PGN: Tell me about growing up in South Philly.
HG: It’s loud! I’m a big history buff and in the era before modern supermarkets, people came to the Italian Market for food. The competition was fierce between the vendors and they got loud and crazy as they vied for patrons and it’s still like that. If I don’t hear fighting I think there’s a problem. I grew up with a big Italian family so our “talking” level is other people’s yelling. My family had a store in the Italian Market and I worked there since I was 9. I’m very proud of that and our history there. We’ve been in the same spot at Ninth and Washington for almost 100 years.
PGN: What kind of store?
HG: They sell fruit, produce, dairy, wholesale, retail, chicken, cheese. [Laughs.] You name it, they’ve sold it, but it started with fruit and produce.
PGN: Big family?
HG: Oh yes, my great-great grandparents had 13 children and each of them had at least six children. I only have one sibling, my sister Christine, but I have lots of cousins and extended family. All very loud and happy.
PGN: Favorite family gathering?
HG: Well, Italian Thanksgiving and Italian Christmas are always food marathons. I’m particularly fond of Christmas because I get to dress up as Santa for my niece and her cousins. Hey, I fit the suit, might as well work it! I’m the gay man who’s all about the traditional. I love the whole Norman Rockwell idea.
PGN: Did your parents work at the store?
HG: No, neither one. My mother’s originally from Florida and she worked in insurance, and my father was a police officer for 35 years. He’s now retired but does some IT consulting for the state police.
PGN: What did you like to do as a kid?
HG: I grew up in a bustling, close-knit neighborhood. I always joked that I could be five blocks away from my house and still get in trouble with my mother because I knew everyone on every street and they knew me and if you did something wrong, by the time you walked home your mother knew about it. I didn’t enjoy it so much growing up but, looking back, there was a safety in it because A) you had to watch what you did and B) there was always someone looking out for you. As far as what I did, well, me and basketball — no, thank you. Me and baseball — no, thank you. Football — no, thank you. Tap dancing — yes, please! And theater. My mother knew the deal with me since I was little.
PGN: Theater roles?
HG: Oh, if there was a big dummy role in a musical, it was mine. It’s a novelty to have someone my size who can tap and sing.
PGN: What was your worst stage mishap?
HG: Ha! When I split my pants in the middle of a song playing the role of Nicely-Nicely in “Guys and Dolls.” I had to walk around the rest of the show backing on and off the stage. It was 1985, I was in high school and it was awful. I still check my tush when I get up. [Laughs.] Thanks for bringing it up, Suzi! Now I have to go to therapy.
PGN: So where did you go for college?
HG: I went to Drexel to study fashion design but I was unbelievably awful at it. So after I graduated, what I would do when I showed a collection was make it a fundraiser so people would come. I did one for amfAR and ActionAIDS and several other nonprofits. One year I did a show to benefit City of Hope. My collection was a complete bomb but the party was a big hit. We raised $4,000, which was a good amount then. A year later, I started working for them and have been here for 17 years. I found my career because I stunk as a designer.
PGN: Tell me a little about City of Hope.
HG: We’re an independent biomedical research, treatment and education institution and are one of the leaders in the fight against cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. We work with the sickest of the sick in the cancer field and pioneered bone-marrow transplants. Out of the top four cancer drugs on the market today, three of them are because of us. We are one of the few hospitals in the country approved to create our own medicine and we have the fastest bench-to-bedside rates in the country. Which means getting it from the trial stage to application within months as opposed to years.
PGN: That’s great. Didn’t Robin Roberts just have a bone-marrow transplant?
HG: Yes, in fact she was one of our honorees at one of our Manhattan events (I’m responsible for our chapters from Virginia to Maine), and she was our Woman of the Year two years ago. She was wonderful, so strong and such an inspiration for women ... and tall!
PGN: And what do you do?
