Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 6, 2021

Whole new script

Actor, aspiring pilot flips the storyline with move to real estate

There’s a day in Chelsea Sanders’ future she can see as clearly as the blue in the cloudless sky above her.

She’s at the controls of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, skillfully piloting the aircraft over Chattanooga as her husband and children wait for her on the ground. Although she can hear the plane’s engine droning, the racket and clamor of life is unable to reach her at that height, and the stillness quiets her mind and allows a memory of her late father to materialize.

Sanders’ father was a crop-duster who often took her with him as he ventured upward. Her most concrete memories of him are set in the cockpit of small aircraft like the one she’s mentally flying.

“I remember wearing bulky headphones and being strapped into my car seat beside him,” she says, her voice bright and upbeat. “I think I flew more than I was in a car before the age of 5.”

Sanders, 31, was not with her father the day he died in an aviation accident in 1995. But as an aspiring recreational pilot, she likes to think he’s beside her in spirit whenever she touches the firmament where he spent much of his life.

“I feel closer to him when I’m in an airplane because of how much he loved them,” she smiles.

As Sanders returns to the here and now, she finds herself seated at a table at the Chattanooga real estate brokerage where she works as an agent, a soda from Jimmy John’s in her hands instead of the yoke of an airplane.

The husband and children she envisioned also are gone, having returned to a coming day, where she hopes they’re waiting for her.

“I want to put down roots, find my partner in life and raise a family,” she says, an earnest look replacing her smile. “And my biological clock is ticking.”

The desire for roots led Sanders to the Scenic City last year. After pursuing an acting career first in New York City and then in L.A. for eight years, she says she was ready for a more relaxed and stable life.

“I looked at the people who surrounded me and I didn’t see anyone whose life I wanted to duplicate,” she notes. “That was a big moment for me.”

As Sanders was scanning a map looking for an escape hatch, she spotted Chattanooga and remembered a fourth grade field trip to the city from Greenville, South Carolina, where she grew up.

“We did everything,” Sanders says, her eyes sparkling as she remembers visits to Ruby Falls, See Rock City and the Incline Railway. “My mom says I wouldn’t shut up about the trip for months because I’d fallen in love with city.”

Although nailing down her destination – and convincing her mother and younger brother to join her – was easy, Sanders was unsure about how she would make a living after the move. She only knew she would press the pause button on acting.

The industry had essentially pressed it for her at that point, Sanders admits. After six years of beating her forehead against the cinderblock wall of the L.A. film and television acting business, she watched her auditions dwindle from three a week in 2018 to nearly none in 2019 as advertising companies started hiring non-union actors. (Sanders is a member of the Screen Actors Guild or, as she puts it, “a SAG actor.”)

“It was like being a Realtor during a zombie apocalypse, and there are only three people left in your sphere, and none of them are leaving their homes,” she quips.

The shift knocked the breath out of Sanders’ eight-year hustle to become a working-class actor. Although her backbreaking efforts had yielded minor roles on the CBS procedural “Criminal Minds,” the Netflix series “You” and the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” as well as appearances in several nationally televised commercials, she was not yet able to earn a living acting, and she felt it was time to consider other opportunities.

As Sanders was brainstorming new careers, her mother, Melinda Laughlin, suggested she become a Realtor. Laughlin had worked as an agent for several years in Greenville and thought her daughter would perform well in the role.

“I have an analytical mind, which she thought would be a good fit for real estate,” Sanders explains. “And I wanted to do something that would help me become a part of the community.”

Sanders did have reservations about becoming a Realtor, not the least of which was following acting with a commission-based career.

“I was looking forward to working a cute nine-to-five and earning a steady paycheck,” she says. “But, really, that wouldn’t fit the kind of person I am.”

Sanders was also concerned about her lack of a local sphere.

“When my first broker told me to reach out to my sphere, I was like, ‘Hey, girlfriend No. 1,’ and ‘Hey, girlfriend No. 2, does anyone in your family need a home?’” she says, chirping into a pretend phone she’s fashioned out of her right hand. “And then I was done.”

Finally, Sanders had qualms about safety. This stemmed from a harrowing discovery her mother made several years after she left the real estate business in 2010.

“My mom started feeling uncomfortable around her last broker,” she begins. “The women in our family have some weird voodoo intuition going on, and she felt unsafe when she would drop off yard signs at his house.”

When Laughlin started experiencing anxiety attacks after seeing her broker, she not only left the real estate business but also Greenville. In 2016, she learned her former broker, Todd Kohlhepp, had been convicted of killing seven people in South Carolina between 2003 and 2016.

“She didn’t know why she felt nervous around him, she just knew a voice in her head was telling her to leave,” Sanders continues. “You can never be certain about the people you meet, and, as a female, that made me stop and think.”

Sanders’ apprehensions, however, did not dissuade her from becoming a Realtor. As a woman who has no qualms about flying, despite losing her father in an aviation accident, and as an actor who braved the confidence-squashing L.A. audition mill for several years, she says she never gives fear the last word.

