Karl: Today is Tuesday, the 28th of August, 2012 and I’m here at Joey’s Café with…
Sam: Sam Russell.
Karl: Your age? You can approximate if you wish.
Sam: I’m forty. I’m proud to hit forty. I’m here, I made it!
Karl: Current relationship status?
Sam: I have a partner. We’re coming up on our two year mark. We’ve been living together for a year now and it’s been really exciting.
Sam: Thanks, man. Yeah, I’m lovin’ it. I’ve gone through my share of toxic relationships, I’ve paid my dues, so I appreciate everyday of it.
Karl: What’s your occupation?
Sam: I’m a Founder of The Giving Closet. I started a traveling mission a year ago where I surprise women-in-need with $10,000 in work and personal attire. I’ve been a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles for thirteen years and I decided to start using my contacts to help real people. I don’t want to just dress celebrities and stars anymore, I want to help real women.
Karl: From what I’ve seen you’ve gotten a tremendous amount of press.
Sam: The support has been really exciting. I call it ‘support’ because this isn’t about me, it’s not about my ego, it’s about using these resources and these contacts to help real people. If I’m a vessel for that, than I’m totally on board.
Karl: Is it you, or do you have a team?
Sam: This is all me. I’m pretty much a mom and pop shop. I have a publicist in Pennsylvania and a publicist in New York City helping me with media outreach, otherwise it’s just me, myself, and I.
Karl: Is working alone exhausting?
Sam: It’s not exhausting at all. I get so much energy and power from it. I can eat and breath this mission seven days a week and it never drains me. I’m definitely on the right path for one of my callings because I’m getting so much out of it.
Karl: Who is currently funding this endeavor?
Sam: No money is exchanged at this point. I use all my public relations contacts. Where I used to get free stuff for Stevie Wonder, or free stuff for Sophia Bush, now I’m getting free stuff for women in need who really benefit from it. I’m at a stage now where it’s my passion and I know I can make this happen and connect these dots. I’ve been approached by a production company to do a tv show, *fingers crossed* which I would then evolve into a non-profit. The Giving Closet is here to prove that fashion does have a heart.
Karl: So for any potential fashion students out there reading this, how does one become a wardrobe stylist in LA?
Sam: I didn’t go to school for it, I learned hands-on in Texas. I grew up watching fashion shows on CNN. My first fashion job was doing a calendar for the Hawaiian Tropics girls, with the big fake nails, and the big fake boobs… The swimsuits were horrific, I didn’t know what I was doing. After that I got a regular gig working for Academy Sports Outdoors which is like a Big 5 Sporting Goods. I did all their in-house advertising and dressing their models. I was also helping models with their portfolios and getting paid for that. There was a lot of great work for me in Texas, but to go to the next level I had to leave that market.
Karl: I imagine that ‘next level’ is high-maintenance and drama-ridden.
Sam: I had one not so positive experience. I was working for this actress I was dressing for a press junket – a real nutcase. The timing was just off from the start. I came to her house for this pre-meeting/fitting when some design magazine had just left because they didn’t like her place. They decided to cut her home from their feature. They were leaving as I arrived.
Karl: Oh man!
Sam: She had this clean, polished, beautiful table in her backyard. She said, “Let’s go outside so I can smoke a cigarette.” “Sure, of course,” I said. So I started walking toward the table and she says, “No, we’re going to sit here,” and she points to this little table off to the side for her five-year-old daughter. It came up to my knees. It was covered in filth and dirt. She sat there cursing, screaming, and smoking while she’s wiping the dirt up. She was nothing but discomfort. Our working relationship never recovered. It got so bad that I had to bring on an assistant to go deal with her because I couldn’t talk to her.
Karl: I don’t understand… Why couldn’t you sit at the grown up table?
Sam: I don’t know. Maybe the interior design magazine didn’t care for it so she was having it shipped away. I just don’t know. I don’t have many of those stories, but that was a weird one for me.
Karl: You probably tend to get people when they’re stressed and have a lot of anxiety.
