F ans of Neal Hamil (who wait breathlessly for the witty, out Houstonian to write a tell-all about his globetrotting adventures in the world of supermodels) can get a peek into Hamil’s rock-star history on November 2 when he accepts the first Lifetime Achievement Award from Runway Houston.
“I will sit on a stool for about 40 minutes and tell some funny stories,” he says. Are your ears burning, Mick Jagger? Gloria Steinem? Naomi Campbell? The former mannequin and top modeling agent was a French-horn player at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown when a fellow student talked him into applying at the Ben Shaw Agency in Houston. “I said, ‘I’ll go if you’ll go,’” says Hamil, who was signed immediately.
His first modeling job was on local TV’s Good Morning, Houston with hosts Don Nelson and the late Jan Glenn. His first fashion show was at Neiman Marcus, where Texas legend Dallas Hill told Hamil as he stepped off the runway, “Honey, you’re gonna be a star!”
But Hamil never liked modeling. “I was more focused on what the agents were doing,” he says. “I would think, ‘That has got to be the coolest job.’” It’s a sentiment that Nelson Mandela confirmed years later when Hamil escorted his superstar client Naomi Campbell to South Africa. “Mandela turned to me and said, ‘I have decided that you have the best job in the world.’ It kind of was! There were lots of really entertaining moments. Mind-blowing ones, like going to dinner with Madonna,’” Hamil recalls.
Hamil met his mentor, the late Eileen Ford, when she judged model search contests at the modeling agency he opened in Houston. She convinced him to sell the company and move to New York City, where Ford held an elaborate luncheon to anoint him as her compadre in front of “all the people that really mattered” in the beauty industry.
“It was a full-court press,” says Hamil. “Eileen started me off at the top of the food chain. It was like being at the right hand of Louie B. Mayer at a movie studio.” Ford also invited Hamil into her inner circle of friends, hosting him every Saturday or Sunday at her country home where they would rub shoulders and “get a little drunk” with the rich and famous at lunch, and then retire to her “magnificent library” for best-buddy time.
“She would curl up and tuck her legs underneath her, and purr like a kitten, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’” says Hamil. In contrast, he recalls, “She was a lion who never stopped roaring during the week.”
During his 26 years in the Big Apple, wheeling and dealing at Ford Models and Elite Model Management, Hamil traveled the world many times over. Returning to Houston about five years ago, he settled happily into a job that doesn’t require travel. As president of Carnan Properties, Hamil is a Realtor in Houston’s high-end luxury real-estate market, and he gets to spend quality time with his labradoodle, Oliver.
As far as his romantic life, he says, “It was never the most important thing to me. I was always so busy; I was always traveling. Most of my early life, I usually had a boyfriend who I dated for five or six years, or even ten.”
It was man’s best friend that changed his whole perspective on life and love. “I bought this sweet Schnauzer puppy, who I named Greta, and she was like a person. She relied on me completely, and she changed how I think. I used to look at cows and I saw steak, but then I looked into her eyes and I said, ‘There’s someone in there.’ It turned me into an animal activist.”
Greta lived for 13 years, and when she passed away it was amidst the deaths of the “key people” in Hamil’s life—“the posts that hold you up,” including Eileen Ford, his parents, and the switchboard operator at Elite Model Management. “She was from a poor black family and it surprised her when I asked her if I could take her to lunch. She thought, ‘Look at you, white boy from Texas,’ but that day began an incredible friendship. See, I was not raised around racism. Race was never, ever an issue with me; it never occurred to me. She thought I was going to turn out to be something else, but she turned out exactly the way I thought she would be—someone who was really awesome.”
Growing up in Baytown, he says it was much more likely that somebody would beat you up for being gay than for being black. “On the playground at school, I learned to keep my head down; I learned to watch myself. There was another part of our psyche that we had to develop. I am conflicted still with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ because I think it reinforced that people in the military had to stay hidden. To me, that is very, very unhealthy. It drives people to alcoholism and drug addiction and self-harm.”
Hamil emerged as something of a sage elder-statesman in the LGBTQ community, with humor obviously among his coping strategies. Among his favorite “funny stories” is how Zsa Zsa Gabor shook off the embarrassment of being caught nude sunbathing while she was in Houston to perform at a dinner theater.
“She told me this story in person, and I about died laughing,” says Hamil. “The producer had rented her a house with a pool (which was in her contract), and she was sunning nude, thinking that no one could see her. But there was a guy on a utility pole who she didn’t see for the longest. As he was coming down, he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re Zsa Zsa Gabor!’
Without missing a beat, she said, ‘No, no, no, dahling. I’m her sister Eva.’”
What: Reception and award presentation honoring Neal Hamil, (a benefit for Dress for Success Houston)
When: Wednesday, Nov. 2, 6:30–8:30 p.m.
Where: The Decorative Center, 5120 Woodway Dr.
This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.