Story and Photographs by Cassie Butler
It’s slightly more than 500 miles from the heart of Moore County to New York City, but as any young person from the heartland aiming to make a splash in the "city that never sleeps" quickly discovers, the cultural and psychological distance can feel like a journey to another world.
Not surprisingly, undaunted by the challenge, thousands of young Americans head for The City after college looking to find a career and measure themselves against the busiest city on Earth — including the sons and daughters of the Carolina Sandhills.
James DeMolet’s first trip to New York City was in middle school to see The Rosie O’Donnell Show. He fell instantly in love with the city, and he put New York’s tag line into effect. "I couldn’t sleep the whole time I was here. We stayed in Times Square, I think, so I just kept looking out the window." After graduating from Pinecrest High School in 2004, DeMolet attended NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology for fashion merchandising knowing he wanted to work with fashion magazines.
"I picked FIT because it was the cheapest school and I felt like from the degree program, I would have a lot of free time to start work immediately." And that’s exactly what he did: DeMolet worked full-time at magazines at which he credits the majority of his education was acquired. His first two years at FIT, DeMolet worked five days a week at NYLON magazine. Then he held internships at GQ, Q, Italian Vogue, i-D and Lula.
Now he’s the editor in chief and creative director of an independent fashion and celebrity magazine called The Block. He oversees all the content, commissions artists and develops overall themes for each issue. He interviews celebrities to gear their personal stories and experiences around the magazine’s theme to focus on things like political importance or social inequity.
DeMolet really describes himself as a storyteller. "I get the different celebrities to be able to play a character that’s within them." And by "play a character," he means wear clothes for a photo shoot. "I try to keep our stories very tangible so they are easy to understand. Instead of having it be focused on trends or different items of clothing, it focuses more on different character ideas. The point is to tell stories." The current issue is about teen bullying. "I think that, as someone who experienced it, I was curious to see how other people’s teen experiences shaped them as artists."
To find celebrities that fit into DeMolet’s themes, he has to do a lot of research and be in constant conversation. "I’m obsessed with celebrities. I think that helps. I think getting on set with celebrities and to already be able to anticipate what the personality will be like is a gift. If you do not know what their personality is going to be like, it can be a very tough day. I’ve been on set before as an assistant where the celebrity will leave set because they didn’t like the clothes. To me it’s always, ‘How can I give this celebrity an experience they’ve never had before that is an extension of themselves?’"
DeMolet has styled and worked with countless celebrities: Alanis Morissette, Cat Power, Khloe Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Shirley Manson, Isabella Rossellini, Nicole Richie, and Courtney Love. He says the most challenging and rewarding job was working with Madonna.
"We’d go into Dolce and Gabbana and we would say, ‘We want the body of this shirt but maybe the sleeve of this, and we’re just at the store and they’re cutting things apart to see how it would look for her. I’ve never seen designers give so much support for a celebrity and be so negotiable about what they’d create. But in that, it is challenging if an artist knows they can really have anything under the moon, because in order to fill that expectation, it is a lot of work."
Another rewarding point in DeMolet’s career was after he shot Lenny Kravitz. "I’ve always wanted to work with him― and afterward, he purchased all the outfits that I put him in, which is sort of unheard of because a lot of celebrities would like things for free. So, that was amazing to work with someone like that, who styles himself so thoroughly, and to be impressed by my work at that level. Then I saw that movie he was in, The Hunger Games, and he was wearing the jewelry that I had picked out for him. So that was amazing to me."
DeMolet credits his on-staff position at Teen Vogue as a "game-changer" for his career. "I never would have been able to have those connections otherwise because Teen Vogue is a well-respected magazine in the fashion industry. It has its finger on the pulse on terms of up-and-coming celebrities."
Though DeMolet works full-time with The Block magazine, he also finds time to be a freelance stylist working with other magazines. In the Spring, he starts filming a reality show with the executive producer of The Rachel Zoe Project and What Not to Wear, which will follow DeMolet and four other freelance stylists. He also consults with designers to help them shape their line and work on their "look books."
DeMolet finds inspiration for characters, looks and themes everywhere in the city, but when it comes to really brainstorming and trying to shape ideas, he has to leave the city completely. "I find it difficult to find peace here. Especially as a freelance artist, there’s never a point where I’m not working because I could always be working and researching and developing." So where does he go? You guessed it, North Carolina. Hendersonville, to be specific.
"There is an artistic community in Asheville that I really like, and it’s a different idea of what an artist looks like. The artists just produce art and there isn’t that idea of grooming." He finds peace in the North Carolina mountains about every other month, and he finds distractions in New York the rest of the time, like hanging out with his longtime friend, Helen Kenworthy.
