YouTube singing sensation Princess Shaw on life after going viral: "I’m still a nurse’s assistant"

Salon talks to Samantha Montgomery, of the documentary "Presenting Princess Shaw," about music, life and YouTube

Published September 8, 2016 5:12PM (EDT)

Samantha Montgomery in "Presenting Princess Shaw"   (Magnolia Pictures)
Samantha Montgomery in "Presenting Princess Shaw" (Magnolia Pictures)

Ido Haar’s poignant, emotional documentary “Presenting Princess Shaw” introduced moviegoers to the remarkable and resilient Samantha Montgomery aka Princess Shaw. A singer in New Orleans, Shaw works as a nurse’s assistant in an elder-care facility and performs at local clubs, hoping to get a break in her musical career. Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, the musician known as Kutiman creates YouTube videos by sampling various instrumental tracks. He puts Princess Shaw’s songs to music. The singer only finds out about this after the video Kutiman uploads goes viral.

“Presenting Princess Shaw” is certainly a feel-good documentary, but it also spends considerable time on its heroine’s more painful moments. Shaw talks candidly about her loneliness and sexual abuse, and these scenes magnify the power of her music and the strength of her character.

Salon caught up with Princess Shaw to see how she was faring since the release of the documentary, which is available Sept. 13 on DVD.

Has your life and/or career changed since the film was released theatrically earlier this year?

Life really hasn’t changed for me that much. I’m still a nurse’s assistant. I am traveling and meeting new people. But I have a different attitude. I’m not as down as I used to be. But I’m still the same person.

Your songs aren’t available except on YouTube. Will you be releasing any music soon for your fans?

I have an album coming out soon with Kutiman. I’m scared of record labels. I feel like if someone puts money behind you, you have to be what they want you to be, and not yourself. I want to put my album out as an independent. I prefer a simple life anyway. Being around that [industry] all the time is nerve-wracking. I want to be worry-free. I like the way my life is now.

Are you performing more these days? Have you been able to sing in clubs you struggled to appear in before the film?

It’s difficult. People want you to pay them so you can sing. I don’t perform as much as I’d like to. I wish I were doing more music and shows. But everything happens in its own time.

Throughout the film you are filming for your YouTube channel. Are you still making videos? Do you ever feel, now that the film is out, that you are oversharing?

I recently did a freestyle song for my YouTube channel, Princess Shaw. I do random talking — mostly in circles. [Laughs] I love YouTube. What you see is what you get. Anything I do in my life I go at it wholeheartedly. I’m open about everything. I don’t feel I overshared [making the film]. I purged my soul. You do that and it can help other people who are going through the same thing. I think it’s a good thing.

What impresses and inspires me is your strength and resilience. You have moments of deep shame and moments of great pride. What motivates you to keep trying and never give up?

Thank you. I feel like at one point I fell down and I couldn’t get up, but then, I was like: Screw this! I’m not going to let anything pull me down. It wouldn’t be life if there weren’t ups and downs. If you worry about something you can’t change it will drive you crazy. There are people worse off than I am. I feel like I don’t want to give up on life. I just keep going. I don’t want to live like a caged bird. I want to be free. I’ll fly even if my wings are broken. 

On that same point, you talk candidly in the film about the sexual abuse you experienced as a child. You expressed your feelings to your mother, but have forgiven her. You must still feel pain — it never goes away — but have things gotten any easier?

When you go through abuse, there are stages. There are times I can talk about it and it’s OK, and times I break down. It stays with you, and you live with it like it’s another person. But I learned to forgive my mother. It was a long road with rocks and nails, but I forgive her. I don’t want to live like that. She’s my mother — and you only get one. I tell her I love her, but I also tell her what she did and what happened. If you don’t speak it out, some folks think it doesn’t exist. But it does, and you have to face your demons. 

You received tremendous support from Kutiman. Can you talk about your relationship with him?

I’m drawn to sadness, and I’ve gone through a lot. When I first started the documentary, I was really down and they helped me learn to love people platonically. And I’m able to hug them, but I don’t like to touch. Kutiman showed me what love is. It’s OK to love someone. There aren’t a lot of role models in my life, and I can look up to him and he’s got a genuine heart. I was happy that I could feel that and come out of my shell and into my life. He [and the musicians] showed me what real love is.

What can you share about your thoughts on the experience of making the film and seeing it released?

Oh, wow. . . . When I was first contacted [by Ido Haar] about doing the doc about YouTubers, I thought it would be on YouTube. As I said, I never do anything half. I go wholehearted. And the decision was made: This is who was put in my life and who I can tell my story to. Once I knew what was going to happen with the doc, I sat up and wondered . . . Wow. .  .  . Then I laid back down. I thought I’d get used to it. You don’t get used to it. I looked at the angles and my hair. Why was I looking like that? I thought everybody was going to hate it. But it was a beautiful thing. It brings out some strong emotions in me. I don’t watch it anymore.

Your observation, on a Tel Aviv balcony at 5 a.m., is so beautiful. You state, “I want to experience this once in my life. If I never do it again, let me do it once.” Of course, you hope there is more in store for you. Do you still feel this way? If this is the peak of your success, is that still satisfying?

No I still feel the same. I enjoy the simple things. What I’ve accomplished so far — people who have been doing this for 10 years haven’t reached the level I’ve reached. I’ve been to Israel and Amsterdam and New Zealand. I’ve only been doing this a few years. I was so happy to be on that stage, which is like a home to me, and with a microphone in my hand, who is my best friend. I’ve accomplished a lot. But self-love and self-worth are worth more than any check. If it ends tomorrow, I’m OK with my life. I love my one-room shack, and walking down the street, just going to the corner store. Life is great. Even if I lose everything, I have a lot of things I‘m thankful for. 

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Documentaries Film Movies Presenting Princess Shaw Princess Shaw Samantha Montgomery Youtube