Sam: It depends on the personality you’re dealing with. It’s very personal when you’re talking about dressing somebody for an event where they’re going to be photographed, criticized, and meeting all of their peers. There’s a lot of anxiety over it. Maybe they don’t like their legs, or their arms, or they’re five pounds over weight… whatever it may be you have to calm that in them. And I’m not a therapist, I do wardrobes.
Karl: But man, you’re probably relied on so much for that. That must be such a big part of your job, instilling confidence and making people feel attractive.
Sam: Sure, if the energy is there, then yes, you can calm them down. They may look good, but if they don’t feel good, then they’re going to exude that and hold you responsible.
Karl: Can you paint a picture of yourself outside of The Giving Closet? What are your hobbies, what do you like to do in your free time?
Sam: As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I like to spend time with nature. I love to walk. I love to turn the tv off and listen to my thoughts. I love to hone in on what makes me happy. I grew up dreaming of travel, celebrity, and fashion. Then when I was exposed to it in my thirties, I realized that it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So now I’m focused more on the internal things that will make my life complete.
Karl: That sounds very meditative. Are you into that?
Sam: I’m open to it. My version of meditation is just to sit in the quiet and take a long, hot bath. I don’t practice meditation, I just live that light and bring it into my life.
Karl: You appear to be in great shape, do you exercise a lot?
Sam: Oh God. I’ve been in the suburbs for the last year so I’ve actually put on about fifteen pounds that I’ve been fighting to get off.
Karl: All that good food.
Sam: Lots of good food. Also the East Coast verses West Coast diets are very different. That’s definitely an adjustment. It’s meat-and-potatoes-land where I am.
Karl: Where are you based out of?
Sam: The suburbs of D.C., about twelve miles outside of the district.
Karl: It’s been good to you? You’re happy there?
Sam: It’s magical. My partner and I are on four acres of land in this really yummy house. We can’t see or hear our neighbors. It’s the total opposite of my LA life.
Karl: Yes, when did LA life start? You came here from Texas then?
Sam: I was born and raised in Austin before working as a wardrobe stylist in Houston for years. I had the opportunity to do full time work for the May Company, but I had to turn it down at the advice of my agent. She said, “You’re too young, you need to go to a bigger market and challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone.” So I did. I came to Los Angeles in the Spring of 1999.
Karl: Tell me about coming here. What was that like? Were you starving, were you partying?
Sam: Totally starving – I came out with $700. I waited tables in Long Beach for two years. I rented a room from this really quirky gay couple who were hardcore S&M. I didn’t judge at all, it’s their thing, not my thing. I think they were hoping they could add me to their harem which never quite happened, but it was very eye opening – all the freedom and seeing the way people live here.
Karl: So when did it happen, how did you break into the impenetrable LA fashion scene?
Sam: Well, I had a portfolio and the beginning of a strong resume, so it was really just a matter of someone taking a chance on me. To make a long story short, I met a woman who knew an agent who worked at Fred Segal Beauty and they brought me onto the roster.
Karl: I know so many people struggling to do that right now. I’m always impressed with people who come here with nothing and manage to pull that off.
Sam: It’s about personal relationships. There are no shortcuts. I came with almost nothing in my wallet and my family doesn’t have any show business contacts. I came out cold turkey. But If you can develop personal relationships, then someone will take a chance on you and have you on their set.
Karl: So you’re waiting tables in Long Beach, what brings you to West Hollywood?
Sam: I met a guy who was living here so I tried that out.
Karl: Was the S&M couple sorry to see you go?
Sam: *laughs* Yea, they were. I think so, for sure. But I said, “Peace out, you guys do your thing and I’ll do my thing.”
Karl: You seem very outgoing, did you fit right in here?
Sam: Gosh, I don’t know. Has anyone ever fit right in in West Hollywood? There are so many layers of it. You might think you fit in here, but yet you don’t over there. There’s a lot of separatism still going on. Although I had great luck with my career here, I just never had great luck with my relationships. I found people to be detached from healthy commitments, although I can only speak for myself. I’m a romantic, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and the wrong people can take advantage of that. I had to learn that the hard way. I wouldn’t change anything, it all helped me find my voice today.
Karl: Did you like it here at the time?
