Lower Burrell native returns to his roots after modeling around the world
Mark Peconi's modeling career, launched when he was a teen, took him from Pittsburgh, to New York, to Europe and California.
Now 56, he has settled in Lower Burrell, where he grew up one of five children of the late Matthew and Delores Peconi.
His whirlwind career started when Peconi, a 1976 Burrell High School graduate, took his younger sister, Teri, shopping at Horne's Department Store and was “discovered” by John Repine, the men's fashion director for Horne's. “I was 18, it was 1977, and that shopping day changed my life,” Peconi says.
“My first print ad was modeling a bench press. I was paid $35 an hour.”
Modeling for Horne's landed him a summer traveling job with Seventeen magazine and opened a new world. “I did shows all over the East coast, “ Peconi says.
Soon, Kaufmann's department store took notice; they were looking for a teen model. “I interviewed with the head of the art department and was hired on the spot,” he says. The Kaufmann's gig came with a pay increase — $50 per hour — but also with the stipulation that he couldn't model for any competing department store.
Leila Hitchcock, 56, of New Kensington, who was Kaufmann's stylist, worked with him closely during her three years booking and styling models for print advertising. The two have maintained their friendship.
“He was such a sweetheart, so nice, and he would go to college at IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) then catch the bus from Indiana into Pittsburgh, and I would pick him up at the Greyhound station. When the photo shoot was over, I would take him back to the station and send him off to Indiana. He was a hard worker,” she says.
His work ethic came from his parents. “My dad ... told me to get an education.”
“My mom ... worried and wanted me to be safe,” he says. “The business was fun, but a lot of work, and I ended up hospitalized for exhaustion twice.”
While working for Kaufmann's, Peconi was featured in hundreds of print ads in the Pittsburgh area. “My salary went up after two years to $75,” Peconi recalls. “I worked about four days a week, and was the highest-paid male model to date in Pittsburgh.”
He recalls his first splurge purchase: “I bought a $1,200 pair of Fendi leather pants.” And he bought his “very fashion savvy” mom “a gorgeous purple tweed Evan Picone suit and an alligator bag.”
Pittsburgh Magazine featured Peconi as one of its “80 people to watch” in 1980. He modeled with Tamara Tunie (“Law and Order”) and Blair Underwood (“Ironside”), who were students at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
“I modeled for all of the famous designers that came into Kaufmann's during Fashion Week,” he says, “It was a great way for me to make connections for future work when I would start in New York City.”
Peconi joins Wilhelmina
Fellow model and friend Phillip Cocheletti launched his career at Kaufmann's, as well, before joining Wilhelmina Modeling Agency in New York City. During a visit, Cocheletti took Peconi on a tour of the famed agency, where he met Wilhelmina. Peconi signed with the agency and started modeling under contract in May 1980.
He graduated with a degree in finance from IUP in 1980. When he left Pittsburgh, he had been featured in more than 1,500 ads and several television commercials. “I missed my college graduation,” Peconi recalls; “ I didn't have time; I was off to NYC and then off to Europe.”
Milan would be his home for the next year. “I loved Milan, it was the hub of men's fashion then, “ Peconi says, “I loved the food, it was my first time in Europe — I'm Italian, after all — and I was one of 12 men working over there and I really built my ‘book' (modeling portfolio).”
Milan was his base as he modeled in Madrid, Zurich, Paris, Munich and London. He also met and worked with designers Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani. “I was in Italian Vogue and Italian GQ and many others and gained so much experience over in Europe. The pay was less, but I was building my book.”
Newcomer models Grace Jones and Christie Brinkley modeled in print ads with Peconi in Europe. He recalls Brinkley as being “very nice.”
Peconi's schedule was fast-paced and hectic. “Modeling was always a female business, and men made way less than women back then,” Peconi says. “I made about $5,000 per day back then, and now male models make a lot more.”
The 1980s also marked a boom in the exercise-fitness explosion, and Peconi landed a job modeling for an exercise book called “Working Out” by Charles Hix.
“I worked with Ken Haak, a great photographer of the '80s, and we (the models) were all on a yacht working out with weights. I modeled for a lot of exercise books, and it was the catalyst for me having a fitness routine.”
Legendary photographers and designers
Back in New York City after his stint in Italy, Peconi modeled over the next eight years for designers such as Armani, Calvin Klein, Versace and Henry Grethel. His magazine work included JC Penney, Bloomingdales, Mens Wear, Sears, GQ, Vogue, Spiegel, Macys, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Peconi's physique has been photographed by legendary photographers Bruce Weber, Victor Screbneski and Francesco Scavullo. Pittsburgh photographer Rick Evans was most influential because he “taught me everything I needed to learn to advance my career. I was always posing for the camera when I was little and was fascinated by the camera and how it works. Modeling came very natural to me.”
Peconi maintained a healthy lifestyle while seeing “a lot of drugs and drinking” while living in New York City. “I saw models come and go, they couldn't take NYC, they would move from California and be gone in months. I took care of myself. You have to when you are marketing yourself and your body.”
A vacation to Laguna Beach impressed Peconi, and he moved to California in 1988 and signed with Wilhelmina West in Los Angeles.
“I was so exhausted. I had been living out of a suitcase for years with very little sleep, that's a negative of the modeling business.”
While still modeling, Peconi opened an Italian-style deli in Laguna Beach and named it “The Tomato.”
“If I thought modeling was tough, running a restaurant was grueling,” he quipped, “I ran the business for 10 years then sold it and relocated to Palm Springs.”
Always interested in fitness, he began teaching aquatic classes for the elderly. There he met Ellery McClatchy in Palm Springs and was hired as his personal assistant. McClatchy was heir to the McClatchy newspaper chain and uncle to former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy.
“I handled Mr. McClatchy's numerous properties, helped run his vineyards, took care of his automobiles and was his travel assistant. I did this 15 years, and Mr. McClatchy died in 2011 and I miss him dearly.”
While living in Palm Springs, Peconi was the spokesperson for bicycle safety in southern California and took on the role of super hero “Rad Rider.” “The Inland Empire Heath Plan company modeled Rad Rider after me, and Warner Brothers created the superhero costume.”
An educational comic book was created and Peconi toured southern California demonstrating bicycle safety. “I signed about 795,000 comic books and signed about 250,000 helmets as Rad Rider,” Peconi says. “The kids would receive them after completing a bicycle-safety test, and one day when I was exiting the stage after a performance a kid approached me, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Aren't you a little old to be a superhero?”
Peconi says that was his “light-bulb” moment, and after 15 years of portraying Rad Rider, he decided to hang up his super cape.
“It was the most rewarding part of my career, working with the kids and for the kids, he says.
Now retired, Peconi is living in his grandparents' original residence in Lower Burrell and is remodeling the home. “I've been gone 30 years, and it's full circle to be back. I love Pittsburgh and am lucky to be here. My friends that visit from California all comment on how nice it is here, how unhurried and scenic.”
Peconi's big sister, Denise Ropelewski of Sarver, is “thrilled” that her brother is back in Lower Burrell.
The oldest of the siblings, she was away at college when he started his modeling career, but she recalls one visit in particular. “I was teaching at Stewart School in Burrell and the kids were gone, but one afternoon Mark came walking in my classroom all blond and model-looking and wearing a fabulous fur coat. In Lower Burrell? A big fancy fur coat.”
Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.