Helen Kenworthy is from the quaint town of L.A., as in "lower Aberdeen." She graduated from Pinecrest in 2004 and then went to Tulane University in New Orleans to study English and art history. Her sophomore year, the deadly and destructive Hurricane Katrina hit. With the semester lost, she traveled abroad and spent some time in New York. "I didn’t really like it, I didn’t understand it." But Kenworthy’s perspective of New York changed during her junior year when she studied in the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, Buenos Aires. Despite living in a sprawling city with a language barrier, she "mastered" getting around. Kenworthy figured, "If I could handle Buenos Aires, I could handle any other American city, obviously." After college, Kenworthy wanted to stay in New Orleans, but there weren’t many job opportunities and a lot of her friends were moving to New York. "I decided that it would be good to move on and go somewhere else and get a new experience. Both my parents lived in New York and encouraged me to try something new. I think a lot of it was that my friends moved here and it was an obvious place to go."
Kenworthy’s theme song could be "Don’t Worry, Be Happy."
"I just sort of assumed that I’d be able to get a job and it would be great, and, it was! I didn’t really consider any alternative, I just expected it to work out. I didn’t know that I was going to move here in the largest recession the United States has ever known, and in that respect, too, I was really lucky." Immediately, she got a six-month internship at The Met while also baby-sitting and working at a restaurant to keep herself afloat. Then through a Pinehurst friend, Kenworthy made the switch into ad sales for MTV. "I didn’t know a lot about it, to be quite honest, I just was ready to find a full-time job. It was just an entry level job that you’re just put into and expected to figure it out." After a year with MTV, Kenworthy took a job with a small national arts network, Ovation, where she’s currently been for a year and a half.
"I really enjoy sales; there’s a lot of positive things about it. You get to meet with your clients, there’s a lot of social aspects about it that I really enjoy, you get to go out and entertain. You foster a lot of relationships in order to make better sales, which I think is a really interesting science. I also chose this path because it’s pretty straightforward — ―it’s a straight shot to the top if you want to be the VP, president or CEO. I like that structure about the job, but I also like that you interact with marketing and PR and you get a lot of media experience."
Kenworthy has lived in the city for five years now, and she calls it home. She even says she’s living her dream. "I don’t really see myself anywhere else now. I’m getting married soon.― Ken’s job is here, and my career path is here." She loves where she lives, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The area is dense with restaurants, bars and live music venues, so she doesn’t have to go far to enjoy herself. New galleries are popping up around her neighborhood too, but her favorite place is the MoMA. She also enjoys jogging along the East River, where she’s been running almost every day since she moved to New York.
"You have to have an open mind in this city; it can be really big and mean if you let it push you down. I’ve always tried to keep my chin up and think of creative ways to make it work for me, and I’ve made a lot of friends because of it."
Sarah Younger is as Southern as it gets, that is, if you can call someone who doesn’t like fried chicken Southern. After graduating from Union Pines High School in 2006 and UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010, Younger spent a year searching for opportunities in North Carolina. She had internships and a job that paid the bills while also finding time to muck horse manure at her family farm in Whispering Pines. Then she decided to complete a three-month graduate certificate course in publishing at the University of Denver. After that, "it seemed like all signs were pointing North or . . . Northeast," Younger says, after mentioning that she feels like she ended up in New York through "divine orchestration."
Her first impression of New York was that it was hot and smelly.
"I showed up in August and, getting off the subway, I was inundated with the smell of ammonia. Now it’s definitely grown on me."
Younger found affirmation shortly after her move to New York when she stumbled upon Central Park’s "Literary Walk," which is now her favorite place in the city. The Literary Walk, found at the southern end of the Mall, contains statues of well-known literary figures such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Younger’s life is overflowing with all things literary.
Younger now works as a literary agent, which she describes as a talent agent for writers, at Nancy Yost Literary Agency.
"I get writers connected with publishing companies, so I am the middleman."
Younger hadn’t actually heard of Nancy Yost before she started working there since agenting is a behind the scenes aspect of publishing. You hear of the author and publishing company but not necessarily who the agent is. Before her first interview with her future employer, Younger looked up some of Yost’s clients and was pleased to see some of her favorite writers. "I went in to interview, not thinking that I’d get the job, but thinking that I’d just really get to meet somebody that I very much respected in the industry. During the interview, it went from a great conversation and good questions to, "Let me see your Kindle, who are you reading?" and over half the authors on my Kindle ―were people she represented. And next thing I know, I got the job." That is, she got her dream job. "The dream could get bigger," Younger says with a smile. "I’ll just add on lots of New York Times best-selling clients, and perhaps relocate to some place a little bit quieter."
Among the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the city, Younger finds peace and rejuvenation at church on Sunday mornings at The Journey, in Central Park when it’s a little bit crisp out, and in her bedroom with a good book. "I’ve learned what I want to get out of life, and the things I need to work on to get to my goals." Though Younger loves her job and especially her boss, her home will always be where her family and horses are: Moore County. Younger’s mother, Beth, recently visited the city.
