Pam Ross Porcaro
Still Waters Run Deeply
Story by Diana Addison Lyle
Photography by Curtis Dahl
Hair/Make-up: Kathleen Hagan
IconicFocus NYC/LA Modeling Agency
I first met Pam Ross Porcaro at an IconicFocus lunch in Beverly Hills in 2016. I had admired her through the years on the covers of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Femme magazines, but in this packed room of animated people, it was Pam’s serene presence that captivated me. As the swirling voices audibly crescendoed, Pam’s listening and absorption skills rose to the intensity, and when she finally spoke, I marveled at how deeply her still waters ran. In the midst of complex conversations about social issues, Pam’s thoughtful responses and the words she so carefully chose – spoke volumes about her integrity. So began a fascinating voyage as I uncovered the multitude of layers that make up this vitally special lady.
Discovered at age 17 by a model agent in Washington D.C., Pam jettisoned to the city that never sleeps – New York – the springboard to her illustratively successful fashion modeling career. Represented by Ford Models, she thrived for 11 years in the Big Apple while traveling across the world and working with top designers, photographers, editors and artists. Vogue Magazine covers were just some of her many accomplishments.
But Pam’s deepening spiritual quest was a core part of her intellectual curiosity, and as she sought answers in eastern religions, and met extraordinarily wise and knowledgeable people, she became the consummate student – absorbing everything that mattered like an ocean sponge. Through the years as she’s found the answers to her questions, she continues to evolve and find peace – the evidence of which is in her serenity, gentleness and humility.
This strikingly-tall beauty is mom to 18-year-old son, Dominic, and 13-year-old daughter Micki, who joined us on this shoot. True to who she is, her focus was on making Micki shine by setting an admirable example. Everything Pam Ross Porcaro does is enhanced by her elegant subtlety.
Our sincere thanks go out to IconicFocus NYC/LA Modeling Agency and to Brian Whitcanack for his gorgeous shoot locations.
Q: Your childhood years were spent in Virginia. What are the warmest, most comforting memories you have of your childhood and family life?
Pam: I loved being outdoors running in the grass barefoot during the summertime. I would usually end up stepping on clover with bees and I would get stung, but I didn’t care, I didn’t want to wear shoes! We lived on a military base for a time, and there were forests you could wander through, and a lake, and it was so fun to pretend you were in a fairy tale or play hide-and-seek. My father is great at building things, and he built us a little tree fort with a lookout tower. My mom is a good cook and taught us how to cook. She loves playing cards, and although I’m not much of a card player, she always made it fun. I loved visiting my Nana in Ashland, PA; she always had great stories about miracles that had happened to her throughout her life. Ashland was a coal-mining town (my grandfather was a coal miner) and when the mines closed, it kind of got stuck in a 1950’s time warp, where we as kids could go to the ice cream parlor or the 5-cent candy store and get fistfuls of candy for a nickel. That was a lot of fun! My dad had lots of siblings, so there were always aunts and uncles visiting and cousins around. My great grandmother was probably the most jovial person I ever met besides my Aunt Jen and later, some of my yoga and Zen teachers.
Q: You were discovered at age 17 in modeling. You moved to New York at age 18 to pursue it full time. Describe those 11 years modeling in New York. How did you find life in the Big Apple? What did New York teach you?
