PAWTUCKET — Each holiday season, the Pawtucket native who has successfully turned himself into “Santa to the Stars” undergoes another change and becomes “Babbo Natale,” a different, more spiritual type of Christmas figure that is revered in Italy and other parts of Europe.
For over three decades, Brady White has earned a highly successful living as a professional Santa Claus model and actor. Despite the recent media controversy about what “Santa” really looks like, White's snowy hair and matching beard, bright blue eyes and kindly demeanor still evokes most people's traditional image of Santa Claus from story books and movies. He was even inducted into the Santa Claus Hall of Fame in 2011.
Yet, while he earns his salary largely from the catalogs, advertisements, TV commercials and live appearances that push the commercial side of Christmas, White talks a lot these days about the religious aspect of the holiday, and the way that his Santa Claus figure, Babbo Natale, is received in the little village of San Giovanni Rotondo, where he lives part of the year.
Of course, Brady White is not ready to hang up his A-list Hollywood credentials just yet. He's still having fun posing with Nicholas Cage, John Travolta, Cher, Madonna, and other famous faces (and their children), modeling for high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor and Cartier, and playing Santa at the annual Christmas bashes at the Kardashians' home and star-studded Bel Air Country Club.
However, the Santa with the Lloyds of London-insured beard and over 60 custom outfits (including one of mink) finds himself drawn more frequently to the tranquil, more reflective pace of his second home across the Atlantic. White's mother was born in Italy, so he enjoys dual citizenship. He still owns a home in Pawtucket, but his villa in San Giovanni Rotondo, a village in southern Italy with a population of under 27,000, is the place that is most dear to his heart.
White notes that San Giovanni Rotondo was the home to “Padre Pio” or Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin monk who was believed to carry the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) for 50 years. St. Pio , who died on Sept. 23, 1968, has millions of devotees from around the world, and the village built the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church to honor him in 2004.
White hosts the only English TV program on the Tele Radio Padre Pio network, called “Hello from San Giovanni Rotondo.” which can be found on YouTube. This September 23, White gave commentary in English for the live, worldwide broadcast special of the vigil mass remembering Padre Pio on the EWTN network, in connection with the Tele Radio Padre Pio network, which he counts among his proudest moments.
This Jolly Old Elf has also met and shaken hands with Pope John Paul II, and witnessed the last Apostolic Blessing of Pope Benedict before he retired, both of which were extremely moving experiences for him. He says, “When I'm in San Giovanni Rotondo, I can't go down the street without people coming up to me and saying “Babbo Natale!” and touching my beard or taking my hand and kissing it.”
White didn't start out with the intention of being typecast as the “every man's” St. Nick. While growing up in Pawtucket, he attended St. Joseph's School on Walcott Street, spent one year at St. Raphael Academy and graduated from Tolman High School. He went on to what was Roger Williams Junior College and then headed to New York City to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
By day, the fledgling actor earned money working in Sak's 5th Avenue's shoe department, where he once waited on Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by her children, Caroline and John, Jr. From there, White was hired as a junior sales executive at the upscale Bonwit Teller department store, and continued trying to land acting roles.
White then decided to try his luck in Los Angeles, where the paying acting jobs were still few and far between. “I had the greatest landlady. She would allow me to pay the rent when I had the money. I've always remembered that,” he noted. “Those were lean years.”
Then, White took a job as Santa Claus at a mall in Beverly Hills. He so impressed his young visitors that he was voted “Best Santa in Southern California” in a Los Angeles Times newspaper poll. “It just turned around from there,” he stated.
White's big break came after he was hired for an advertising photo shoot for the luxury retailer Neiman Marcus. He posed in the snowy Swiss Alps with a beautiful woman modeling a white chinchilla coat, and the photo made the inside cover of the magazine Vanity Fair. “That's when my life changed,” he says.
After more than three decades as Santa, White continues to be in demand, and is in the midst of his busy season. This year, he kicked off the lighting of the famous Lord & Taylor Christmas windows at the flagship Manhattan store, and was prominently featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book launch. Here, he was photographed showing a 25-carat DeBeers diamond valued at $1.8 million and sitting astride Indian Larry's “Wild Child” motorcycle in his special “Biker Santa” leather outfit.
White was then heading to the West Coast for his usual round of appearances there (including the annual Kardashian family Christmas party), followed by his seasonal visit to Italy.
White has always been one for reminding people of the religious “reason for the season” and made a YouTube video called “Santa's Wrap” that gets this point across (while still making Santa appear hip enough to rap). He is angered about the trend in recent years of people who have replaced “Merry Christmas” with the more politically correct greeting of “Happy Holidays,” and says he continues to say “Merry Christmas” when participating at parades and public events where he is hired to be Santa Claus.
White says his life as Santa to the Stars has been an interesting one that has led him to places and people he never would have dreamed possible. Even he admits to having been star-struck a few times in his career, recalling some of the show business royalty he met while working at a private nightclub on Sunset Strip. “I once heard Elton John sitting at a piano and playing while Joni Mitchell sang and I can remember thinking in my head, 'I'm from Pawtucket...if my friends could see me now!'” he says, with a twinkle.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna.com