Charleston Pierce is a man larger than life. He explodes into crowded rooms smile-over-heals, sends mass-texts at 2 o’clock in the morning and populates his Facebook Timeline with spiritual and motivational verses. His thirty-year career in the San Francisco fashion industry as a model and event-producer is unrivaled in both length and fortitude. And he is, without argument, the single greatest advocate a struggling model could ever hope for.
Which all but raises the question; Why won’t he just DIE ALREADY!?
I once stood with some friends in the industry at a private fashion event who exchanged uncomfortable glances when his name came up. An industry that praises reserve and elegance, Charleston’s exuberance makes people uncomfortable. “Did you hear about that event he’s doing in the East Bay next week?” a photographer asks. The group discusses his current projects as post-career work to his life as the star model in the legendary Macy’s Passport fashion show. They think he must be on the downfall.
Two nights later, he sends out an email with a video link to his new national Cadillac advertisement.
As obnoxiously unwavering Charleston’s glory and happiness seems to be, the truth is that a shadow always lurks just behind it waiting for a falter to launch an attack. But this isn’t a story with analogies about “haters.” This a is a story about a secret life-long war raging inside of Charleston’s head. The truth behind the smile. This is the twisted fiction behind the fashion industry’s facade that isn’t made up at all.
In the middle of a grocery store, in the middle of the projects, in the middle of San Francisco, in the middle of the 70s, a young Charlie Pierce is drooling over brand-name cereal that his mother won’t be able to afford. He is standing there alone having wandered off from his mother, something he never found hard to do being one of fourteen children.
“What are you doing here alone?” a man in a security uniform asks.
The man tells little Charlie that he is going to have to “search” him to see if he is stealing anything. But the man isn’t there to stop shoplifters. He isn’t there to protect anyone. He isn’t going to bring Charlie back to his mother. And he isn’t a security guard at all.
“What happened in that bathroom is history,” Charleston tells me in a rare moment when he breaks eye contact and loses focus in the carpet beneath his feet. But those are the words of wishes spoken by nearly one in ten children who become victim to a crime considered the most heinous of human acts. What was much more accurate to reality was the decade of self-hatred that plagued Charleston’s youth.
Completely and utterly lost in the indulgence of drugs and sex, Charleston looks back in awe of how he made it out of his teens alive. It’s something that a lot of people wonder when they look back at their reckless youths, but for a man standing 6’2″ with model-good looks there is a constant gravity attracting things to him that pushes everything he does to the extreme. Whatever he wanted to experiment with was at his disposal.
Something again happened when Charleston was 19-years-old. It might have been hitting rock-bottom. It probably had to do with religion and his parents who he says, “really walked-the-walk of the advice that they preached.” But Charleston turned his life around on the pivot of learning to love himself.
“Not in a direct prophetic way, but God said to me ‘I love you just the way you are.’ I realized that there is a force out there that loves you. Love is something that comforts you and makes you feel good and empowered. I felt empowered with knowledge that there is a creator and I am loved and connected to that power,” says Charleston.
He took another step forward studying acting at San Francisco’s School of the Arts where he developed confidence and determination. After receiving scholarships to NYU, Cal Arts and Boston University, Charleston chose to follow a greater love and stay in the Bay Area. He got married.
As Charleston found himself entering the world of fashion as a model he was once again confronted by predators. “I hated the fashion industry at first. Everyone wanted to know, ‘But what are you going to do for me?’ It put a bad taste in my mouth. Why couldn’t I just show up and do my work?” Charleston says.
Knowing who to trust in the fashion industry is a cunning game. Charleston knew all too well that you couldn’t take someone for their face value. “You have to do your research and check up on who is telling you things. Are they valid? What makes them valid? Do they have a history of success and working with successful people?”
Then at the age of 26, Charleston finally found the man who he could trust and would change his life. Larry Hashbarger, director of Macy’s Passport fashion show, told Charleston that he had what it takes to try out. Fast forward 15 years and Charleston is the longest running model on Macy’s catwalk.
