Rubbing elbows with royalty
By Chad Ingram
Published Aug. 23, 2018
The following is a sequel to the feature “Growing Up Gay in Haliburton County”, which was published during last year’s Minden Pride event.
Designer and decorator Sinclair Russell says it was ultimately his sexuality that led to a career that would eventually take him around the world, crossing paths with celebrities and members of high society along the way.
“Because I was gay, I got into some very interesting career moves, and kind of built one on the other,” says Russell.
Born and raised in Haliburton County, Carnarvon to be specific, Russell, 74, moved to Toronto toward the end of his high school years, where he discovered a whole community of young men like himself. Had he been straight, he muses, he may have simply taken a day job in Haliburton County and never left.
His first job in the industry was designing window displays for Simpsons department store in Toronto, a line of work Russell says was almost exclusively the domain of gay men. From there, he took a job designing displays for Bonniers department store on New York City’s Madison Avenue, the Bonniers being an extremely wealthy family of Swedish descent.
“That’s where I met some interesting people in the fashion industry,” Russell says, explaining the high-profile Bonniers were connected to all sorts of other rich and famous people.
“So I met Kurt Vonnegut,” he says, producing a photo spread showing him and the famous author at an event together. “They were all friends.”
One character connected to the Bonnier family was actor Kevin McCarthy, whose friends included other actors, such as Peter Falk.
“All of a sudden, I got to have dinner with these movie stars,” Russell says. “I was just this kid from Carnarvon.”
Fashion designer friends included Geoffrey Beene and Daniel Hechter, the latter of whom Russell once paid a visit to at his Paris penthouse.
“His apartment was the top two floors,” he recalls. While Russell was there, he says, Hechter’s daughter and a friend came in briefly.
“After they left, he said, ‘Do you know who that was?’”
“I said, ‘Yeah, that was your daughter,’” Russell says.
“He said, ‘Yeah, but do you know who the other girl was?’”
“I said, ‘No,’” Russell recalls. “He said, ‘That was Princess Stephanie of Monaco.”
Stephanie was not the only princess Russell would meet during his career.
For the millennium New Year’s Eve, he was in Switzerland where he did decor for a party thrown by Hungarian-born Canadian businessman Peter Munk and his wife Melanie. Among the elite members of the guest list was Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, with her daughters, Eugenie and Beatrix.
“Sarah and the girls were there,” Russell, an avid royal-watcher, says, pointing to a photo in his album.
Among other celebrities Russell crossed paths with during his career, were Sir Alan Bates, Rudolph Nureyev, Peter O’Toole and fashion icons Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani. As part of a long eclectic career, Russell designed showrooms in Florence, Milan and Rome.
While Minden may be a long way from Madison Avenue or the runways of Italy, Russell has lent his panache and eye for detail to a number of local events since returning to Haliburton County a few years ago. They include Festival of the August Moon, the Minden Hills Festival of Trees, the annual Christmas light up in downtown Minden and Minden Pride, of which he was a founder.