From Near-Death to Hollywood: The Giving Closet Founder, Sam Russell, Says Positivity Prevails

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By Re

A single mother of two battling Celiac Disease—the same disease to which she lost her mother. A single mother in the troubled city of Detroit, out of a job for over a year, caring for her sick mother and all the while keeping her four kids on honor roll. A cancer survivor in Los Angeles dreaming of getting back to work. Hiding in both the shadows and broad daylight are women across the nation tenaciously kicking out hovel doors of abuse and illness, dreaming of self-sufficiency but devoid of the resources to pursue meaningful work.

“Those are the kind of people in our society that I want to celebrate. The vulnerable are just as important to our society,” said Hollywood image-maker and founder of The Giving Closet, Sam Russell.

Russell, who’s worked with the likes of Sophia Bush, Jeannie Mai, Melora Hardin, Donna Mills, Dedee Pfeiffer, Jon Hamm, Colin Farrell and Chuck Lorre, decided in 2011 that he wanted to redirect the designer clothes, handbags and shoes typically reserved for the stars he styled to everyday women with stories of resilience and perseverance. He’s thus far surprised 12 women at risk with upgraded wardrobes valued at $10k a person, fostering empowerment and confidence in each.

A survivor of domestic abuse, Russell intimately understands the haunting feelings of powerlessness, fear and shame that the recipients of The Giving Closet have each experienced to some capacity.

“I am not supposed to be alive today. My father was plotting to kill me, my two younger brothers and my mother. If not for my father’s heart attack and sudden death at the age of 33, my immediate family would not be here today. My mother’s brother sexually abused me as a child. But at the age of six, cosmic intervention would once again prevail. My familial abuser was decapitated in a car accident. Time and again, the magic of the universe would be my protector. A battered self-esteem from personal traumas early on and a future of sexual abuse, abusive relationships and disconnect from God would take me into dark rooms few people ever recover from,” he said. “But I made a choice to, despite my childhood, have a happy adulthood. And I’m very stubborn, very cocky about being optimistic…I didn’t go to college. I barely got out of high school. I had all these adult issues happening to me as a teenager; I couldn’t think about school. I try to share some of my good luck. If I can share that with anyone else who’s come from a place that’s dark, then I have a reason to live. Catering to celebrities’ egos was not enough for me. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. And despite where you came from, you can have a magical life. You can manifest your path wherever your heart desires.”

For him, his heart was in fashion. Russell began modeling in Houston, Texas before his agent, Page Parkes, recognized his keen eye for wardrobe styling. She invited him to follow her around for three days, taking notes, when a friend called asking if he knew any stylists. He’s been a television and editorial wardrobe stylist for over 10 years in the Los Angeles market, since.

I am not supposed to be alive today…I made a choice to, despite my childhood, have a happy adulthood.

“I moved to LA in 1999. I had no car and $700 to my name. I knew two people in Southern California. I stayed on a friend’s couch for two weeks and then rented a room for a gay couple in Long Beach. It took me two years and then I broke into Hollywood,” he recalled in vivid memory. “I never came into the business from a place of ego…It’s a very ego-driven business and if you can just step back for a moment and realize how lucky you are to work in show business, people will respond to that.”

Russell wrapped up his fourth television show in December 2008 as the supervising stylist for TLC’s Ten Years Younger season four. In January 2009 he personally accompanied Motown legend Stevie Wonder as his supervising stylist for all of his Washington DC appearances including the Presidential Inauguration, the White House Correspondents Dinner and the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song ceremony.

“How did this kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Austin, Texas, end up a Hollywood VIP guest of Chuck Lorre on the studio lot and accompany Stevie Wonder to Washington, DC to meet our newly elected president in 2009?” he asked.

And in 2011, an epiphany changed the course of his life, yet again.

“I was leaving the house of this actress I had worked with a lot over the years, and I was feeling kind of taken advantage of. Her career kind of stalled. I set up a photo shoot with Maxim through a friend of a friend to kind of help her career and I had a pair of shoes on set. She loved shoes. She kept asking, ‘Oh, can I keep these?’ and I thought to myself, I have given her so much free stuff over the years—free shoes, free make up, free handbags—I just didn’t want to give her the shoes,” he explained. “Gosh, if I could take that pair of shoes and give them to a woman in need, what would that do for her? It was really just that idea that was sort of a light bulb moment. Once it hit me, it really changed the course of my life.”

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The birth of The Giving Closet as a passion project would be the conduit to his own self-healing and the driving force for creating structure in his life. Today, Russell lives between LA and DC, networking with social service agencies and organizations to seek recipients of The Giving Closet, who, at an arranged surprise event, are gifted a wardrobe of about 30 to 50 outfits, 15 pairs of shoes and five handbags, as well as style consulting, career coaching and, oftentimes, job opportunities.

“Whether she is going to a job interview or she’s at the park with her kids, I want her to have some confidence,” he said. “I personalize it. It depends on what’s going on in their lives. I had one recipient from Long Island. She’s a mom of five and she was going back to school to become a lawyer. That was her dream. She had no job. She had no car. She was bussing to school. So I thought about a new pair of tennis shoes to wear at the bus stop, but also…I went through my resources and I found a lawyer in New York who wanted to be her mentor. I connected them, so he is now guiding her—whether she is trying to find money for grants, etc. etc. I had a recipient who was dreaming of becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood, a cancer survivor. I went through my network and I connected her to the guys at Sleepy Hollow, big Hollywood producers. They hired her as a paid intern. Any way I can help them, I will, because I can’t just use all these big Hollywood contacts for the elite; that’s just absurd.”

Despite where you came from, you can have a magical life.

Russell works with about three to four women a year, noting that each recipient takes about a month of prep—and the passion project is entirely out of pocket, which means he works as much as his own budget permits.

“The nonprofit will send me a picture of what she looks like and that’s all I need. Then I use my know-how of dressing actors who I’ve never met before. I sort of had to get information, look at pictures of them and then pull together looks; I use that same mindset. Then, I go to the publicist and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a mom with an amazing story, size 10, can you help me?’” he explained.

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Southwest Airlines also offers help by sponsoring many of Russell’s flights across the country through the sharing of buddy passes.

“A girlfriend of mine named Kelly Turner was a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines and she was helping me by giving me some of her extra buddy passes whenever she could,” he explained—before she was tragically murdered by her boyfriend. “Her coworkers started reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I want to sponsor your next trip,’ so that’s really keeping this alive. It take a village to make magical things happen.”

Because a good must continue in Turner’s name, Russell now dedicates his project to her.

“She was such a light, such goodness and such a good person,” much like the women Russell helps. “People see these women as role models. They see them come from the other side of something and now here they are today. They go out and change their attitudes and their energies. They go out and track new relationships.”

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Russell’s first recipient from San Diego was also involved in an abusive relationship. Today, she works a second job and has become a homeowner.

“It gave me my confidence back. I could leave the house feeling good about myself…I felt like I was me again,” Christina, a two-time cancer survivor now in remission and The Giving Closet recipient, told Curiosity Magazine in 2014. “I know it sounds silly. It’s just clothes. But, when a girl puts on the dress that just fits right, or that just makes you feel good about yourself, it just affects your whole being.”