The Celebrity Collector:
By Ken Hall
Posted December 2012
Carol Alt is arguably the first person to earn the title “supermodel,” working almost daily throughout most of the 1980s for her agency, Elite Models, and gracing the cover of hundreds of magazines in the process (including twice for Sports Illustrated’s coveted Swimsuit Edition). LIFE Magazine once called her simply “The Face” and Playboy said she was “…the most beautiful woman in the world.” And when her modeling career began to wind down in the late ‘80s, she smoothly transitioned to acting, where she enjoyed success in films and television. Much of that success has been in Europe, where she parlayed her fluency in Italian into a lucrative career.
Carol is a collector of Christmas tree toppers which, as their name implies, sit atop the Christmas tree and in her case, always show depictions of Santa Claus. She has around 30 and has made it a point to buy a topper every year since 1989 around the holidays, no matter what country she’s in. Unfortunately, it was a tragedy that inspired her collection. Her father, Anthony Alt, was a fire chief in New York who died on Christmas in 1983. He inhaled chemicals in a fire six years earlier and finally succumbed, on Christmas Day.
“Christmas happened to be his favorite day of the year,” Carol said from her office in Lower Manhattan, “and for years after that, I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the holidays at all; they made me so sad.”
Then, in 1989, with two siblings and their children coming to visit for Christmas, Carol decided it was time to break down and at least buy a tree.
“I was out shopping in Scarsdale, just outside New York City, and I saw this adorable Santa tree topper, about six inches tall, in a Christmas shop, and I just fell in love with him he was so beautiful.”
That topper, which Alt calls “the Scarsdale Santa,” is ornately crafted, with a gorgeous white fluffy beard.
“After Christmas, I didn’t have the heart to box him up for the next eleven and a half months, so I just put him on permanent display here in my office,” she said with a laugh. “He reminded me of my father in a positive and loving way, and I wanted that feeling year-round, not just at Christmas.”
The idea of starting a collection didn’t occur to her until the next year, when another topper caught her fancy in Italy, and a tradition and collection were born. Carol has purchased Christmas tree toppers in the U.S., Russia (where her longtime boyfriend, Alexei Yashin, is a professional hockey player), Brazil, Italy, France and elsewhere. Some she displays along with the Scarsdale Santa in New York, a few are at her boyfriend’s home, and some are stored away at her primary residence in Canada.
“People give me toppers because they know I’m a collector, but it just isn’t the same,” Alt remarked. “The pieces in my collection are very specific. They all carry meaning for me or were bought with a purpose.”
At first, Carol was attracted to pieces for how they looked. But over time, she began buying them more based on the workmanship and how they were made.
“It’s amazing how Santa Claus is interpreted in so many different ways as you venture outside the United States, where he’s this luxurious, well-fed guy,” she observed. “In Italy, for example, Santa is known as the ‘Father of the Forest’ and is often shown as a trim figure, carrying a satchel of sticks. In France, he’s ‘Pere Noel,’ a smart and dapper fellow. And Russian Santa toppers often come with feet.”
Alt said she was initially surprised to see how enthusiastically Christmas is celebrated in Russia at all.
“I don’t think I’ve seen another city anywhere that is as beautiful as St. Petersburg, Russia, at Christmastime,” she said. “It’s just spectacular.”
She’s bought Santa toppers there, in Moscow and in the city of Yaroslavil. (Alexei played there for two years.) She’s got around six Russian Santas, and these are made from knitted material, wood or glass. One is blue and has an almost Humpty-Dumpty look, with his legs crossed. Another is similar looking, only red.
Her Italian Santa is hand-made from papier mache and has a faux fur trim. The Brazilian Santa is made from a cardboard-like material, covered in fabric, and he opens up to hold candies or small gifts for the kids. Alt’s toppers range in size from maybe three inches tall to a staggering four feet.
Carol demonstrates how this fabric-covered cardboard Santa, bought in Brazil, opens up to reveal candies or small presents for the children.
“I’ve got four that are that tall and each one seems to have a seasonal theme,” she said. “The winter Santa has white branches and looks snowy, the summer one is pinkish, not red, and Santa is carrying a tree. The fall one has him carrying branches with multi-colored autumn-like leaves.” The four-footers are expensive, she added. One cost $600.
Carol had a scare one year when she was in Africa and didn’t come across a single Santa while she was shooting on location.
“It’s not that Christmas and Santa Claus are unheard of in Africa, it’s just that there wasn’t anything where I happened to be,” she said. “Luckily, when I flew to Los Angeles on a little holiday break, I was able to keep the tradition going by picking up a nice topper in Los Angeles.”
