Remembering 50 years of family, fashion and legacy; leading a future of healing and hope with Matriarch Yolanda Cellucci
“Before the Kardashians, Yolanda’s of Waltham was on [the TV show] Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous… and Linda, she grew up with this thing that Yolanda created. But no matter how lavish and glamorous life was for them, the most important thingwas family. And if you were friends of theirs you were considered family.
Everyone saw all this glamgoing on at the store: Yolanda’s fashion shows were legendary and over-the-top. Linda or I might be wearing a Bob Mackie gown worth thousands of dollars but if it was a Sunday, after the show was family dinnertime, period. You had better show up for lasagna and meatballs, no excuses! They were the quintessential Italian family, and the glam was part of it but not the most important part.”
– Sonia Garufi, model and close friend of Linda Cole and the Cellucci family
This year marks two years since Boston fashion icon Yolanda Cellucci’s daughter, model Linda Cole, passed away after her battle with esophageal cancer. Yolanda, along with Linda’s son, Dimitri Petrosian, wasted no time putting together a benefit that would honor the memory of Linda Cole while helping others also suffering from cancer.
Our Girl Linda, as the benefit was named, would be a way to celebrate Cole’s indomitable spirit, and with all proceeds going to St. Jude Children’s Hospital, benefiting a charity that helps others fighting cancer whether they could pay for treatment or not.
Sonia Garufi, one of Linda’s dearest friends, recalls Cole in the throes of her illness musing at how fortunate she was to have access to the best health care and live a comfortable life financially, which makes the choice of St. Jude Children’s Hospitalas the Our Girl Linda beneficiary particularly poignant. The soul of Linda Cole, no doubt, is smiling somewhere.
To truly appreciate the legacy of Cole and the entire Cellucci clan, one must go back in time. Yolanda Cellucci was a young bookkeeper in the mid-1960’s. Happily married, yet dealing with life’s stresses, she experienced a significant amount of hair loss which would be disheartening for any woman. She bought a wig and styled it so adeptly that women around her immediately took notice. These same women began opening up to her about their own hair loss woes.
Hearing these stories, Cellucci started buying and styling wigs for women, and found that doing this made her happy. It felt good to help other women feel more confident about themselves, and Cellucci was a natural at it.
Yolanda recalls fondly, “Especially if women had cancer back in those days, for a woman to lose her hair – that was her crowning glory, so it was devastating. But I could take off my wig and show it to them. You see? I had a problem too! And you can see how great this wig can make you feel about yourself. I felt such pleasure in doing it [for free] but eventually people said ‘we need to pay you for this’… “
And thus, an idea for a business began to take root.
Approaching beauty salons with her wigs, Yolanda was turned away over and over at the beginning. Salons at that time believed there was no need to carry such an item. One salon owner said he did, however, need a receptionist. Cellucci, remaining flexible to the moment, took the job and sold her wigs to salon customers on the side, eventually growing enough interest in her wares to throw wig parties at people’s homes, not unlike a Tupperware or an Avon party.
Growing her business was clearly a labor of love and the indefatigable Cellucci describes this time in her life with delight. Joyfully juggling the work of raising her two children, Sondra and Linda, inaddition to being a wife and hustling from salon to salon could not have been easy. But don’t ask Yolanda Cellucci how hard it must have been because you won’t hear her complain.
Salon owners took no risk; Yolanda split the sale proceeds with them in exchange for the opportunity to service their clients. The list of shops she serviced swelled to 175 and she recalls how frantic the pace became for her young daughters:
“I would have to pick the girls up from school by 3pm, and many a day I was running late because of traffic or whatever. The girls would be standing there, the last ones, just hugging each other waiting for me…and I would pull in at 90 miles an hour. They’d say, ‘Did you forget about us??’”
Yolanda chuckles, “…and of course the other problem was that I’d drop them off in the morning as a blonde but pick them up as a brunette because I was changing wigs all day. One day Sondra asked me, ‘Can you do us a big favor? Next time you pick us up can you please wear the same wig because we don’t know what car to run to or who you will look like!’”
Cellucci certainly had grit and didn’t seem bothered by hard work. It might be difficult for kids practically born with $800 phones in the palms of their hands to contemplate the world Yolanda grew up in but her Depression-era parents raised her with a solid foundation in making do with less and having a generally pleasant can-do attitude about it.
So even in the early days when money was scarce and before all the “glam”, Yolanda Cellucci never worried about the things she didn’t have. She only focused on what she could do and taught her children to do the same.
She imparted a spirit of togethernessas being the most important in life, and instilled her incredible work ethic in her kids. Her daughters’ helping hands were required on deck at a young age, along with their patience, and it’s easy to see the impression those values have left not only on them but on Yolanda’s grandchildren as well.
Cellucci’s influence is crystal clear when looking at Yolanda’s children. Her daughter Sondra would eventually become an in-demand dress and headdress designer, also based out of Waltham (see sondracelli.com), and Linda, of course, became Boston’s most in-demand fashion model.
Garufi, also a prominent model in Boston, met Linda 20+ years ago and remembers Linda as “the model of Boston.” Sonia reflects back to when she first began modeling and it was well-known that Linda had already set the benchmark for professional standards very high. “So much so that when you went to a job casting and Linda was there you just knew the gig was of a certain caliber,” says Garufi. “Like oh…Linda’s here. This is a little bigger.”
