Santa Maria writes—and rewrites—her own copy, often in what amount to all-nighters, in bed, with Killer, her rescue mutt, curled at her feet. Now, with time running short, she is worried that her tone is too real—all biology and ecology—for a piece about something that is very spiritual for most people. She and Howard prune a couple of points that seem askew, notably, a bit about late slugger Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen head being abused in a southwestern lab, which is judged to be “creepy” by Santa Maria. “I didn’t write this story to be creepy,” she says. “That shifts tone too much. That’s about promotion and not content.”
As her shoot time approaches, Santa Maria hustles downstairs to producer/editor Christopher Sprinkle’s office, alerts him to the changes in copy, and promises to meet on the set in 15 minutes. “I’m gonna do a quick-and-dirty today; I don’t feel like being too made-up.”
Santa Maria’s bio smacks of a Web-era fairy tale. She was raised in the prosperous Dallas suburb of Plano (“It’s a rich town, but we weren’t a rich family; we lived in an apartment, which is pretty rare there”) by an engineer father of Italian descent, and an educator mother who is Puerto Rican. Her parents, both converted Mormons, divorced when she was young, and she split her time between them. By high school, Santa Maria had become an unlikely combination of stoner, cheerleader, and nerd. She majored in psychology at the University of North Texas, but diverted to biology and neuroscience for her MA.
By 2009, she was living half-broke in New York City and studying at Queens College for her doctorate when she chanced to meet comic and political gadfly Bill Maher. During the romance that followed, she relocated to LA and made a Maher-produced pilot for HBO (a sort of template for, and not coincidentally bearing the same title as, “Talk Nerdy To Me”) that didn’t get picked up. Maher is pals with Arianna Huffington, though, who told Santa Maria that HuffPost would love to have her voice in its new science section.
Santa Maria’s early video efforts for HuffPost leaned heavily on matters of sex and mental health. She hesitated before opening up about her own struggle, since childhood, with depression so severe that (as she told an interviewer on the website The Mental Illness Happy Hour) there were times she had to “stare somebody you love in the face and say, ‘You can’t help me.’ ” Despite a warning from a mentor at AOL that, “Whatever you put out on the Internet will never go away,” Santa Maria ultimately decided to use her own story to inform her video reports on depression. In a December 2011 episode of “Talk Nerdy,” she says her depression wrecked relationships of all sorts: “I felt worthless, I felt guilty, I had no self-esteem. I couldn’t eat or sleep. If I started to cry, I couldn’t stop.”
Since going public, she has not been shy about asserting that her daily 20-milligram dose of Celexa is not only a key to productivity, but “to being good to the people I love.” She says that she was, and probably still is, difficult to be in a relationship with, “because I am a bundle of contradictions; I am simultaneously headstrong and determined and a total mess who needs a lot of attention and is kinda needy and insecure.”
For all the seeming self-absorption, Santa Maria is quick to laugh, a patient listener who seems eager to compliment her colleagues, and for part of an afternoon at least, a study in consideration. More than once, without a trace of sarcasm, she asks a member of her team, “Can you do me a big favor?” when the task really was part of the person’s daily routine.
The more she talks, the easier it is to understand her fastidious desire to reconcile the contradictions of her show—and of her role as a science teacher and budding Web personality. A question about the career advantages of her looks, then, leads to a discussion of who her audience is—mostly men, late teens to probably mid-40s—and how she would like it to be broader, more diverse, more female.