Israeli stylist dressing Angelina Jolie and Tyra Banks talks poverty-stricken past

Tom Salama's drive to succeed as a fashion professional led him to eventually rub shoulders with Hollywood's biggest stars despite having grown up in Israel's periphery; now, he's about to direct his first feature film

Smadar Shir|
At the ripe age of 40, Tom Salama says he is finally ready to unveil the secret to his success. "I was born with a black hole in my soul and the only way to fill it was to create and innovate by any means necessary. To prove not only to others, but to myself, that I have what it takes."
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  • Salama was raised by a poor, single mother in the northern city of Kiryat Ata. Grumpy, overweight and unsatisfied with life, he moved to Tel Aviv with nothing but a backpack on at the tender age of 14.
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    טום סלמה
    טום סלמה
    Tom Salama
    (Photo: Gabriel Baharelia)
    Some 30 odd years later, and he is Israel's premier stylist with an own fashion brand. He has provided posh clothing not only to local Israeli celebs, but to Hollywood elites, such as Angelina Jolie and Tyra Banks.
    However, being a fashion mogul is no longer enough for him. Following his adoption of a Guatemalan boy, he wrote the TV show "Miguel," which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival.
    In addition, earlier this year he launched a solo exhibit and wrote a book called, "The boy who thought he was a fat woman."
    "The hunger is always by my side which is what I need. It's feeling like you've had enough that causes you to stagnate."
    He is also back on the dating market, having ended his 19-year relationship with Gadi Toran, a hedge fund CEO. "Modern romance is a mechanical kind of romance," he says.
    Why did you end it with Gadi?
    "I was 21 when we met and he is almost 20 years my senior. He was my first serious relationship, so we just drifted apart. It was a mutual decision that stipulated that we won't let the family unit fall apart," he says, referring to their four children.
    What does that mean?
    "He's the kind of guy you don't ever 'divorce.' We sold our beautiful Tel Aviv penthouse and moved the kids to a house we rented at Kerem HaTeimanim neighborhood, so they would still have their routine. We have our custody arrangements where one leaves the other folded laundry and a bottle of wine.
    "In a few months I'll be moving into a small apartment I bought, not far from Gadi. So the kids could stay with whomever they wish. When we had just announced that we were splitting up, people wondered about the kids, but it's not an issue for us.
    "I adopted two kids from Ukraine and Guatemala, and they're his kids too. He's had surrogate twins born in the U.S., and they're mine too. That's the way we look at parenting.
    "We're a couple of gays who even divorce better than straight people."
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    עטיפת הספר של טום סלמה
    עטיפת הספר של טום סלמה
    The cover of Salama's book
    (Photo: Public relations)
    Does the new government scare you?
    "The fact that their ideas are merely floating out there is dangerous enough. I procured an adopting license overseas, but still can't do so in Israel."
    Would you like to adopt a fifth child?
    "The more the merrier. I have no interest in preserving my genes. There are plenty of kids who are crying out for parents out there. When I adopted Yanay from Ukraine I didn't realize he actually adopted me."
    It's possible that Tom's longing for a big family came from his troubled upbringing. "My dad didn't really want me and took off when I was two. My mom was my focus and I never looked for him. I didn't even know I could miss him. My mom worked at a bakery and as a house cleaner to support us.
    "Being mentally poor is even harder than financial poverty. Carbs became my friends: bread, pasta, potatoes. Until this day I hold on to the nasty habit of opening bags of chips ahead of time so the kids don't wake up from the tearing sound during my nighttime munches."
    Were you ridiculed as a child?
    "Being a fat gay kid in a macho environment can be brutal. I had to cozy up to the neighborhood's alpha males to in order to survive, including hoodlums that used a shiv to settle their differences."
    The school never tried to help?
    "With all the attention disorders and dyslexia they weren't even able to diagnose? I will say the school administrator had some educational punishments, like painting the wall on Friday. That's how I got the key to the shed from which I stole some supplies to paint at home. My mom sure as hell couldn't afford it."
    So what did you do?
    "I found a Monday painting class at a community center behind the school. At first I just peeked from the yard, and got the courage to come closer to the window bit by bit. I got my hands on some of the equipment the class discarded, and started drawing.
    "Eventually the teacher caught on and practically dragged me to her class, so I was able to join without paying."
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    מימין לשמאל: טלי מורנו, מיכל ינאי וריטה לובשות טום סלמה
    מימין לשמאל: טלי מורנו, מיכל ינאי וריטה לובשות טום סלמה
    Israeli celebrities wearing Salama's designs
    (Photo: Roee Haviv, Anat Mossberg, Rafi Deluia)
    Somebody finally saw the real you
    "Initially she just came down on me hard, but at the end of the year she actually gave me a signup letter for an art school in Haifa and some bus fare. When I got there, I saw kids with experience. One had already played the violin for six years.
    "Still, they accepted me and gave me the forms needed to sign up, which of course included the entrance fee. I came without my mom and told the headmaster that I have no money but would be happy to clean the school as a form of payment, which she refused. That punch in the gut instilled the value of money within me. That's how you alter your destiny.
    "Honesty, I can't even recall coming out of the closet. There was no ceremony. I just remember always being attracted to boys. I always got the feeling my mom knew as well, but it went without being officially announced.