“The 90s and my 30s was really the highlight of my career. There were so many opportunities in San Francisco for male models,” he says citing the times when Macy’s, JC Penny, Mervyn’s and Levi’s all had major presences in the city. When African American model Tyson Beckford took the country by storm in 1995 Charleston’s career surged in the wake. “I probably did 27 commercials, billboards and was even in a movie with Eddie Murphy.”
In 2005 Charleston was asked to continue working with Macy’s as a runway coach. “They always told the other models to watch me because of my attitude. Suddenly the words that I had learned to tell myself became my biggest contribution.”
He continued coaching Macy’s Passport for five more years until the economy forced them to downsize, but in 2007 Charleston launched “Charleston Pierce Presents” as an event production company after being asked to produce shows himself. He pulled together his own network of models to coach and then in 2012 was asked to teach a modeling class for San Francisco City College.
“I don’t think agencies really managed talent back then,” Charleston says while reflecting on the first message in his classes. “Agencies don’t really ask models, ‘What is your 10-year goal? What is your plan?’ I try and ask them, ‘What kind of model are you?’” He believes that models are like actors and cites his own ability of being able to play different parts as a primary contributor to his own success. “I was able to do almost any job because I could transform and be the sports guy or the business guy.”
His message has now evolved far beyond the fashion world to “The Runway of Life.” In his new book “Star Walk,” Charleston takes on everything from job interviews to relationships with the same principals that he once held for the strictly beautiful. He teaches you how to walk into a room like a star while analyzing what makes the real ones great; from Tina Turner and Tyra Banks to Elvis and Princess Diana.
Asserting that someone of any shape and size can “be a model” and walk their life like a runway sounds like the narcissistic over-confidence of a shameless self-promoting generation. It sounds like a recipe for the first episode of American Idol or the introduction to Paris Hilton’s biography. It sounds like Honey Boo Boo. It sounds like things I (want to) hate.
Charleston looks back at me like a true Honey Badger. “The Star Walk is part of it. It’s the opener that gets you in the door, but once you’re there you have to be ready and bring it. People will get setbacks all the same, but only when you truly love yourself and have unrelenting confidence to perservere can you honestly look at and fix your problems.”
“The truth is that I didn’t make it into Macy’s Passport the first time I auditioned,” he admits. “I tried twice and both times I failed. But my girlfriend forced me to go to the fashion show anyways and see what it was that I was missing. I did. I practiced all summer, came back again and finally got it.”
Even for Charleston, doubt and darkness is ever-present. ”You see Charleston Pierce. You see the smile. But you don’t see me in the morning and at night. You don’t see me on my knees struggling every day.”
Charleston is constantly moving and found that if he wasn’t forcing his thoughts to go one direction then they would inevitably fall the other. It is a constant battle of love and happiness against hate and deep sadness. What we see when Charleston explodes into a room is a man who woke up that morning and won that battle.
In the same way that Westboro Baptist Church reaffirms their beliefs of the opposite nature by “projecting” them at funerals, Charleston is keeping himself strong by encouraging others in his classes and book. He’s leading by example like his parents did while comfortably alliterating to the people he looks up to.
Charleston’s career is anything but slowing down. After making appearances on WomanNow TV and co-hosting Bay Area Vista with Janice Edwards, he was offered his own television show by Executive Producer Laura Rose called “Change Makers” where he will interview people who are changing the world around them.
He’s channeling his inner Oprah.
“I’m finally comfortable with my age too,” Charleston says after admitting to normally cutting up to 15 years off his true age. Charleston is turning 50 this summer.
He plans on having his eight-pack again.
“What’s most important to me is that people remember me and love me when I die. When I stop posting things on Facebook and people ask, ‘Where did you go?’ I know that I’m on the right track.” He wants his message of love to be his legacy.
He wants the Charlie in us all to create our own light.
Story and photography by Matthew Mountford
Styling by Renata Gar of Aver Styling
Special thanks to designer Franco Uomo, Santana Row
Twisted Fiction is a series of monthly profiles exploring the controversial and untold stories behind the fashion industry’s power players.