Sam: I liked certain things about it. I love where we are geographically, and the shopping and eateries. Socially, I’m still a little disconnected from it. I still struggle with that, even when I come back for these little visits. I don’t blame it on the natives, I blame it on the people who come here to reinvent themselves in whatever their line of work is. You never really get a sense of who they are and what their true intent is. I find it very plentiful here and frustrating.
Karl: Yes, that’s a major complaint here – that you never meet genuine people. It seems different on the East Coast doesn’t it?
Sam: Yes, over there people are either into you or not into you.
Karl: Right. Whereas here people tend to float between both and never commit to one or the other.
Sam: Or they keep you around because maybe you’ll service them later.
Karl: So tell me the events that led you to leave here.
Sam: I met my current partner online who was based outside of D.C. I was charmed by our conversations so I took a chance, flew out there on a date, and the rest is history.
Karl: So you left because of love?
Sam: Well, I sure wasn’t finding it here.
Karl: Can you describe some of the changes you’ve seen over the time that you’ve lived here and visited?
Sam: You know, it just keeps growing, and growing, and growing. It doesn’t ever seem to stall. That can be great for the economy, it’s great for prosperity, but it does something to us socially that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know if it’s the healthiest place for me to live as I get older. But it’s a great career town which is why I come back for these trips.
Karl: Well, you know you’re in a good place when you’re describing your property in acreage as opposed to square feet.
Sam: *laughs* Well, I want both worlds. I want the beauty and excitement of being here, but the serenity of the East Coast. I’m still trying to figure out how to make that work.
Karl: Do you struggle for business opportunities in D.C.?
Sam: Yes, I do. I’ve been learning a lot about the non-profit sector, which is definitely on my radar. D.C. and Baltimore are perfect for that. As far as fashion, entertainment, and developing a reality show, that’s not necessarily the place for it.
Karl: You may have to move back here if you land that show.
Sam: Yes, or split my time.
Karl: Is your partner able to pick up?
Sam: *Nods while biting into turkey burger*
Karl: He is? Good.
Sam: We’ve had a dialogue about it, but until you have that deal on the table, it’s just theory.
Karl: Where do you like to go out when you’re here?
Sam: Typical homo hang outs. I love the Abbey. I don’t like it on Saturday nights. It’s just too much… the line to get in… it’s just not comfortable. I much more prefer it on weeknights. I love how loungey it is, I love loungey places.
Karl: Has the area visibly changed much?
Sam: I’m always enamored by the developments that come up, like the Tender Greens that popped up and the beautiful building above that.
Karl: The Hancock Lofts?
Sam: Love that! It’s so beautiful. And watching how the Abbey continues to evolve over the years. And Here Lounge was cool, then not so cool, and now it’s sort of cool again. I enjoy watching all the ups and downs of the scene.
Karl: Do you miss the intimacy the abbey used to offer?
Sam: I try to celebrate prosperity.
Karl: What do you miss?
Sam: I miss Amoeba in Hollywood. I think about it often. I think, “Today is my day off, I would normally be going to Amoeba for two hours going through movies and music.” And I miss a lot of my friends here. I don’t miss the celebrity segment at all. It wasn’t even the celebrities themselves, it was more their wives, or their kids, and how they acted.
Karl: It’s a segment of LA that has become something like a landmark, except that they’re people. They’re human tourist traps. People come here and get on buses to go see these people and their homes. In New York, no one ever wants to go anywhere near Times Square because it’s so damn annoying to be there. The celebrities have become our equivalent of that. There’s so much to like about LA, it’s a shame that’s what we’re identified with. But I get the excitement. It’s sexy to people.
Sam: Whatever brings light to people’s lives. It’s all good.
Karl: What are your friends into? What sorts of people do you associate with? Fashion experts?
Sam: I don’t hang out with fashion people at all. I just can’t handle the conversations. My friends do all kinds of different things, but the common denominator is they’re all spiritual. Those are the types of people I associate with. They could be an agent, or an actor, or a trash man, but they have to have that sort of common denominator.
Karl: Is there anything that you would like to see more of here?
Sam: More parking. And more nature. There are so many beautiful lawns and parks here, I would like to see that never be compromised. It makes me sad to see someone take down a field to put up a condo. It’s one of those growing pains of all that prosperity.
