique’s life sailed her along to a lot of places as the only child of single mom Cynthia Bañas, but the kitchen table was a constant in her life, where she learned to chart her own course. “A product of being an only child is that you grow up around adults. We moved a lot when I was younger and we would always be in different places, and I I felt like I was able to adapt. I knew how to talk to all kinds of people, because my mom would put me at the table.” Sitting there with her mother’s friends and family, with no children’s table in sight, Dominique learned to navigate different situations by entering the stream of the conversation in her own way, as herself. “I would just say, “Anyway, so in middle school today…” I was trying to get you to find me interesting, you know?”

It wasn’t all about adults, though. With eight aunts and uncles, family connection was never lacking. She grew up with some cousins as close as siblings and counts them among her biggest supporters now, but they also influenced her path from the beginning. “I’m Filipino, and our family is obsessed with karaoke,” she laughs. With the ubiquity of pop music and singing in the house, in those early years, she wanted to be Jennifer Lopez.

She did some theater at her New Jersey high school and kept up the family karaoke, but over time, her interests matured past professional singing. Her teenage dream job?

Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah is a huge influence for me. I have her photo as my desktop background because she is truly part of the reason why I wanted to work in TV. Seeing her conduct those interviews, I think I always kind of wanted to be a part of that world.” At first she thought she wanted to be the person asking the questions with the “charisma and empathy” she admired in Oprah, and now she knows those great questions are a team effort.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing as a broadcast journalism major, where she discovered being in front of the camera felt like an onslaught of negativity. In school they taught Dominique and her classmates how things had always been done, that you get a job in a small market and work your way up, cultivating the approved look and sound for the camera. Some reality set in. “As a person of color, a woman, I just felt like that traditional way was going to be very hard for me.”

It’s painful to hear her talk about her first couple of years of college. “It was pretty brutal. We’d do our reports outside class and then they’d put them up on the screen, and our professor would just completely eviscerate us, everything from our script to how we looked. I knew that was part of it, but I didn’t want to have to feel that way every time I was doing this job.”

Once she took a producing class as a junior, she never looked back, relishing the processes of media research, pre-interviews, and especially the feeling of creative control. Through internships, she found her niche in talk shows, where her love of music, comedy, and entertainment journalism came together. Before long, she landed a job at a prominent West-Coast daytime talk show, and she loved it – for a while.

Hollywood (she hates the word but uses it as the best descriptor) has a reputation of superficiality, of chewing up big dreams and spitting them out, and Dominique eventually felt that to be true. “I play ‘the game,’ right? Everyone has to in some capacity. But I always try, when I come home after a long day, to reflect. I want to make sure that I’m always leading with and navigating this world by being true to myself. I don’t want to jeopardize who I am in order to get ahead.” She’s sad to say she saw people around her doing just that, and it wore on her.

In that context, it makes sense that the 2016 election was a sea change for Dominique. Daytime TV isn’t the place to tackle controversy, but she wanted her work, the place where she spent 12 hours a day, to matter. Traditional news would have meant giving up a big part of herself, her joy at covering the entertainment world, but she was looking for something more substantive. “I just felt compelled to be working on a show where these issues weren’t hidden, where they were talking about them.” She was already aware of Colbert’s developing tendency to give context and meaning to national events in his late-night monologue, and in him she saw an opportunity to align her job with her values. When a researcher position at The Late Show opened in 2017, she jumped at it.

She still loves working there almost five years later, and now having ascended to Senior Associate Producer, she has even more of that creative control that makes her feel empowered, a part of something bigger than herself. When I ask about segments she’s most proud of working on, she mentions recent interviews with Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, Grammy Hall of Famer Dionne Warwick, and rising actress and author of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae.

“You know, your ideas are your currency,” she says, “I always say that to friends and coworkers.” Still, in talking about what she wanted me to highlight for this piece, it became clear that sharing things she’s proud of is a new skill for her. She has a wonderful intentionality about it, reasoning through it to encourage herself to take up social media space. “Again, as a woman, as a woman of color, in an industry where there’s not that many people that look like me who are doing what I’m doing, I need people to know that I am a creative person. I don’t need a blimp in the sky to say ‘Dominique is great!’ But, pitching those things and then getting credit for it is important.”

So she’s doing big things in bright lights, and she’s getting recognized for it. Has she “made it,” then? How do any of us measure success?

Dominique wants to be sure her mom gets full credit for supporting her unconventional career decisions. “She never once questioned my desire to work in TV,” she says. Still, there have been other inherent pressures on her mind when she thinks about whether she is fulfilled. There’s an underlying assumption for most of us that success is equated to money, and Dominique found that despite their connection to a world of celebrity and wealth, entry-level jobs in showbusiness barely make ends meet. She wondered for a time whether she was making too many sacrifices to keep the job she loved. “You want to feel like what you’re making isn’t going backwards,” she says.

Moving up the ladder at work and getting married this year has given her a greater sense of being able to build a secure financial basis with her musician husband Patrick, but as we talk, I notice she’s drawing a distinction between financial and creative success. She may be approaching contentment with the former, but she’s still hustling for the latter – just on her own terms. “I feel like I have succeeded in breaking into the industry, but there’s still more that I want to accomplish and more that I want to be able to prove to myself.”

