From superstar athletes to famous actresses, Charlotte is no longer just a hub for bankers and business suits. More and more artists and professionals from all walks of life are calling the Queen City home. Renowned international photographer Carlo Pieroni, who is known for his classic fantasy-driven pin-up and lifestyle photography, and his former-model wife Carol Wilson seem like unlikely candidates to relocate from a restored barn in the hills of Florence, Italy, to an apartment in Myers Park. Yet in September the couple and their three children made the move almost spontaneously.
Oldest daughter Chelsea, 21, was entering her sophomore year at Duke University. Tired of the family being separated, last summer Wilson (a native of Fayetteville and UNC Greensboro alum) had an epiphany. She’d bring the family closer together while finally moving home after 25 years in her adopted home of Italy. With siblings in Charlotte, Chelsea in nearby Durham and an international airport at their disposal, the couple and sons Lando, 16, and Brandon, 12, made the move.
While signing her sons up for school, Wilson realized she immediately needed an address. Within 48 hours, she had an apartment and a car.
“She picked out a car in five minutes!” says Pieroni, shaking his head, seated beside Wilson outside Amelie’s in uptown Charlotte.
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Echoes Wilson: “We came over with a couple of suitcases, a cat and the kids.” They have temporarily left their 120-pound dog, Circe, in the care of their renters who, “Thankfully fell in love with her and are willingly to care for her until we can have her flown over.”
“We’re pretending to be newlyweds,” Wilson laughs of their bare-bones transition.
Although not quite household names locally, between them the couple has worked with a myriad of fashion magazines and designers. Pieroni has photographed campaigns for Kiton, Corneliani, Marzotto, Liz Claiborne Cosmetics, Camay, M&M/Mars, La Perla, Everlast and Chupa Chups. His work has also been featured in Cosmopolitan, GQ, Interview, Vogue and wVanity Fair, among others. Wilson has graced the runways for numerous designers including Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes, Chanel, Dior, Gucci and Fendi to name a few and appeared in numerous international fashion magazines and commercials.
Pieroni began a commercial photography business right out of high school. Known for his still life photography, he craved life in his work. He recalled the beauty and vibrancy he witnessed as a 10-year-old boy sneaking into the movie theater his father owned in San Frediano on Monday afternoons during weekly cabaret and variety shows. He describes those shows as visually entertaining and enticing. "There were magicians, burlesque dancers that toyed with the slightest hints of nudity and slapstick routines all rolled up into one marvelous, albeit obviously local, show." Pieroni explains the turning point in his career was wanting to, "Revisit and capture that life Fellini-esque life. 'Still life' in Italian literally means 'dead life' and I was eager to go far away from that."
Pieroni, who also shoots lifestyle and beauty photography, brought that spirit to his photography through his successful fun pin-up art – shots of beautiful women whose personalities burst from the page. He surrounded those women with fantastical scenes deftly combining airbrushing and photography. With advances in computer technology, he eventually transitioned to photography with digital manipulation. His photographs of Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Grace Potter and others for VH1’s 2010 “Divas Salute the Troops,” placed some of music’s most popular stars in nostalgic WWII era scenes. It’s difficult to tell where the photograph ends and where the illustration begins. He describes his work as a collaborative process with the model, make-up and hair artists and wardrobe stylist.
Pieroni's women are subjects rather than objects. “I am interested in what drives the body. The thought behind the movement,” says Pieroni, who recently shot an up-and-coming hip-hop artist to help establish her image in the highly competitive music industry. “All performing artist need an iconic image. I try to go beyond the image itself. I am more compelled by the message that the image resonates. I’m not interested in just a beautiful sculpted body. It’s how a subject moves, the game, the little nuances that are attractive and in the end memorable on print.”
“A good model, mind you, is also intelligent,” echoes Wilson, sharing a plate of teacakes and macaroons with her husband. “The pin-up is a very empowering female figure.”
After graduating from college in 1986, Wilson flew to Italy with a group of up-and-coming models. Despite being told that she wouldn’t "make it,” she was immediately booked for Italian Vogue. It just so happened that the fashion world was looking for more exotic faces at the time. She was cast as Maria Callas for a 10-page editorial shot by Javier Vallhonrat that commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the renowned opera singer’s death. “I was fortunate to walk into Vogue. It was serendipity. If I’d walked in 10 years later during the Brigit Bardot revival, I wouldn’t have had such a long career,” she adds.
She met Pieroni on a casting call during her first 10 days in Italy. She may not have gotten the job, but she caught the photographer’s eye – and he hers. “When I walked into the studio, all the girls were falling all over themselves. Carlo was too good looking,” she smiles. She was as attracted to Pieroni’s kindness, she says, as much as his tan good looks that had all the other models swooning. “I hadn’t intended to reside in Italy, yet I stayed for almost a quarter of a century.”
Due to her high profile Italian Vogue spread, Wilson was continuously booked for more prestigious work. She appeared often in Vogue, Marie Claire, Harper’s and Queen and several other European fashion magazines while simultaneously gracing the runways across the globe for fashion's elite. She has been photographed in many memorable locations, from the Sahara Desert to the Chrysler Building in New York City where she was dressed in Thierry Mugler haute couture while perilously draped over the art-deco steel eagle that juts off the corner of the exterior of the 61st floor (on antibiotics, no less). She had the good sense to request a rope – “I had the fun jobs.”
Wilson is full of laughter recounting her romance with Pieroni as they banter. “I asked him to marry me. It took him four years to say yes,” she says. For years, Pieroni’s answer was, “Ask me again, tomorrow.” They were married in Fayetteville with a reception that followed at her parents’ home. She remembers her aunts swooning over her fiancé on the day of the wedding. “‘Oh, my heavens,’” mimics Wilson, who downplays her own beauty. She was the model, but she says, “There were more pictures of Carlo taken at our wedding!” Their honeymoon was a little less glamorous than a Saharan fashion shoot, but she wouldn't have had it any other way. Tired of constant traveling, the newlyweds invited family and friends to accompany them on their honeymoon at Holden Beach.
Pieroni’s career, which has him traveling much of the time, is still a priority for the couple, but the bilingual, bi-continental family is obviously the focus. The couple has established contacts in the advertising, publishing and fashion industries locally in hopes of Pieroni finding more work at home. They talk about exhibiting his work here and shooting personal pinup portraits. “Every woman is inspirational. Although busy with my professional work, I enjoy shooting non-models and transforming them into any subject of their fantasy," adds Pieroni. "I love to see the expressions on their faces when I hand them the finished artwork. They're so happy! It's all so much fun.”
Pieroni, although immersed in fashion and the world of publicity, is a family man. He truly beams with laughter describing how his youngest son, who misses the rawness of Italy, faces each school day listening to the theme song of “Rocky” while doing pullups with a makeshift bar in the apartment. Both boys are happy in their respective schools. Lando is a 6-foot-4-inch basketball player and classical guitar student in the International Baccalaureate program at Myers Park High School. Brandon is interested in engineering and attends Alexander Graham Middle School. “The children are fortunate to have dual citizenships. It allows them to explore opportunities in both the U.S. and abroad,” Pieroni adds. While they preferred the 13-year classical education program of Italian public schools, both say the university system is superior in the U.S. Their daughter, a classical piano student turned philosophy major, has proudly been on the dean’s list at Duke since her enrollment.
“There is a wealth of incredible talent here,” says Pieroni, referring to Charlotte's growing arts and cultural scene. “I am excited about all the unlimited possibilities that await us."