By: Abbey Adams
Photography: Luciano Miceli and Michelle Debernardo
We call each other sisters; we really do,” says Tammy Reese. She’s of course, talking about her relationship with best friend/co-worker Michelle DiBernardo. This duo is producers of Visionary Minds, a publicity entertainment Media Company, located here in Syracuse, NY. Meeting in 2014 on set for a short mini trailer. Tammy was a production assistant, and Michelle was a publicist. Not soon after, the dynamic duo came together to form what is now Visionary Minds. “I said, ‘Hey Michelle, we’re talking about doing a TV series…I really think you’re so passionate and so focused to be my business partner. Just think about it. I have a business plan.’ Like with no hesitation, she said, ‘Yes, I’m on board.’ And we’ve been business partners ever since” said Tammy.
Visionary Minds will now be branded as a publicity performance and media production company. They will be providing services of not only acting or location scouting, but casting, film, video production, post production, photography, and editing. Both have incredible experiences under their belts that have taken them far in the industry.
Michelle hailing from an acting background is also a portrait photographer and certified makeup artist and publicist who was in the business on and off since the ripe age of 12. She also has her NYS teaching license and Director of Education license for acting and modeling. Entertainment runs in her veins “I just want to be involved in everything. I love that we’re doing inspirational stuff and shows and trying to inspire people. It’s very nice to come together [as two strong women] and be diverse too.” Not knowing where this endeavor would take her, Michelle was packed up and ready to move to New Jersey for a fresh start but this new chapter with Tammy kept her here and she never looked back.
Tammy Reese started her career right in Downtown Syracuse at The Media Unit when she was just 12 years old. “I started my career as an actress, dancer, and writer. I was in The Media Unit for eight years as an actress, writer, choreographer, and TV host technical director,” she said. This Syracuse native also served on The Media Unit board of directors and won a college scholarship, because of her professional work. “I got to travel, do 60 stage shows a year, won a ton of awards, and was in regional competitions with The Media Unit that we won.” An Empire State College graduate with a degree in media studies and a minor in theatre culture. Tammy had the opportunity to perform at the Red House Theatre, in productions like, “The Color Purple” and “Dream Girls.”
The first product of Visionary Minds was a show called “Inspirational Women of Syracuse” that showcased different women who are inspiring different leaders within the community. Michelle admits the show didn’t get the response they thought it would get. A slight content shift, and more production work brought them to a new topic, all about survivors. “I wanted to do like an Oprah show here in Syracuse. We had my mom who’s a four time cancer survivor, Tammy’s mom that is visually impaired, a friend of ours who has HIV, and another friend who has PTSD.” Michelle explains what they had in mind with this production, “We wanted it to be relatable. We wanted it to grab people’s attention. We wanted to inspire. So, we went to a lot of local businesses; Peppino’s, Rosamond Gifford, Painting with A Twist, and they ended up giving us gifts to give our guests, so all of them walked away with like a thousand dollars’ worth of stuff.” Keeping in mind, this show had no budget; what they created came straight from their minds to the screen. With everything filmed at their home; The Media Unit. The fourth show (about Syracuse filmmakers) is currently in post-production. The duo has been talking to Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Giancarlo Esposito, and more actors to pitch in for the project.
Tammy proudly chimes in saying, “We’re trying to let people know we’re serious. We take what we do seriously. We have this roster of celebrities, famous people, producers, etc. that we’ve been in contact with,” she continues to say, “We love showcasing people who are inspirational to give hope, because Syracuse is one of the poorest cities in the country. I grew up on Brighton Ave on the South Side, and where I come from, stuff like that isn’t even imaginable.”
While I sat and talked to these two fearless leaders, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the sisterhood that has formed. Tammy was a vision in green that day; green eye shadow, nails, shirt, and jacket. She sipped what seemed to be a coffee and couldn’t help but light up every time I asked another question. Michelle sipped a red Monster; her smile infectious as she laughs and nudges Tammy every time something funny or cool is said. I can picture these two at the movies on a Friday night, sharing a big bowl of popcorn and chuckling along to a comedy. Michelle says, “We want to show that we are two women that can do anything we put our minds to. Just because we come from two different walks of life doesn’t mean anything.” Tammy responds by saying, “People really are fascinated with us. This Caucasian woman, this African-American woman, the impact they are giving… like wow.” It’s refreshing to see such a beautiful friendship like this one.