HG: I’m a professional suck-up. [Laughs.] Well, that’s what I tell people when they ask. Actually I’m the senior director of development so I’m responsible for the fundraising. We have auxiliary chapters that raise money, we do a women’s cancer walk and this is pretty important because it’s not just for breast cancer or ovarian or lung cancer — we cover all types of cancer in women. Each year we start at the River Shark stadium in Camden. Our Walk for Hope is on Sept. 22 this year. I also do an event called Hope Cuts, which is now the largest hair-cut-a-thon of its kind in Philadelphia. Our first year we raised about $1,400, and this year we’ll raise a few hundred thousand, so I’m very proud of that. We also have a great event coming up April 15 called “Let Them Eat Cake” that’s going to be a blast. And I’m really excited that we’re participating in an event our friend Noel Zayas is having this Sunday [Jan. 27]. It’s called “Gorgeous” and it’s going to be a spectacular mix of art, music, photography and fashion. Kharisma Mcilwaine from the CW and Mike Jerrick from “Good Day Philadelphia” are hosting and they’re going to have music from various DJs and CBE events, Fuego Dance company and FreshHER, make-up demonstrations from Susan Sorrell, hair demos, pop-up boutiques and a lot more. I hope everybody comes out for it, as it will be great fun for a good cause. I’ve known Noel for over 20 years and he always puts on spectacular events, so I know this one will be “gorgeous!” Noel and Bruce Yelk are two of the best party promoters in the city. We’re grateful and honored to be recipients of part of the proceeds.
PGN: So, changing gears, where do I get the best water ice?
HG: Oh my God, John’s Water Ice at Seventh and Christian. I grew up with the family. I love, love, love water ice and I swear by them.
PGN: What were your best and worst subjects?
HG: I loved history and English and was terrible at anything that had to do with math. Just absolutely awful. I went to summer school two years in a row for trig and calc. To this day I can’t add. It’s pathetic; I run the office but I can’t add.
PGN: What was your first car?
HG: A 1981 two-door Chevette. It was ridiculous. It was one of those teeny, tiny cars and I was such a large boy it looked like they built the car around me. Once I was angry at someone on the Schuylkill and started beeping my horn at them when it popped out and gave me a black eye. These are the kinds of things that happen to me on a daily basis. I’m that guy. I walk into walls and trip down steps at the mall.
PGN: What was your craziest accident?
HG: I was riding a bicycle on the sidewalk and got hit by a car. That takes mad skills to be in a bike and car accident on the sidewalk. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen to me. [Laughs.] I just accept these things.
PGN: And I read you’re a recovering Catholic?
HG: Oh, my mother’s not going to want to read that! I believe in a greater power and firmly believe every religion has something great to offer ... except Scientologists. They scare me. I like the Amish but would it kill them to wear some other colors and do their hair once in a while?
PGN: Any pets?
HG:I have three cats rescued from PAWS. They’re my kids.
PGN: Pet peeves?
HG: Cheap people. That person who has to itemize everything when you’re splitting the bill at lunch so that they only have to pay $4.95. That drives me insane.
PGN: I laughed when I read one of your postings that said, “I’m not a fan of people shouting, ‘Hey big guy,’ when I’m out on the street. Please know when you are doing this I am secretly imagining bashing you in the head with a 2 x 4.”
HG: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s usually people on the street or who don’t really know me but think they’re endearing themselves to me by calling me “big guy.” Oh, I just hate it.
PGN: Something instilled in you by your parents?
HG: Good manners. My mother was the manner Nazi and it sticks with you. At 43, I still don’t put my elbows on the table and it drives me crazy if I see a guy get out of an elevator without holding the door for a woman. Thank you, yes ma’am, yes sir — politeness is very important to me. And I admit I judge people by their manners; I know I shouldn’t but I do. Money doesn’t impress me — anyone can have money — the size of your house doesn’t impress me. Artistic talent and good manners are what I enjoy in a person. Just be kind to people. Cruelness of any kind is a turnoff. I don’t care if you think it’s funny, don’t pick on someone else and make them the brunt of your jokes. I’ve never gotten into a fight for myself but, being a big guy, I’ve stepped in on other people’s behalf. I don’t like bullies.
