"I was completely lost, in a very abusive relationship, hanging out with the wrong crowd..."
"The girls in India we were trying to reach were looking towards Hollywood for everything..."
From a struggling college student, to a missionary in India, to a (now) wife and mother, Ireida Santiago has always recognized her burning desire for the entertainment industry. She had just returned from working with human trafficking victims in India, and was praying about entering entertainment when she heard God speak the words, “The time is now.”
Tell us about first getting involved in entertainment.
Sure! I’ll take you back to when I first started. That was in Puerto Rico, when I was 10. My mother had me get started in modeling, acting and dancing classes. She was very overprotective, and I really was not allowed to play any sports. So instead of sports, I fell in love with the arts.
And you signed with an agency at a young age?
Yes, I was able to land a contract with Wilhelmina Models when I was 11. My family moved to New York City, and I had a very successful career with Wilhelmina for about 8 years. All along that time, I was working for the fun of it. I had these goals and dreams of becoming rich and famous one day. I did ultimately want to help people once I had fame and money, but it was not a God calling at that time.
While I was in high school, I went to a performing arts school in New York and I was a drama major. After graduation, I decided that I needed a break. I was tired of the city, subways and travel. It was an exciting time, but it was so tiring as a child and teenager.
But life changed for you, right?
Ireida: Well, I decided to get away from the city. I went to Penn State University and studied Theater and Public Relations. I would say that my first two years there were the most painful of my life. I was completely lost, in a very abusive relationship, hanging out with the wrong crowd, and was drinking and partying all the time. Meanwhile the Lord was doing a work in my mom’s heart while I was in my junior year.
She came to visit one weekend and said “Ireida, it’s been a really long time since you have been to church. Let’s google churches.” So we literally sat and googled different churches. That same Sunday, I went by myself to visit State College Assembly of God. I immediately felt at home and felt that this is what my soul had really been craving; not the partying, not the fame, not the attention, and all the other stuff.
I recommitted my life to the Lord that Sunday, but it was about a two month process before I was totally transformed and freed. It was during that first year of walking with the Lord that I felt called to missions. During that time I also met my husband, who was the pastor’s son. It was such a Cinderella Story… I felt like the most unworthy person to have met, in my eyes, such a perfect and pure man… so incredibly different than the other men in my life.
When did missions come in?
Fast-forward a little bit. While Rob, my husband, and I were engaged, we really felt called to go to India, specifically to fight human trafficking. We were there on a two-year assignment, helping to fight human trafficking where we even had the opportunity to teach and show Christ’s love to girls in a local brothel on a weekly basis.
How does India tie into your passion for the entertainment industry?
It’s interesting because while I was in India, I was able to experience and see how India, especially the younger generations, viewed western culture. The girls we were trying to reach were looking towards Hollywood for everything. For inspiration, fulfillment, life calling…they wanted to be what they saw in the movies. They also think that everyone in America is a Christian. So they have this very twisted view of what a Christian is, when you define it with a Hollywood movie.
While we were in India, my father-in-law passed away. That was really hard on us. Not only was he my father-in-love, he was our pastor and most trusted advisor. Then I became pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy. There was a 50-80 percent chance that my son was going to be born with either some kind of mental retardation, blind, deaf, or even dead. By God’s grace, he is the healthiest little boy. Although those two years were very difficult, we experienced so much and grew in many ways. After our two year term ended we returned to the States.
Rob had been asking me about my dreams and my passion to act and perform, since I had decided to put that on hold when my eyes were opened to the world around me. I knew God had given me the passion for entertainment for a reason, but I did not feel like it was the right time yet. When we came back from India, Rob asked me if I had prayed about it recently. So one morning I took my devotion time to pray specifically about my talent and how God wanted me to use it. I was complaining a little bit, just asking God “Why have you given me these passions, and not allowed me to use them yet?” What I heard, inaudibly, four times, were the words “The time is now.”
And this is when God brought SHINE into your life?
While this was happening, my husband began looking into SHINE. So Rob told me to look into it, and honestly I was totally skeptical. I think the reason why was because I had been in the industry for eight years. I understood the industry and knew the level of professionalism and excellence that it required…honestly, I did not think that a Christian organization could be that good.