    "I tried to fit in, so I got together with girls, but felt like I needed to get out of that city. When I came to Tel Aviv, I barely had any money and even slept on a bench in central Tel Aviv. Met some interesting people."
    Were you taken advantage of?
    "People take advantage of each other. Someone gives me a roof over my head and I give him my body. You do what you must to survive. Even today I'm not at peace with my own body."
    Tom says he found a Tel Aviv studio to perfect his painting and design skills, owned by Riva Oshida. That's when he adopted the name Tom, and says won't ever disclose his birth name. "It was a blank slate. She introduced me to design and even let me cut some cloths when I was ready."
    When he was 18, he enlisted in the military, but after just two months, the IDF gave up on his services. "It was so mismatched. I actually shot a cow in the middle of the night thinking it was an intruder. My commander laughed his ass off and I was summarily booted out."
    After a short stint with an entertainment ensemble in Eilat, he began work at a popular children's channel. "I provided the styling services for everybody - even the participants on the first season of the Israeli version of the Amazing Race.
    "I enjoyed providing items of clothing to the biggest celebs in the country. Then I remembered that Michal Yanay [an Israeli actress] was doing a show about weddings so I designed her a dress for that too. It snowballed all the way to me designing an outfit for none other than Angelina Jolie."
    And Tyra Banks?
    "There was something about that, but I don't recall all the details. It's the way I'm wired. I bottle memories inside and then let go of them."
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    טום סלמה עם בן הזוג, גדי תורן וארבעת ילדיהם
    טום סלמה עם בן הזוג, גדי תורן וארבעת ילדיהם
    Tom Salama and the entire happy family
    (Photo: Shiran Carmel)
    Tom adopted his first child 20 years ago, when he had no career or money. "I wanted to be a full time gay dad. For nine months I went through committees and pretended to be straight. Israel not only blocks adoption for gays, but also a foreign adoption license required proof that I'm fit to be a father.
    "The adoption license cost $25,000 and I didn't have anywhere near that sum. I asked a bank for a loan. They almost laughed me out of office when they saw my checking account, but I wouldn't leave until I got what I wanted. They understood I meant business."
    His son, Yanay, 20, was adopted in Ukraine. "I came to a Soviet warehouse and saw a lineup of parentless kids, all longing for love and a home. I honestly couldn't understand how rich people weren't adopting all the time.
    "Yanay saw his adoption file as an adult. I'm guessing his biological mom was beautiful because so is he. When I met Gadi, I told him that if he wants a date it's at my place because I had a kid. Essentially, we both offered the other a new family.
    "Gadi allowed me to be who I am. After designing clothes for every Israeli celebrity you can think of, I opened my own locations. Gadi remained my lighthouse. He flew to Guatemala with me to bring in Itamar, who today is 16 and the most beautiful teen there is. With two toddlers to raise, I kept burning the midnight oil at work."
    His partner also wanted kids. "Unlike me, Gadi placed great emphasis on passing on his genes. So 14 years ago, we flew to North Carolina to adopt twins born to a surrogate mother. They are both athletic, fine children."
    Even in liberal Tel Aviv, however, the family drew plenty of attention. "We're two men raising four kids without a mom, but with a wonderful grandmother and a fantastic nanny. Once a year we send the surrogate mother a picture with all four kids. I know she did it for the money, but we wanted her to feel like she was a part of it."
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    טום סלמה על השטיח האדום עם רן דנקר
    טום סלמה על השטיח האדום עם רן דנקר
    Tom Salama posing with Ran Danker
    (Photo: GettyImages)
    What kind of reactions do you get?
    "Mostly positive. One of their teachers asked us how we do it."
    So how do you do it?
    "With Gadi working in finance, I'm mostly home. I wanted the kids to grow up knowing what a true family is. There's always food on the table."
    Is being a gay father different than being a straight one?
    "There are added challenges, but difficulty is a catalyst for growth. People who have had everything handed to them lack the drive I've had, since I was a poor kid with dreams."
    Tom also says that he is still insecure about his weight despite the fact that his rough teenage years are long gone.
    "My weight fluctuated for a long time. I always see myself as fat. It's the black hole I was talking about."
    Recently he has also been enjoying the success of the show he created. "The rights to the show were sold to a major media player in the U.S," he says.
    Miguel stars Israeli actor and singer Ran Danker, who after years in the public eye, recently revealed that he was bisexual.
    Were you surprised by Danker saying he's bisexual?
    "Not really. For a while he practically lived with us. He's an authentic guy who wears his heart on his sleeve."
    Ran Danker is also a leading candidate to star in a feature that Salama is set to shoot in September, telling the story of a gay father who wants to convert his kids to Judaism and falls in love with a rabbi. "I'm loyal to people I've worked with and he's a great actor. For the first time, I'll be directing."
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    רן דנקר
    רן דנקר
    Ran Danker
    (Photo: Tal Shahar)
    Is the feature based on a real story?
    "Let's just say I'd love to convert my two kids. I practice Judaism, I studied in a yeshiva, go to a synagogue and eat kosher."
    Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    "Winning an Oscar, hopefully. Maybe living in Paris in a huge mansion with five more adopted kids."
    Are the kids following your path?
    "They're all straight, but today's world is far more open. At least this new government isn't hiding its disdain for the LGBTQ. Today it's gays, but it could easily be women later on."
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