Pam: An 18-year-old kid landing in New York from a small town in Virginia was quite a big change. I was suddenly thrust into the very adult, sophisticated world of fashion and it was intimidating and overwhelming at first, but I was determined to learn as much as I could and to succeed. I knew that I wanted to stay in New York and take the very rare opportunity that had fallen in my lap and run with it no matter what. So I watched and listened. I really loved New York, and at first I sort of hid in my apartment and just worked hard. Little by little I began to feel more comfortable, venturing out and meeting kids my own age who weren’t necessarily in the business. I had some really kind mentors who helped me: Jan Stephens of Panache Agency in Washington DC, Bethann Hardison and Alan Mindel of Click Models, and photographer Albert Watson and his wife Elizabeth, and then later, everyone at Ford Models: Patty Sicular, Marion and Abel. I worked pretty much every day, doing everything from editorial to catalogs to advertising to runway. I met so many different people from all over the world, and I loved observing and participating in the different group dynamics that would happen on the sets, and getting to collaborate on creating something beautiful together. I especially loved observing the top photographers negotiate with art directors and clients to get their vision across; I found it fascinating. I loved watching the most creative people in fashion create from the photographer setting up the lighting, the stylist putting together beautiful clothes, or a top designer styling their couture on you, or the makeup and hair people doing their art. Some days it was a lot of laughing and carrying on, and other days, if you were working in front of the old 8 by 10 inch cameras, you had to be very still and meditative, because even breathing could take you out of focus! Occasionally I was allowed to go in the darkroom with Albert Watson, and I got to watch him create a hand-made print. What a treat! Then at night I would go hang out with kids my age such as a couple of young aspiring musicians from Queens, who introduced me to jazz, and I would go to all the jazz clubs in the village with them, and they even had me play keyboards at the Cat Club with them, or I would run around with my best friend Rosanna, who was a fellow model, and we would go out dancing. I loved going to museums and restaurants or seeing foreign films or art films. New York was filled with fascinating art, films, books, exotic food, music, culture and religions; I discovered therapies, meditations and yoga. The energy on the streets was always so palpable and I loved walking everywhere and I loved maps. I traveled a lot for work, and my favorite thing was to land in a new city with a list of go-sees and a little pocket map! I felt like a detective and it was even fun to get lost and to have to follow your intuition. I discovered great tucked-away little shops and restaurants that way. The best thing that happened to me was discovering Zen meditation. I took karate at a dojo in my downtown neighborhood, and it never occurred to me that I might get a black eye (not good for my profession!) if I continued until I started ranking up. The teacher was an amazing 10th degree black belt master named Kaicho Nakamura who could break stacks of huge blocks of ice with his bare hand. The best thing he taught me was how to do zazen or Zen meditation and when we went to a Zen Monastery in the Catskills to do a meditation retreat, I knew then that that was why I was attracted to doing the karate, because of the philosophy behind it. I began to practice in earnest with a Rinzai Zen master on the Upper East side at a small Zen Temple and then do rigorous meditation retreats called sesshin at the monastery they had in Upstate New York, (where I also learned a great deal about yoga) and it totally changed my life.
Q: You spent a considerable amount of time in Italy. How did you grow as a person living in Europe?
Pam: It was both shocking and exhilarating to be 17 and to be thrown right into the deep end in Milan. From the small pensione rooms with a one-light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a cot and a tiny shower – to the crazy playboys that would say they were working for the model agencies and they would come calling to gather up girls to take them out; it was madness, and it taught me to stay on my toes and focus on what was important. Everything was new: the culture, the colors the smells, the tastes the sounds… the food! I had never had anything like the food there, and I didn’t have enough money to eat more than once a day, and I was too afraid to tell my mom because I didn’t want her to worry, so I just got super lean by accident and the photographers and editors were shouting at me, “piccola! piccola! belissima!” and, “Lauren Bacall!” and I could fit into those teensy Valentino gowns. I remember shooting out by the beach in Rome in sleeveless gowns in 20-degree weather and when I’d get back to my room, I would eat delicious pasta and pass out under a cozy blanket from the exhaustion of braving the cold weather all day. Italian shoots were always filled with animated conversation, lots of cappuccino breaks, and they were laid back and relaxed. I loved going to the train station on the weekends and hopping on a train and stopping off at all the little towns on the Mediterranean coastline. Sometimes I’d meet the locals and sometimes it was lonely, but it was good to learn to be with that. It was good to appreciate what I had at home.
Q: You met your ex husband, Steve Porcaro, of the rock band ‘Toto’ in New York. That must have been an exciting phase of your life.
Pam: By then I was 29, had lived in New York for 11 years, and had traveled a lot while working a lot (oftentimes back and forth to L.A.), but I was starting to think about other things. I always thought that L.A. would be an ideal place to live: to still be able to model, go to school in a big city, but you could have trees and a yard and raise kids here. I just couldn’t imagine myself raising kids in a New York apartment. And I knew I wanted to get married and have a family. Steve had come to NYC to do some work on Michael Jackson’s album for a few months, and we had mutual friends and 6 degrees of separation. We met through those friends and the 5 of us were hanging out together almost every night while he was there, and that was that.
Q: You married Steve and moved to L.A. in 1995 where you were soon pregnant with your first child, Dominic, and your daughter, Micki, came 5 years later. How did motherhood impact you from your children’s babyhood years, and to their current teenage years?