I was so skeptical even sitting in the information session. But the SHINE video came on, and in big, bold, white letters it said “The Time Is Now.” I began crying and shaking, because I had asked the Lord before the audition, “God, make it obvious that this is what you want for me to do.” He could not have made it any more abundantly clear.
I then had my audition with Carey, and it was a very Spirit-filled audition. I felt that there was a spiritual connection between the two of us, and I felt that Carey really understood our hearts. I went to SHINE Summer 2014, and met some great people, learned a lot and made so many connections. Now, I’m officially back in the entertainment industry working with a few agencies.
What doors opened up through SHINE?
The most unique experiences happened during SHINE seminars. It is so important to understand the industry, and it was great to have my husband there, getting educated with me.
I was able to reconnect with the agent from Frontier Booking that gave me my very first booking at age 11! It was an intense part in One Life to Live. I walked up to the table and he said “I know you.” I told him my name, and he said “Oh my goodness, you’re back!” We reconnected and it was just nice to do it in that way. The agents see that now, I have a purpose. I wanted to do this with excellence, and that’s why I chose to go through SHINE. I could have just called up childhood agents, but that was not God’s design.
I did a DirecTV International Commercial. The DirecTV commercial was not from an agent, it was a self-submission! It was really cool, because I felt that through that, God was showing me that HE is my agent. I also booked the New York FFaNY, which is a big shoe festival. It’s like Fashion Week, but for shoes. That is going to happen the first week of December, and I am so excited! Who wouldn’t want to get paid to model shoes?
God called you to do something huge with your first fruits. Tell us about this decision?
My husband and I are part of the core team for our inner city church plant. After a meeting one day, my husband said “I really feel that the Lord is asking for our first fruits. Whatever job you get first, I feel that we need to give it all to Him.” Well my agent (God) helped me book that DirecTV commercial, and it was a $1,500 job. $1,500 was exactly the remaining money our church was waiting for to purchase its own church van. It was further confirmation that God is “in” this! I know God will provide if we put Him first! This was just an exercise of trusting in Him.
What is the difference in working in the industry now as opposed to working as a child?
As a child and teenager, I was very self-centered. It was all about what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, the places that I wanted to go. I planned on moving to LA right after graduation. I was going to pursue my dreams no matter what the cost! I think now the biggest difference, besides a different purpose, is I see every opportunity as a way to be Christ to someone who may never experience Christ otherwise. When I go to my auditions, I try to be nice and friendly, different and set apart. When I did my DirecTV job, the person I was working with started talking to me about his spirituality. He was looking into Buddhism, and he just asked me what I believe in. I was able to share my faith! I was able to plant a seed. I see every opportunity as a way to tell people about Jesus.
How do you hold firm to your marriage, while trying to break into the entertainment industry?
I think it’s really important to have the boundaries conversation before you are in a sticky situation. Rob and I very seriously talked about this. It’s not about creating a list of dos and don’ts but about creating ways to proactively protect our marriage, hearts and family.
I always think, is this something I would be proud of showing my kids? As Christian performers, as missionaries, we still have the power and the choice. If we trust that God is the one promoting us, then why do we have to take every single job that comes our way, especially if they test our moral values? No matter how awesome the opportunity, make sure it is in line with what God is calling you to do
What is your advice to people, who may or may not have experience in the industry, considering SHINE?
First, I would suggest to pray! Ask God to make it obvious to you, just like I did. Next, just be open to the opportunity. Also, realize that even if you have the experience in the industry, SHINE puts it all in a faith-based context and safe environment.
Preparation too! Don’t think that it won’t require just as much excellence and drive as other auditions and events. Put in the work. It is a long process of studying, preparing and performing at SHINE, but it is so worth it in the end!
Lastly, define greatness not just as accomplishments and fame, but as the ability to allow Him to SHINE through you. Remember, it’s not about what you know, it’s about WHO you know…Jesus! His name is the one that deserves all the fame! I am so glad I listened to that inaudible voice and so glad I auditioned with SHINE! I wasn’t ready to handle this industry without losing my soul 8 years ago. God protected me, changed me, and this year, used SHINE to help prepare me. Now I’m ready! I know that God will promote me in His timing, and most importantly, for His glory!