"[My mom] said you couldn’t pay her enough money to ride the subway every day," says Younger. "For me I’m not being paid a whole ton of money at this point in my career, but I definitely think it’s worth it. I’m doing what I love."
And a decade from now? "I’m leaving the ten-year plan up to God. Every time I try to plan something, plans change." Eventually she hopes to settle down with a family somewhere outside the city. "I don’t think I’d be
comfortable doing that in New York considering where I grew up." In the end, she’ll always be a horse girl, and a Southerner.
Sarah Younger and Tyler Lea, of Carthage, are the best of friends. They go way back — ―all the way from Sandhills Farm Life Elementary School to high school drama classes at Union Pines. Younger lived on Lea’s couch in Brooklyn for four weeks before she found a place of her own in Manhattan. Lea went to North Carolina School of the Arts and got his BFA in acting. "For actors, the choice is slim: it’s LA or New York," says Lea. After his end of the year showcase at college, he got a bigger response in New York than LA, so he made the move to Park Slope, Brooklyn, with some of his college friends, now his roommates. "It was the best decision for me since I had a network of people here," Lea recalls.
To pay the bills, Lea works with a catering company, Creative Edge Parties. The catering jobs are flexible and since he doesn’t have a set schedule with acting opportunities, he is able to work if he’s available, and if he has an audition or call back, he doesn’t. He works a lot of nights and on weekends. Meanwhile, Lea seeks out theater and commercial work, and he has an agent and a manager doing the same for him. "My background is in theater, but I audition and am comfortable auditioning for everything."
Not long ago, Lea allowed PineStraw to tag along for an audition call back. The room was filled with ten people waiting on benches for their names to be called. A young lad sat close by mouthing his lines with a script on his lap and a headshot on top. A girl in a short ’70s-style go-go dress and white suede boots was warming her vocals in the open room while three women sat conversing amongst themselves — gestures, laughter, smirks. Lea sat quietly in a bright red-painted metal chair. His head was down, his back arched. "ROSEMARY?!" a girl screeched from a nearby room marked 17A, the room where the auditions were happening.
"If I’m prepared with my work, in the room I feel confident," Lea admitted. "I get nervous, I do get really nervous, and I just have to remind myself to breathe. Because sometimes, I just forget to breathe."
Commercial auditions, he notes, are easier because they don’t require as much preparation. "A commercial audition is more impromptu. You don’t really know what they’re going to ask you to do. It could be improv, it could be read from a slide that you see for five
seconds." Still sounds nerve-racking to me.
One thing Lea hasn’t gotten used to is riding the trains. "I don’t like riding the subways. I hate it. I like getting in my car and doing my own thing because sometimes you just don’t want to be around people." He’s used to the city, but he can’t call it home. "I like it enough and it’s fun, but I’m here because I’m chasing a dream and it’s where I have to be. I can’t do what I want to do in North Carolina."
Being in a big city can sometimes make Lea feel lonesome. "You feel secluded because there’s so many different cultures in New York that there might be five languages spoken on a train and not one of them is English. It’s a big city and there’s so many people here, but you do get feelings of being alone sometimes. But it’s good because I have my roommates and friends and stuff."
Nolan McKew and Chelsea Scott attended Pinecrest High School. They both took choir and were the tallest in their class, which ultimately meant that they were always paired as dance partners. This is where their relationship began, in class and on the stage, and they became instant friends. Long-lasting friends. Now, they both live in New York and see each other about once a month, which is quite regular considering their busy New York schedules.
Scott first experienced New York as a summer intern for Tommy Hilfiger. Her friends were trying to woo her into falling in love with the city, but Scott wasn’t impressed.
"When I lived here over the summer, the majority of the city —― if you’re not walking by a fruit stand or a laundromat ―— smells like trash, like HOT trash. My first impression of the city was everyone goes on and on about how amazing it is, but the city does smell like trash."
Then it happened: "I was quickly overtaken by the overwhelming amount of things there are to do and people there are to meet and so many things that can enrich your life and things you can experience that you never thought about being interested in."
At the end of her internship, Scott received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in consumer apparel retail studies from UNC-Greensboro. She graduated early, in December 2008, and her timing couldn’t have been worse. Facing a tanking economy and a deflated job market, she got a scholarship that paid for a flight to New York City and she beat the pavement looking for any opportunity out there.
"I went on all the informational interviews that I could. Everyone was telling me, ‘Sorry, we just laid off a bunch of people, we can’t hire anyone new.’" But through a strange family connection, one short opportunity led to another opportunity with a private label design company for nine months, and then in September 2009, Tommy Hilfiger called and said they had a position. She hasn’t looked back since.