Pam: I came to L.A. right after the 1994 earthquake and CSUN was happy to have students from out of state. They have a really strong Religious Studies Department, and I wanted to study eastern religions and culture and so I jumped in. Linda Lam Easton is the most amazing professor and knows everything about Buddhism,Taoism and Chinese History and I learned so much from her. I also continued practicing Zen at ZCLA with Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, who is the Abbot and teacher there, and she is incredibly inspiring. The first time I saw her give a talk, I cried, because it never had occurred to me until then that a woman could be a Zen Master. I was so moved by her joyful laughter and presence, and the more she laughed, as she spoke, the more I cried. So I decided to write a paper about her for my final term paper, but I couldn’t get a word written, and I was thinking, what’s going on with me? Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m pregnant! So that was pretty exciting. I dreamt that I was having a boy and then it was confirmed. I read a bunch of books and took classes, but all of that fell away when it was actually time to give birth and be a mom… just nothing really prepares you for the experience, and your life is changed forever. You take it one moment at a time and everything is new and it’s so tender and breathtaking and you have to slow way down. I became grateful for a shower or a little sleep. Then, once I started thinking to myself, “Okay I’ve got this down!” they change, and you have to learn something new. My children truly are my teachers and they are these amazingly beautiful people, and sometimes I look at them and say to myself, wow who are these people? As babies it’s very intense and full and then there’s a few years when it’s very sanguine because they are children and they are in this dreamy state. And you take a breath and turn around and suddenly they are waking up into teenagers and it’s very intense again but in a different way. And there’s no time to hesitate, and you’ve just got to dive over the cliff and make all of the mistakes until something sticks, and then they change again. So it’s constantly learning and keeping up and letting go.
Q: Zen meditation, yoga and eastern religions have long been a staple necessity in your life. Why are they so important to you and what are the kernels within them that you find so vital to your well-being?
Pam: I was a kid who was always asking myself, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Maybe it was because my Nana was such a devout Catholic and was always telling stories of miracles that happened to her, and she had all of this Catholic Iconography and art around the house and I would just sit and stare at the paintings and wonder about it. I also loved all of the incense and rituals at the church, and the kindness in the faces of some of the nuns was striking to me. When I moved to New York I was filled with a bunch of idealistic notions about life and what it meant to be a successful fashion model, and then you kind of get to see the man behind the curtain so to speak and I started to question, “Well if this isn’t the be all and the end all, like our culture tells us, then what is?” And sitting still on sets in front of 8 by 10 inch cameras gave me lots of time to be with that question. New York was the perfect place to search for and discover all of these things, which led me to Zen, and even though I couldn’t understand a word of what was said or written, I knew it spoke to my heart, and it grabbed me and never let me go – carrying me through all the ups and downs and comings and goings of my life. When illnesses hit my family and things fell apart, that was the one thing that remained and will always remain. When things got hard that’s when my practice really opened up, and suddenly through grace, more teachers appeared just at the right time. Yoga teacher Steve Ross taught me about Siddha Yoga and Shaktipat, and I ended up doing yoga teacher training with him, which was phenomenal. Candace Silvers has also been an incredible mentor to me and helped my family grow beyond what we could imagine. The practice continues to carry me. I am currently working on a project related to that with hotel developer Dana Blanchard, and my good friend Sujon Datta, who is the great-grand nephew of Yogananda. We are very excited about it.
Q: What are the pearls of wisdom that emanated from your studies?
Pam: Well you can never get to the bottom of it can you? I mean I’ve studied it and practiced it, but the more I have studied and the more I have practiced the more I have realized that I’ve only just scratched the surface; it’s just incredibly deep and ancient. For instance, you could study one or two stanzas of the Vedas or the Upanishads or the Diamond Sutra or the Chuang Tzu and it would continually open up and reveal more, it’s just endless. Because it’s alive. And once you try to conceptualize it or understand it or box it in, you’ve lost it. That’s the paradox. You can’t nail it down. All of those texts are tools to help you have a breakthrough realization, which is experiential and physical, not intellectual. And once you have that experience of seeing through the delusion of the conceptual, dualistic mind, you start to taste some freedom, and you have some awareness and peace. And things start to lighten up, and you can actually be present in your moment-to-moment experience, instead of caught up in the trap of constantly evaluating it.
Q: You and Steve split in 2008. You went through some exceptionally rough patches between 2010 and 2016 to arrive at where you are now. What is it about relationships that you have learned the most?