When I ask her to think about what that kind of accomplishment would look like, she answers,

“My deepest intention is to connect with people and to connect people. I love meeting new faces, connecting, and fostering a relationship. Then once I am able to bring various connections together or connect two different friends who I think might vibe — and they do! Well, there is truly no greater feeling to me.”

From the outside, it certainly looks like she’s already met that goalpost. But, as fulfilling as this perfect story arc is up to this point, it’s not the whole story. Even after moving across the country, even after coming back home to her treasured mom, even after finding love, she’s still looking for ways to express her whole self. And, she’s finding them.

Dominique and her friend Lauren Cortizo have their own non-profit, Your Neighbor’s Backyard, that marries a love of show business with the desire to serve others. As the friends brainstormed a way to fund Lauren’s entry into the Boston Marathon in 2015, they thought of the house shows they had loved growing up on the East Coast. From there, it was a short leap to 501(c)(3) status. By hosting friends and coworkers workshopping new material to a casual but engaged audience, YNB has provided a supportive community for artists while it benefits all kinds of causes worldwide. They’ve donated proceeds to girl’s empowerment efforts like UN’s Girl UP, refugee organizations like RAICES, Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, and the National Park Foundation. When Dominique moved to NYC, they decided to keep it going on both coasts. (“I had to get a little creative with what the ‘backyard’ was here,” she says.) After these last pandemic years, so harrowing for many in New York City, food insecurity is on Dominique’s mind, and the most recent show is slated for restaurant and local grocer Farm to People in Brooklyn, to benefit FIG, an inclusive and collaborative food security collective.

In addition to focusing YNB’s efforts in places it’s needed most, the stresses of the pandemic helped electrify some of Dominique’s efforts to come into her own, too. “A lot of successful writers and performers and producers, when they’re giving advice to younger aspiring creatives, they say, ‘Go out and make your own stuff. If you’re waiting around to get promoted or you’re waiting around for your seat at the table…well, why don’t you just go and make your own stuff in the meantime, and then see if it can land somewhere?’” To that end, she is fresh off the first live taping of The Junior Mintt Show, and has a travelog series in development with actress and writer Quinn Marcus. She does feel creative at her main gig too, and feels thankful and gratified to contribute to such a great show, but in her own projects, she’s head producer. Everything is her call. “It’s another kind of fulfillment,” she says.

This brushes into one of the things I love most about Dominique: her efforts to be true to her core values, to nurture and respect her own talents, to raise her authentic voice – she’s using the fruits of that labor on her own behalf to elevate other people whose innate talents she recognizes. She’s gotten very good at spotting that rare skill of being able to connect with an audience.

That sixth sense she has for connection is a double-edged sword, though. For one thing, it meant that she struggled during the pandemic lockdown, when doing her jobs meant looking at a screen from the same four walls every day. “I love talking to people. Maybe the origin is me being at the dinner table trying to connect and relate, but I feel extremely energized by connecting to people…I knew I was extroverted, but I realized I actually need to see other people to be re-energized.”

It seems like a paradox, but it also means that she has realized she needs to cultivate time for herself, doing things that are creative but not related to any of her work or projects – gardening, flower arranging, photography for no one’s eye but hers. She’s still working on making that a priority, and the first step is learning how to say no.

“I use the word like bandwidth a lot now, which I never really did like, but part of me setting up boundaries is telling people that I don’t have the bandwidth to do this right now. Six months ago if I said [that], I would have felt so guilty,” she says. With a full-time job, side projects, and planning a wedding, she had to face the fact that her energy is not unlimited. “Being a producer, you kind of have to be in control, but the reality is that you’re never going to be fully in control, because a lot of things are completely out of your control. So I think it was hard for me to admit, but I am getting better with every passing week.”

It’s a process. She has a new therapist to help her set and keep boundaries, and she is promising herself that she’s going to schedule a flower-arranging class soon.

So yes, Dominique has what many people would think of as a dream job in the most exciting city in the world, but the reality is complicated. She uprooted her whole life to make her show business job match her values, instead of the other way around, and it’s still just one part of her reality as a person. Her greatest personal achievements are not televised. She has barriers to overcome, but they may not be the ones many assume when they look at her. She has attained some of that deepest intention to uplift and connect with other people, but she’s still seeking full connection with herself.

And she is wearing wedding dress, by the way, in that first photo I saw — a colossally spectacular garment with wave after wave of floral overlay. It’s absolutely blooming, layer over endless layer, feminine and mighty. Just like her.

Heather Martin is a registered dietitian in clinical practice, and a lay-entrusted Soto Zen teacher. She is also a freelance writer often featured as the Candy Corn Science Correspondent for the TODAY Show’s online Food section. You can read more from her at her blog and Substack, or find her on Post and Instagram as @momofnorank. She encourages you to encourage yourself, and to take good care of your heart.

All photos by Matt Infante, except for the wedding gown photo, which is by Carmelisse Sanga.

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