By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Pasadena Weekly Executive Editor
Sam Russell is an open book. As a 15-year-old in Austin, Russell was left without his police officer father after he was killed on duty.
He said it was the best thing that’s happened to him.
“He was a very abusive man,” said Russell, a Pasadena resident.
“My father was plotting to kill my family. It’s something we have not been allowed to talk about as adults. It was always dark when he was around. The darkness ended when he left the planet. I’m very thankful for all the light and the dark. It developed my personality as it is today and the boundaries that I draw.”
This leads to his story. He’s made it his mission to break the DNA code of suffering in his family tree by uplifting and celebrating strong women who persevere through hardships and go on to thrive.
The celebrity wardrobe stylist is sharing his wealth through the Giving Closet, a marriage of fashion and human-interest stories, ripe for transformational television and branded-content mediums. A recent giveaway was captured on HLN’s “Morning Express Starring Robin Meade,” where top designers like Byron Lars donated goods and received equitable placement.
The recipients are women who are survivors of cancer or violent trauma. These women are gifted a surprise wardrobe boost valued at more than $10,000. He recently bestowed this upon another woman at a private residence in Mount Washington.
“This very deserving woman experienced a near-death attack at the hands of her former husband,” Russell said. “This was regional breaking news in 2014.”
The complete rack of clothes for chosen women include everything from designer dresses, tops, handbags, jewelry and pajamas. Each surprise giveaway is unique and specific for the selected woman. Every garment and accessory are carefully selected and personally chosen by Russell, who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Jon Hamm, Chuck Lorre, Sophia Bush, Melora Hardin, Jeannie Mai and Donna Mills.
The Giving Closet is gratifying so many times over, he said.
“It’s about taking yourself out of your ego,” he said. “You are really focusing on your healthiest relationship. When I was obsessed in Hollywoodland, my goal was to make it to the next production or the next celebrity. I wasn’t focused on my well-being. My charity has allowed me to look at this deeper.”
Raised by a single mom
Russell was one of three boys raised by a single mother after his dad’s death.
He went to therapy for years, became involved in abusive relationships yet still learned to heal.
“No one heals in silence,” Russell said. “I tried to commit suicide twice. I suffered in silence. I ended up in an abusive relationship. I was a powerful, connected person behind the scenes.”
A three-year Pasadena resident, Russell came to Hollywood in 1999.
“I couldn’t take another hot summer in Texas,” he said. “I had no money to my name. I jumped on a Greyhound, stayed on a friend’s couch for a little bit and moved to the East Coast for a minute. My partner and I live in Pasadena. I feel so much more at home here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.”
The first person he worked with was Richard Tyler, whose South Pasadena home was gutted in the summer of 2012.
“It’s been a 360-degrees journey for me, now that I’m back in Pasadena,” Russell said. “I’ve been on a journey to see if fashion can spark joy. I came here in 1999 like everybody else, with a dream of working in showbusiness. I realized something was missing in my life. I needed to connect the dots.”
One day, he was driving down a canyon, leaving a celebrity’s home. He had free clothing and products and realized all of that would help a cancer or an abuse survivor.
“I put it into action,” he said. “That was the birth of Giving Closet.
“It’s been really cool seeing them afterward. I try to stay in touch with the 18 women. Out of those 18, 16 of them are success stories. That’s a really big ratio. It’s fun to see them three or six months later with job interviews, a new business or a new relationship. That’s the best part of it.”
He asks public relations handlers to reroute the small portion of the gifted items to the “amazing” women Russell finds through social workers, nonprofits or those sponsoring their reconstructive surgery.
“The element of surprise is key,” he said. “It’s about spirit. It’s not about ego. We can all break through. You just have to get in touch with the pain and work through what happened. If we put it out there, if we expose our wounds, they start to diffuse their power and pain. The only strength they have is when they sit inside of us in silence.”