Scott is an assistant designer at Tommy Hilfiger’s wholesale division. She works in the aspect of the brand that sells to Macy’s and Hudson Bay. "Being the assistant you do a lot of hands-on work, which I actually really like." She picks out trims, buttons, zippers and follows up on color commenting on knits and sweaters. "Every print, every single color in a print is picked out, and― usually I do the pitching, then I have to say ‘this color is too red’ or ‘this color is too blue’ and give feedback to the factories. I also do a lot of basic things like sketching concepts." They work a year in advance, and when it’s sweater weather, hours can get more intense.
"It’s hard to think about spring and T-shirts and lightweight jackets when you’re wading through knee-deep snow in the dead of winter," Scott says, but one of her favorite parts about working late is the view of the Hudson River from the office. "We get this gorgeous sunset over the water and it’s just so beautiful — the clouds and the sky burst into a million different colors. It’s an absolutely phenomenal sight and it’s something that’s rare in New York —― to have THAT much natural sunlight in your day-to-day office."
After four years of hard work, we wondered, how does she regard her Manhattan life and career now? "It unsuspectingly ingrains itself in you," she says. "I think that New York is really good at making you addicted to it in the fact that there are so many amazing things to do. There are so many cultural events and just fun games and television shows that you can be in the audience of, you just run the gambit of fascinating things that are cheap or free or very spontaneous. The people that walk in and out of your lives is its own experience about New York. There’s something about that that becomes so endearing and something that you want to be part of, too.
"But then there’s also the fact that it’s exhausting and tiring and life becomes very hard to keep up with, but you’re kind of caught in between these two worlds where you want to take a nap but you’re having too much fun staying up all night." The bottom line? "Yeah, I like New York, but I LOVE Brooklyn. I come from a small town and Brooklyn is just a hodgepodge of small towns. There’s more sky, the buildings are lower and there’s more of a community feel."
In quiet moments, Scott goes to the Museum of Natural History and spends
afternoons with the dinosaurs on the top floor. "Being among these things that have been around for SO LONG," she adds, "puts your little crazy life here into a whole new perspective."
Scott’s tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed high school dance partner, Nolan McKew, on the other hand, finds peace among chaos at his favorite place in New York: the George Washington Bridge. McKew used to live right by the bridge in Washington Heights but now enjoys an incredible view of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. McKew is from Pinehurst and went to college at Appalachian State in Boone for music industry studies. He too completed a summer internship in New York during college, but with American Lyric Theater in 2009.
McKew wears many hats in New York. He is a dancer with Roschman Dance, a modern dance company near NYU, and will be performing in The Westchester Ballet’s The Nutcracker this winter season. He does aerial trapeze at fancy events and instructs flying trapeze to beginners. He’s also a production assistant/personal assistant to several people: a director of ballet production, a screenwriter and an actress in the 2013 film After the Fall, which is based on a true story.
"I pick gigs up here and there," McKew says. He did a lot of things for Fashion Week as far as setting up lights for different runway shows in September and he was the Tin Man at the annual Autumn at Oz party in Banner Elk, North Carolina, last October.
One thing New York has taught McKew is to be an efficient scheduler. "I can pack so many things into my schedule and make it work. There’s so much to do here, some part of me feels like I didn’t finish the day if I don’t do as many things as I possibly wanted to." But there are compromises to city life. "You have to accept that there are all these amazing things and then accept, at the same time, there are all these crappy, crappy things. I came here thinking this is going to be great, but it’s going to be awful. More often than not, I have a really good day or a really bad day and there’s not many days that are really just level."
A good day in McKew’s city life would be getting a call that he’s been offered a part in a dance company and the same day finding out he’s going to get another month of free rent because "the landlords of your building are sketchbags and have been upping your rent even though it’s a rent-stabilized building." A bad day would be getting yelled at by a deli clerk for not meeting the credit card minimum when buying breakfast, getting shoved out of the subway by an old lady with a cane and thus missing the train on your first day of work, almost getting hit by a taxi and being told by a homeless man who looks like Santa that he’s going to break your arm. This bad-day example was McKew’s first day in New York. "I wanted to cry. It was not fun," he recalls.
But McKew takes the bad with the good. "The good days you’re like, ‘This is cool, I’m glad this is working out,’ and there are the other days you’re like, ‘This SUCKS. I’m going to go home and go to bed now.’ But yeah, I like being here. I don’t think I would have even had half of the experiences I’ve had in the three years of being here had I been in North Carolina or really anywhere else. This is just a good place for me to be for my career goals and where I am in my life right now."
But he doesn’t see himself in the city in ten years. He’d rather be in some city abroad, like London, running his own performance venue.
At the end of the day, one thing will never change for our determined band of young Southerners in the city: their roots will always be in the Land of the Pines, no matter who they grow to become or where they venture in the world. This December, when it’s all said and done, they’ll even be "home" for Christmas. PS