“There have been times in my life when I had no choice but to keeping going,” she says. “My mom inspired me in those moments. Despite having had one of the toughest lives I can fathom, she gets up every day and does it again. And she taught me to do the same.”

After earning her license, Sanders hung it at a local brokerage, only to discover she needed training that was more intensive than the company was ready to provide. So, she was relieved when a representative from The Edrington Team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices J Douglas Properties called her the following week.

“I had returned home from a long day of feeling like I was drowning in data and not knowing how to make heads or tails of it,” she says. “And all of a sudden, someone tossed a lifesaver to me.”

Six weeks later, Sanders says she still feels like she’s drinking from a firehose, but she’s benefiting from the step-by-step approach the team is taking with her.

“The previous company taught me to throw an entire pot of spaghetti at the wall in the hopes something would stick, but this company is teaching me to throw one strand at a time,” she says. “My mentor will say, ‘Don’t worry about learning how to do a listing presentation right now. We’ll get there, but for now, just keep working with buyers so you can learn that piece really well.”

That said, Sanders seems to worry she’s not catching on quickly enough.

“I’m challenging in ways this team might not have faced before,” she says, a rare wrinkle forming on her brow. “I’m not from here and I’ve never even purchased a home, so everything is new to me.”

If there’s an issue with Sanders, Marcus Holt, her mentor, is either unaware of it or too polite to mention it. As Sanders frets over her performance on the job, Holt stops at the table while passing by and croons, “She’s a rock star in the making.”

Hearing this, Sanders bursts at the seams. “You say that about me now,” she laughs.

“Mark this moment,” Holt insists, pointing at the time on a nearby smartphone. “July 30 at 12:48 p.m., Marcus Holt says Chelsea Sanders is a rock star in the making.”

“Well, the die is cast,” Sanders says, throwing up her hands in mock resignation. “Now I have to succeed.”

As Holt walks away, Sanders calls him her biggest cheerleader. “I’m super hard on myself, but he’s always saying, ‘You have this. Don’t second guess yourself.”

As someone with the mind of a pilot, Sanders says she can’t help questioning herself – or Holt.

“I drive Marcus crazy. ‘But what if this happens? But what if this happens? But what if this happens?’ Because I want the answers ready to go. In aviation, you have to think about every outcome and how to solve it because that’s how you save lives.”

Sanders does say she’s beginning to feel confident as an agent. As she’s worked with buyers, she’s come to realize her talent for pivoting and overcoming obstacles from a different direction can serve her well in her new profession.

“I’ve written four offers for clients this week,” she says. “Each one of them has a unique situation, which is overwhelming, but I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Sanders blames her incessant queries on her Type A personality. She also traces the genesis of her acting career to this same trait.

“When I was young, I was a straight A student, but I was also an independent thinker. If something didn’t make sense to me, or if I thought about something differently than someone else, I would say so. This led to a lot of talking-toos.

“’Chelsea, you have potential, but you have to ditch the attitude,’” she says with a flawless Southern accent, which she normally lacks. As she speaks, she shakes a finger at an imaginary younger version of herself.

When Sanders took drama as an elective in middle school, her teacher noticed these qualities in her, but instead of reprimanding her, she gave Sanders an outlet.

Enamored with acting, Sanders pursued her newfound passion all the way through college at Marshall University in West Virginia, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting and directing.

She also walked away with a minor in meteorology. “I really enjoyed the classes I took as electives,” she shrugs. “If I didn’t become a star, I was going to become a weather girl.”

After coming up empty in New York, Sanders moved to L.A. Unfortunately, she was unschooled in how to find an agent and book auditions, so she took a detour as a retailer buyer. When her brother saw how miserable the job made her, he urged her to return to acting.

Determined to break through the cinderblock wall, Sanders lived the proverbial lifestyle of would-be L.A. actors, scouring the city for auditions during the day and bartending at night. When people told her to expect nothing in return for at least 10 years, she worked even harder. In 2018, she landed the role on “Criminal Minds” after less than two years on the audition circuit.

But when outside forces stalled her career, Sanders blamed herself instead. “Only 1% of SAG-AFTRA actors are making a living at acting, but I felt like a failure.”

Sanders has not closed the book on acting. She mentions that Atlanta has an active film and television industry and says she might try to take advantage of those opportunities someday. But for now, she has other dreams to pursue, with one rising above all the others.

“More than being an actor, or real estate guru, or investment mogul, I want to be a mom,” she says, her upbeat cadence softening. “And my biological clock is getting loud.”

Despite the clamor, Sanders can still close her eyes and hear the drone of the engine outside the Cessna 172 Skyhawk she hopes to someday pilot over Chattanooga. As the family she envisions waits below, she feels as though her father is there with her in spirit.

His presence emboldens her to press forward, achieve her ambitions and never give fear the last word.

“My father died when he was 35. That will be a tough birthday. But thinking about that also motivates me. He lived the life he wanted to live, and so can I.”