Because she was such a professional, Linda’s presence made everyone stand up a little straighter and bring their A-game. “She showed up on time. She gave everything within her and she would hit her mark every single time She knew it was a business. She wasn’t about ego and that was so rare.”
Those who remember Yolanda’s of Waltham might also remember the first building that eventually housed Yolanda’s growing wig business was originally a funeral parlor. Cellucci recalls the decision she and her husband made to rent the space as a move to stabilize their family life while maintaining Yolanda’s ever-growing business.
Complete with a brightly-lit casket showroom and an embalming room in the basement, the building rental would be $500/month. She promptly transformed the space into a beauty salon and a health club complete with sauna, steam and massage room. Upstairs was the wig studio with a small rack of dresses. The first woman that walked in said, “What is this place??”
Yolanda’s concept was a unique one, and it exploded to the point that she outgrew the space she had and built an entirely new space, with the help of her husband. “It was like nothing anyone had ever seen – it was a one-stop shop for women.”
Garufi recalls Linda during her illness: “I’d go in with Linda when she was going through treatment, during chemo, and she’d always take impeccable care of herself. She had her hair done and people would say she looked great. We’d go out anywhere…and I know she felt like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to get up still, because what am I going to do – lie in bed and sweat?’
I know she believed she was going through what she was going through for a reason. That maybe once she got better, she could do something for women; helping women while they’re going through cancer and needing so much support.
It was a natural fit then, for the family making sure her legacy lived on. It’s really what this [benefit] is all about. And she touched so many people, so it really was almost easy to create an event because you know, Linda knew everybody… I’ve met so many people through her. Everybody Linda touched loved her; she brightened everybody up. She was the one always talking. She would be the first one at the bar to get a glass of wine, and yet at the same time, she was always a professional. She set the standard for [models]. She loved to dance, and she LOVED comedy.
So [now, with the Our Girl Linda benefit] we can all come together and it’s this comfort thing: for the family, especially for Yolanda and for all who knew Linda and were [touched by her spirit]. It means so much to carry on Linda’s tradition and legacy.”
Though it’s doubtful Yolanda Cellucci would ever have defined herself as a visionary, that’s precisely what she was and is. An optimist, combining business models to create her own singular brand, she instinctively had her finger on the pulse of what women needed, and sought out ways to provide that to them in a way completely original and authentic, never gimmicky.
In fact, Cellucci worked with circumstances life presented her so deftly it leaves one wondering if she missed an additional calling as a life-coach on magical thinking and manifestation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the effervescent and energetic Cellucci, now 85-years old, is that she built an empire at a time when empire-building was left to men.
This quality of egoless professionalism is the patina that shines through all the clan’s endeavors. Linda’s son Dimitri Petrosian, also a successful businessman and organizer of Our Girl Linda, embodies the family’s long-prominent work ethic and innovative spirit. He tells BostonMan that the event, previously set to happen in May has been rescheduled to September due to the current COVID-19 crisis sweeping the globe.
Planning large-scale events come naturally for Petrosian: he’s been working with 6one7Productions since he was in college and has been investing in various Boston-based businesses ever since. Although pulling together myriad forces in order to have a seamless evening is certainly in his skill-set, clearly, he has never had the hurdle of a global pandemic to work around.
Nonetheless, he remains positive. “We have decided to postpone the event until Thursday September 17th, 2020. We are very lucky that Lenny Clark and the Soft Touch Band are both still going to participate on our new date.”
Petrosian continues to explain other cost adjustments and decisions, saying “We also want to call attention to the fact that we have adjusted ticket prices from $75 to $50, and have adjusted the pricing for sponsorship packages. We know these are trying times for everyone. Anyone who has already purchased tickets can be issued a refund or choose to put the balance toward a sponsorship package.”
Dimitri and his family hope that by September, things will open back up and people will want to head out and socialize again, especially to an event that raises money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. “Even if we do a smaller head count or donation number this year, it all helps in the long run,” he says.
Plus, it is healing for the family to come together and remember Linda Cole in a way that celebrates her life rather than mourns her untimely loss. She died young – just 57 years old – and her big personality is sorely missed by all who knew her.
Survived by her husband Sebuh Petrosian, who Linda’s son Dimitri describes as a quiet and reserved type. Especially in comparison to his energetic mother, Dimitri says his Dad and Mom forged an iron-clad partnership together, proving that opposites not only attract but can also ground each other powerfully.
For those who can’t make the benefit but still interested in donating to Our Girl Linda, there is a children’s book available that Yolanda Cellucci has written, called Lindy Lou & her Dancing Shoes. Cellucci compiled it as an homage to all the silly, sweet things her daughter used to do, and then decided all proceeds from sales are all going to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
Yolanda says the book will be available on Amazon eventually but for now, people can order books through her and checks should be made out to “Our Girl Linda”.
Clearly we Bostonians don’t have any firm answers yet as to whether a return to normalcy or socializing at a benefit is in the cards, even in September. But we mustn’t give up hope, and if three generations of family have imparted anything to us, it is to remain positive and flexible to the moment at hand. Opportunity always finds a way to present itself, and as is the case with Our Girl Linda and Lindy Lou & Her Dancing Shoes, there is still a way to support this amazing cause while keeping a piece of Linda Cole alive in our collective Bostonian memory.