Another time, in Yaroslvil, the pickings were slim until she happened upon a bin in an Egyptian-themed pyramid store that contained not one, but two Santas.
Santa made of pine cones for the body, a cork nose and burlap hat and sack, purchased in Yaroslavl, Russia.
“I snapped both of them up,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave the other guy behind.”
This year, Carol will be with her family in New York, where she will be on the lookout for yet another Santa tree topper.
“Like the others, it’s going to have to move me, make me happy and remind me of my father,” she said. “Those are my criteria. If it doesn’t meet all three, I continue the search.”
She admits she’s gifted away a few of her Santas over the years, to near and dear friends, but the remaining examples represent the best of the best – the most unique renderings of a jolly fat man who not only embodies the biggest holiday of the year, but reminds Carol in a good way of her late father. And that’s the joy of Christmas.
Carol Alt was born on Dec. 1, 1960, in Flushing, N.Y., on Long Island, and grew up in nearby East Williston, the third of four children born to Anthony Alt and Muriel Alt, herself a model and airline employee. After high school, she enrolled at Hofstra University in New York, but her college career was short-lived. While waiting tables to earn money in her freshman year, she was spotted by a talent scout who encouraged her to try modeling. She left for New York City at age 19 to do just that and very quickly found herself on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. From there her success just snowballed.
During the 1980s, Alt appeared on over 500 magazine covers, becoming one of the very top models of the decade. She showed an entrepreneurial gift by being the first model to produce her own posters and calendars. Also, she became the face of numerous ad campaigns, for Diet Pepsi, General Motors, Cover Girl Cosmetics, Noxzema, Hanes and many others. Her acting career gained traction at first in Europe (primarily Italy), where she has appeared in more than 45 films, and later the U.S., where she scored roles in Howard Stern’s Private Parts and recently, as Alec Baldwin’s wife in the Woody Allen film To Rome With Love (ironically set in Italy).
In other acting credits, Alt played Karen Oldham in the acclaimed small-screen adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Amazon (1999); did a series with wrestling star Hulk Hogan called Thunder in Paradise (1994); appeared in Vendetta, co-starring Eric Roberts, Burt Young and Eli Wallach; and had a turn in a film adaptation of the classic tale Anna Karenina. She also appeared in an episode of the popular television show Wings, had a voice-over role in an episode of King of the Hill, and was spoofed in the Family Guy episode titled, The Man With Two Brians.
Fans of the Donald Trump series, The Celebrity Apprentice, will remember Carol from when she was a contestant in 2008 competing for her charity, the Tony Alt Memorial Foundation, which raises money for student scholarships. There was a public outcry when she was “fired” by The Donald, but it should be noted she was the first woman to make it to the end by winning both of her tasks. She was later enlisted by CNN host Piers Morgan for the final task, ultimately helping him become the Celebrity Apprentice (and raising $40,000 for her charity in the process, the second highest amount of the competition).
In 2004, Alt authored a book discussing her various health-related issues and how she overcame them with the help of a raw foods diet, which she adheres to today. That book was titled, Eating in the Raw, and it was followed by two more: an “un-cookbook” titled, The Raw 50, and a recent volume titled, Easy Sexy Raw. She also helped develop an all-natural skin care line called Raw Essentials, which is sold in stores and through TV infomercials. In addition, she has a line of jewelry called True Harmony, available at major retailers. In her spare time, Carol likes to ride horses, play golf and basketball, sing and drive race cars. She once drove a Ferrari 185 mph at the Mugello race track in Italy.
Fans of Carol Alt can learn more about the star at www.carolalt.com.
Carol Alt, the supermodel and actress. (Photo, courtesy of Jimmy Bruch.)
Papa del Bosco (“Father of the Forest”) Santa, made of papier mache and purchased at the Vertecci Christmas shop in Rome, Italy.
Pere Noel (“Father Christmas”) Santa, with painstakingly and individually curled beard, carrying a bird cage, purchased in Paris, France.
Carol bought this funny-looking Santa with feet and a bendable hat in Moscow, Russia, last year.
“Foresty”-looking Santa purchased in Milan, Italy, one foot tall and carrying a wreath made of sticks and twigs and a bundle of evergreen.
This Santa, made by Department 56, was presented to Carol as a gift in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Interesting, all-glass Santa, which Carol received as a present somewhere in Russia – she's not sure where!
This was Carol's very first Santa tree topper, purchased in 1989, in Scarsdale, N.Y. He's very well-appointed, with green and red velvet coat and trim.
Gorgeous Santa purchased in Rome, Italy, with papier mache striations made to look like cloth, with white fur shawl and white fur trim. His staff has tree-inspired accenting.