And what about you?
Karl: No one wants to read about me.
Sam: You have a partner. *points to wedding ring*
Karl: I’m married, to a girl, almost a decade.
Sam: How presumptuous of me.
Karl: Two kids – five and three.
Sam: Really?! How is it being a heterosexual male, raising your family in West Hollywood?
Karl: It’s very easy, and educational.
Sam: That’s awesome because hopefully the next generation will want to focus on bigger issues than taking away the rights of their gay friend. There are bigger problems to face.
Karl: I’m convinced the whole issue will go away very soon.
Sam: You’re the kind of dad I would want if I were thirteen and coming out of the closet. “Dad, I’m gay…” “Great… Do your homework.”
Karl: It’s been interesting, but good, and healthy.
Sam: But how is it when you go to Trader Joe’s by yourself and you get hit on constantly and cruised non-stop?
Karl: It makes me feel like I need to work out more to be honest.
Sam: That’s why I didn’t want to come back for this interview fifteen pounds heavier. I thought, “they’re going to shoot me and hang me.”
Karl: I know. Everyone is so judgmental about it here. No one cares about your skin color or your sexual orientation…
Sam: But you’d better be a thirty inch waist! I remember someone was putting together a production, and they were hiring for the backstage crew – the wardrobe stylist and hair and makeup… and along with work experience, “attractive” was one of the credentials!
Karl: I know, it can be absurd here. Did you come out in LA, or before moving here?
Sam: I came out when I was in junior high, I was thirteen years old in Austin, Texas. I was very lucky to come out in Austin because it’s a very liberal city with a lot of free thinkers. It’s a blue city within a red state. I had lots of friends, and parents of friends, who were cool with me being the gay kid. I had a bad report card one year and needed to distract my mom, so when she asked about it I said, “Well, it’s bad, and I’m gay.” So we talked about that, and it diffused the bad report card. I kind of worked my mom like that a little bit. I never told my dad. He died when I was fifteen, so I was off the hook.
Karl: I’m sorry. Do you think he suspected?
Sam: I’m sure he suspected.
Karl: That must have been difficult.
Sam: My mom is a survivor. I think that’s why I do The Giving Closet, because I’m always on the hunt for survivors and how I can help empower them a little bit. It comes back to watching my mom as a widow with three boys, no college degree but really freakin’ book smart, trying to keep us fed and taken care of. She’s still in Austin, now remarried. They just built their dream home and she’s so happy. She found that guy that treats her like a princess consistently and couldn’t wish for anything more.
Karl: How do you picture the area in 20 years?
Sam: It will be prosperous, with beautiful buildings, beautiful homes, and beautiful landscaping. It will still have places to see and do, and people to see and do. It will always have opportunity. I think it will be less of a gay part of town. It will continue to become more mixed and as a result, the schools will improve. “Build it and they shall come.”
Karl: Do you see it being more or less desirable as a place to live?
Sam: I think it would be more desirable if they’d link up a damn freeway – something running from the 10, up and down Fairfax!
Karl: How would you describe the current attitude of West Hollywood?
Sam: It is the epitome of I, I, I, I, I. I don’t like to generalize people or neighborhoods, but I hope, as a community, we can evolve past being stuck on the surface and understand the oneness that connects us all. We all want a nice place to live, we all want the best for our neighbors, our kids, our friends, and our family… We all want vacation time, we all want nice weather… We’re all so connected… People get so caught up in separatism and I don’t like to participate in that. Rich verses poor, free verses not free, bear verses twink, HIV+ verses HIV-, republican verses democrat, straight verses gay… and this… LA, West Hollywood is the hub of all that! We just magnify it here, it’s in your face! “Yeah, you’re not as pretty as me,” and “Yeah, you’re not as rich as me… so I’m going to run the fuck over you!” I think it’s so ugly. You may be luckier than some people, but you’re better than no one. The reason that our world is in such chaos is that we love things, and we use people. It should be the other way around.
Karl: Did you write that?
Sam: I hoard good quotes from Facebook, repeat them twenty times, then tell myself they’re mine.
Karl: Well… Let’s go with it. It’s good stuff.