The daughter of a single mother who gave birth at 15 to her and her twin sister Sidra, actress and director Tasha Smith grew up around gangs, drugs and poverty in Camden, N.J., a city that one time was named the murder capital of the nation. “I’ve been to the worst place I could ever be,” she says to PEOPLE, “but I always had a dream—I knew I was going to go to Hollywood and be legit.” She’s telling her story now, she explains, to help encourage others. “Your dream,” she says, “is the best thing you’ve got.”
The Tasha Smith many of us know now is the beautiful, outspoken, never-holding-anything-back, “keeping it real”, sexy woman who usually steals the scenes she is in. Usually playing no-nonsense characters that tell it “like it is” is something that Tasha had learned first hand.
There wasn’t much else for her in 1970s Camden. Smith’s mother was addicted to drugs throughout much of Tasha’s childhood; while braiding neighbors’ hair for pocket money, young Tasha would imagine she was Chaka Khan. By 14 she was “going to the bar with my boyfriend, smoking cigarettes and ordering Hennessy. But I knew I wasn’t going to sell drugs and have five kids with five different men.”
Smith escaped to the west coast with the help of some friends who sent her a plane ticket. The high school dropout stayed with friends, estranged family members–anyone who would take her in. She only had been in L.A. for just about a year when she saw comedian Martin Lawrence at the Comedy Act Theater. Hooked, she developed her own “angry, X-rated” stand up routine and started landing gigs, eventually appearing on stage with comics like Dave Chappelle.
“I loved the performing,” she says. But it wasn’t making ends meet, so she started secretly stripping to add extra money to her pocket. Then one morning in 1997 she faced the truth.
“I was sick of myself. I was doing weed every day and drinking. I hated the way cocaine made me feel, trying to go to sleep after being up for days.” Frightened and depressed, she found help in religion, becoming a Christian.
Tasha says it was discovering God’s love that helped her overcome her past realize who she really is.
“His love helped me become a different person, taking me from that life as a stripper to a new life as a woman who prayed and found the courage to get up onstage and do the work she truly loved,” she says.
Quitting stripping and the club scene got her head clear; classes with drama teacher Ivana Chubbuck helped convince her “I wasn’t as ugly as I thought inside,” says Smith, who now teaches classes for her mentor. Acting jobs followed in…