Everything involving Visionary Minds is executed from their heart and their passion to tell stories and empower others (especially locally). The duo’s next project is an anti-bullying campaign. Both women have experienced their fair share of bullying in the entertainment industry and have come together to create a movement that will hopefully gain some national attention. “We want to go to the schools; we’re going to do posters. We’re going to give them out, and we’re going to donate again. We’re going to get these flyers to New York State schools and put them up and it’s going to be more graphic and detailed. It may be a kid that looks like they just slit their wrist or somebody in the hospital. This is what happens every day, and it should not be happening,” says Michelle. The National Center for Educational Statistics recently reported that more than one out of every five students, or about 5 million students, experiences bullying. Tammy adds, “This needs to be seen all over because…So many places are dealing with bullying.” Both hope this campaign makes a widespread impact in schools and communities.
If you’re coming to Syracuse to film, contact Visionary Minds, and they will help you with any casting, writing, location scouting, etc. “We can be that one-stop shop for anyone…we can help with that,” says Tammy. Michelle & Tammy has done their fair share of traveling, and though it may be easier to film in hot spots like LA, Atlanta, or New York, there are great tax incentives here in CNY. People often come here to shoot, because it is cheaper. “Our purpose is to enhance other regions outside of Syracuse to know that they can come here for work…we have four wonderful seasons and great venues to film in. We want to build the community to stay here or come here.” Both women have been featured in newspapers, magazines, radio shows, etc. But even though the spotlight might be on them, it’s really about making a difference for others. Tammy says, “Even though we’re the producers, it’s way bigger than us. We love showcasing people.” Dynamic doesn’t even begin to describe these two. Michelle and Tammy fit together like puzzle pieces; one pauses, the other finishes the sentence. The two have managed to complement each other’s strengths extremely well.
2018 is bound to be their best year yet. The two explained to me how they eliminated the word “dream” last year. They are going to set goals instead and come up with a plan to accomplish them. “Somebody higher up from a network once told us that dreams are unreachable, but goals are achievable. So, you make a goal and
achieve it. That’s what we’re doing.” While the two spend most of their time together, they also have families at home. Michelle is a mom of two teenagers who are very supportive of her career in the entertainment industry – always proud of what she’s accomplished. Both of her kids have been in the entertainment industry as well, from a young age. Tammy has an 8-year-old son. She says, “He thinks I’m a movie star, which I don’t understand why. He watches YouTube and he finds our (Visionary Minds) shows, and he’s like ‘Mommy; I’m so proud of you and your friend. You’re a movie star.'”
Since the two have met so many incredible people over the past five years, I asked them who they would love to work with in the entertainment industry (dead or alive). Tammy said, “Angela Bassett and Johnny Depp. They are so versatile. They can play any role, and that is so important to me as an actor. Someone dead would be Michael Jackson because he’s my favorite entertainer of all time. It’s not just his talent, but his humanitarianism to inspire and give back to others, which I aspire to do.” Michelle said, “Definitely, Susan Lucci. She was a huge mentor/role model to me. My mom watched All My Children for 30 years. I also met her as a young lady when my mom and I were extras on All My Children. I would love to actually play a role against her. Someone dead? Marilyn Monroe. She was my idol. She paved the way for us curvy women.”
Like I mentioned earlier, Michelle and Tammy have a set vision in mind for their company. When asked where they see themselves in five years, both agree with each other on every plan and smile and nod in the process of explaining it all. Tammy sees them with their own building where they can run shows, produce content, etc. “I see us having our show on numerous big networks, being actors in major productions, being show runners. We have all this experience, all this drive, the only thing that can defeat us is ourselves.” Michelle agrees and says, “Definitely having a place in New York, Atlanta, and maybe eventually LA. I want to be world known. I think show runners are definitely the word that we need for ourselves, because that’s what our goal is, and it’s very achievable.”
ADVICE FOR OTHERS:
Both have a plethora of sage advice to give other women who want to follow their dreams and reach success. Tammy pauses and says, “Watch how you present yourself…You can create your own opportunities. You can say no, you don’t have to do everything that’s presented to you. So definitely know your worth in this industry because, it’s so competitive, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to do what you shouldn’t to succeed.” Michelle backs up Tammy’s words “I think that any woman can achieve anything they want. You just need to get up, write down your goals and ideas and put them into movement. Being a woman is very hard in this industry… definitely build up that self-esteem and self-confidence, present yourself well, and make sure you have a great brand.”
Before I left the interview, Walt, a man who works at The Media Unit, told us we had to do a “once around.” Walt explains what exactly this means saying, “We do this at meetings and then after every activity. It’s a five question exercise. How you feel, what you learned, what was good, what needs work, and what was fun. Our feeling is, if you’re not having fun doing this, then the work is too hard; you got to be having fun to make it work.” All of us went round the table and answered every question. Afterwards, Walt stood up and gestured for us to hook pinky’s – almost like a sign of unity. It felt like a support system. Everyone is aware of everyone else’s plans and goals and are willing to help each other achieve anything. Walt’s last question was to Tammy “What makes a good interview?” She replied without a hint of hesitation and said, “Women.”