Pam: Here’s another subject that you can never get to the bottom of. For me it’s about connection and growth and really being with another person – vulnerable and undefended. It took me a long time to learn where I am defended, and I’m still learning. A relationship with another human being is something that’s alive, and constantly unfolding. The minute I start conceptualizing how things should look or be, then I miss what’s there, and I lose faith. Basically I’ve learned that if I show up wondering what I am going to get, or wondering whether I am enough, I am doomed. If I show up in faith, confidence, courage, and curious about the other, it’s much more fun. Being open to the surprise of each moment, and the messiness of it all, and being receptive and giving; it’s amazing what unfolds! It’s really delightful and beautiful and it’s wonderful to get to appreciate someone that much, and share experiences together. I think it’s about having room for each other, open or closed, like those little sea anemones that open and close as the waves rush over them.
Q: Our culture has an immense effect on us. Your 13-year-old daughter Micki is particularly susceptible to the pressures of that culture. How are you handling it and what is the advice you give her?
Pam: Kids are all on their phones and social media, so it’s quite overwhelming. With my son, it was more about the video games. There was a whole social life that revolved around that, and then suddenly one day he woke up and said to me, “Mom, why am I wasting all of this time on this?” and he put it down. With my daughter, the social media is like a life-line to her friends. It’s very different than being on the playground, and saying things face-to-face with your friends, with no adults hovering around. They have a hard time realizing that what they post is public and often permanent, and there are many ways to misunderstand each other when you are not able to use all of your senses, and see the reaction to your words that a person is having, because they aren’t right in front of you. So as a parent, you have to teach them how to navigate all of these new feelings they are having and all of the social stuff. Social media has its merits but there are huge downsides. What is the etiquette for expressing yourself? Text? Snapchat? Instagram? Or phone call? Or put it down and have a conversation face-to-face? The social media playground requires social sophistication and many kids aren’t always mature enough to handle it. The selfies and the retouched images of girls who don’t look anything like their pictures – can be very intimidating and overwhelming. I teach my daughter to use social media in a positive way, and I teach her to have a sense of humor about it, because it’s not real; to see that people are much more than the one-dimensional best side they show of themselves on social media, so it’s not necessarily the whole picture. I tell her to put it down and go paint a beautiful picture or do something creative, or connect with a friend in person, rather than get bogged down in the negative spiral that it can sometimes be. I ask her, “What do you want to create now?”
Q: Any great books on this ‘modern world’ topic you’d recommend?
Pam: “Entertaining Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. It’s a classic. I think we’ve gone the way of Aldous Huxley’s, “A Brave New World,” more than we’ve gone the way of George Orwell’s, “1984,” for sure. Also, “Give and Take,” by Adam Grant is great!
Q: You lead an immensely ‘healthy’ life. What are some of your daily habits that insure you give your body and soul the best possible base from which to operate?
Pam: I love drinking tea, and I eat a tangerine or an orange or some lemon juice in the morning. I meditate every day and get outside in the sunshine whenever I can… I love hiking and yoga – being in a natural environment, whether it be the beach or the forest or a hiking trail. It really fills me up and makes me happy.
Q: What would you like to see more of in this world?
Pam: I think people are very isolated and lonely and I’d like to see more connection and community, at least in our culture anyway… more time to be with each other.
Q: Favorite food?
Pam: I love how bright and energetic I feel after making and drinking a smoothie of raw fruits and veggies.
Q: Favorite indulgence?
Pam: Salted dark chocolate and any kind of latte: coffee, green tea or turmeric, and coconut pie or cake.
Q: Favorite movies?
Pam: “The Apu Trilogy” by Satyajit Ray. Baraka is amazing…I just saw, “Bottle Rocket” again recently and that film has resonance now more than ever since it seems that thugs that are in power, and the good guys with values end up with the short end of the stick. There’s nothing better than comedians making social commentary. Charlie Chaplin was genius at that.
Q: 2017 Academy Award favorite?
Pam: I loved LaLa Land. It was just so refreshing to watch a movie that first of all, was a musical, and second of all, wasn’t dark or cynical. How lovely.
Q: A book that you would highly recommend?
Pam: “The Surrender Experiment,” by Michael Singer.
Q: Characteristics you most admire in others?
Pam: Loyalty, integrity, standing by principles, honor, kindness, humor, compassion, passion, love, generosity, empathy.
Q: Favorite country in the world?
Pam: Bali; the people are so warm and friendly there.
Q: How would you most like to spend your birthday this year?
Pam: On a romantic date with my man…Then, at the beach with my kids, or hiking with them. Or Disneyland!