PGN: Prize possession?
HG: I have a signet ring from my great-great-great grandfather. It’s over 200 years old and has a Roman soldier on the front carved out of ... hmm, I’m not sure, but my grandmother gave it to me. She was my best friend and the first one I told I was gay. She said, “I always knew you were gay because you were great with color.” Not sure what that meant. Later on she told me that she was thrilled that I was gay because that way no woman would ever come between us. She was very cool. A total diva; I never saw her with gray hair. She was the one who fostered my love of fashion. We’d walk every Sunday to get the New York Times and she’d always give me the fashion section. Back then South Street was all hippy and punk stores and she was the one person I could talk to about clothes. You know you can’t really talk to your father about hemlines!
PGN: So tell me about coming out.
HG: You know, I never really had to and I’m not a big advocate of coming out. It’s a pet peeve of mine. My straight friends didn’t have to, so why do I need to make an announcement? But I’m lucky because my family fostered a sense of pride in “who you are,” and that that was what was important. I realize not everyone had it so good. When my father said something it was, “I love you no matter what, just don’t be a jerk.” As long as I acted like a gentleman and wasn’t a jerk, he didn’t care what I was. I’m still friends with all my friends from high school and they’re all straight. And I’ve never toned anything down, I am the same now as I was when I was tap dancing at 5!
PGN: Biggest clothing disaster?
HG: Oh, I’ve had many. The one that sticks out is from the ’90s, when I decided that I was a good tailor and designed a red jacket with black leather pocket squares for myself. It came down to the knees and I wore that jacket all the time because I thought it was so hip and so cool, and I’d made it. Most of the pictures of me for three years were all of me in that jacket. Finally in 1993 some of my friends did a red-jacket intervention and took it away. I thought I was so cool, but looking back it was like a badly tailored zoot suit. I’ve had some other ones where I thought, Why not have a 300-pound person in sequins?” I found out why not ...
PGN: Something funny you did that your parents still talk about.
HG: I used to think I was smooth. One time when I was 14 years old, I was going to a freshman mixer and thought I’d be really cool and sneak a bottle of Jack Daniels out of the house. First of all, I never really drank before so I didn’t know what I was sneaking out (I absolutely hate brown liquor), and I was trying to sneak it out under my jacket. My father clearly noticed and said, “Come give me a hug before you leave.” Now my father is an ex-military Philly cop. Not exactly a huggy, squeezy guy. So of course I go up to him, hug him and the bottle falls out between my legs. He was like, “You know I should ground you but that was so dumb I’m embarrassed. Get out of here.” I’m terrible with stuff like that. I can’t lie to save my life. I start laughing.
PGN: Why I love Philadelphia ...
HG: It’s the greatest city in the world. D.C. is a little too slow, and New York is a little too fast. We’re the Goldilocks of cities, just right. I love the fact that I grew up knowing different cultures, different religions, different types of people and I love that Philadelphians don’t mince words. If we don’t like you, we’ll tell you right to your face. If you gain the respect of someone here, you know you can count on it. We’re not transient; people stay in Philadelphia. We have great restaurants, theater and culture. I love the historical aspect. I never wanted to live anywhere else. I like being friends with my dry cleaner, I like knowing everyone at my bank. I’m just that guy. I like walking down the street and knowing my FedEx and UPS guy by name — that’s not something you can do in New York, it’s too big and busy. Here I have great friends who I’ve known here for over 30 years and I have a great staff. I have to give them a plug. And great parties like “Gorgeous!”
“Gorgeous” will be held from 7-10 p.m. Jan. 26 at 10 Arts at the Ritz Carlton, 10 Avenue of the Arts. Tickets are $25, with proceeds benefiting City of Hope. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/events/308381922615590/.
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