When Sophia Loren entered the room Leo Lubrano was putting together the finishing touches for the press junket. He spoke to her a little in Italian but her attention was focused elsewhere until he mentioned that his father’s family was from her hometown, Pozzuoli, a Naples suburb. Leo went on to say his grandfather lived on the same street as her family and knew Sophia’s mother who, he claimed, was also a great beauty, once winning a Greta Garbo look alike contest. Confirming the story of her mother to be absolutely true, Sophia engaged the young man in conversation, gracious and lovely. Leo says that it’s “still one of the most thrilling days of my life.” 

I remember standing next to my wife, Barb, a wide smile on my face, while Leo related that story. We were hanging around in the Santa Monica Transcendental Meditation centre, having a cup of tea, waiting for everyone to arrive before starting a group meditation. That’s where I met Leo, in 2018, the TM centre, Barb and I learning the meditation practice around the same time as him. Impossible not to be immediately drawn to Leo, his warmth, his charm, his creativity, his sense of peace and acceptance. And his stories! Although he has worked on the design side of photography and film since graduating New York University (NYU), he certainly possesses the ability to craft a wonderful story — maybe he’ll transform into a full time writer.

Leo with Sophia Loren

Born to Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, the third of four children (he has three sisters), the family moved to Lindenhurst, Long Island, when Leo was a toddler. He has two distinct, opposing memories of childhood. On the one hand, he grew up loved and supported by his family. Although his parents first language was Italian, his father insisted on speaking English in the home, afraid the children might fall behind other kids. But his mother would speak to them in Italian and Leo built off this knowledge, wanting to become more fluent, by studying the language in high school. He describes his mother as “an optimist and has this warm glow around her, everyone picks up on it, she’s so beloved, a true heart of gold, always helping others and rarely thinking of herself. She’s been my role model on how to be a better human. And I’ve learned most of my cooking skills from her. My father was a mechanical engineer but also an artist, he did beautiful charcoal portraits and watercolours. I definitely inherited my artistic abilities from him. He was quite a dapper dresser too, and that’s where I got my love of clothing, and dressing up, my Lubrano Neapolitan side.”

The “Lubrano Neapolitan side” comment prompted me to ask Leo if he’d read Elena Ferrante’s best-selling quartet of novels, set in Naples. Ferrante makes a great deal of the difference between the Italian language and the Neapolitan dialect. Leo replied that he hadn’t read the novels but watched the television adaptation, My Brilliant Friend, adding “my paternal grandmother only spoke Neapolitan, no Italian. It’s such a passionate, dramatic culture, very different from my mother’s family who are more reserved in the Northern Italian way.” To illustrate the point about his Neapolitan paternal grandmother he proceeded to relate another magnificent story.

Joesph Lubrano, the dapper dresser. Leo’s father died in 2004.

“So, my grandmother started planning what she wanted to be buried in, years before she passed away, which gown, jewelry, etc. This is also very Neapolitan, big showy funerals, professional mourners, horse and carriages decked in black plumage. Very grand. But she kept changing her mind and had several boxes at her house with the chosen outfits. When she finally did pass, her boxes were brought in and at the first day of the wake one aunt realized her mother had changed her mind and they’d picked the wrong box. She wanted to be buried in the gold gown not the blue one. Pandemonium ensued. It was too late to change her. I was about 12 and found it all very Felliniesque. In the end they put the gown she wanted to wear in the coffin with her. My mother always says when she gets to heaven she’ll know her mother-in-law because she’ll be the one in a gold gown but with an extra blue gown draped over her arm!” 

That is Leo’s emotionally extravagant home life of great food, art, clothes — I often think no one in the world does food and family like the Italians. But as I said, Leo had two different memories of childhood. The other is life outside the family, growing up in a very conservative Long Island town. Again, in Leo’s own words.

“School while growing up: not pleasant for me. I was bullied for being the quiet sensitive gay kid. It was awful. I won’t get into particulars but my town wasn’t progressive. I knew early on that I didn’t want to stay in the town. I loved my family, they were supportive, but from a young age I knew I had to get out. I was very bookish and smart and had a photographic memory, tests were easy. I did so many extra classes in high school that I had enough credits to graduate in the 11th grade at age 16. I always wanted to somehow be in the entertainment industry, I loved putting on shows growing up and wanted my own TV show or to be a director.”

Leo back home on Long Island visiting his mom, Adriana.

Accepted to the film department at NYU, he arrived on campus in the fall, soon to turn 17. Whenever Barb and I travel to Manhattan, one of my walk-abouts is through Washington Square which is the heart of the NYU campus. I can only imagine the glory of that change for Leo, having Washington Square as the new centre of life. When I asked him he said, “Going to NYU was completely liberating. Suddenly I was able to be who I was, and it became a time of total creativity.”

Because he was so young, his parents wouldn’t allow him to live in residence the first year and the commute was not much more than an hour. But in second year, about to turn 18, he moved to his birthplace, Brooklyn, sharing a large apartment with three roommates. Good thing his parents never came to visit because “sketchy” doesn’t do justice to that neighbourhood. Leo said that “next door was an actual, old fashion brothel. A working whorehouse replete with a madam,” though he added that the prostitutes were quite friendly to the students. Also on the street was a flower shop. One day, when Leo went in to buy flowers for a visit to his mother, he discovered they had no interest in selling him flowers — the place was a drug dealing front.

Leo survived and found new accommodations for the last two years, mostly in the East Village. Though he studied all aspects of film, he excelled in design and art direction and turned those skills into a career. He started working for a French commercial graphic artist as an assistant during his final year. An artist friend of his boss came from Paris for an extended visit. About to become a single parent, she offered Leo a job and an apartment in Paris when he graduated. At 21, he flew to France to work as both assistant and au pair. Despite finding most Parisians not very welcoming to non-Parisians, even though he spoke French, he met a young German woman, Sabine. She worked in Paris as an au pair and studied film and television. Their meeting, of course, offers another terrific story.

Sabine and Leo using a Paris metro station photo booth

“There was an English newspaper in Paris at the time where a woman ran an ad saying she wanted to form a club for English speaking people in Paris to meet French people, to exchange language and culture. Great, I thought! I called, she was very nice, and gave me the address to her place for the first meeting. I went and she let me in and no one was there. I got nervous, maybe it was a ploy, some weird sex thing — ha! So I said, ‘isn’t anyone else coming?’ She replied ‘oh yes this very nice German au pair girl is coming’. I thought, oh no, because at the time there were a lot of German au pairs and they were always these big klutzy girls. But then the doorbell rang and in walked Sabine, tall, stylish, super cool and we instantly connected. After an awkward thirty minutes with the woman, Sabine said, sotto voce, ‘let’s get the hell outta here’. We were non-stop friends that year and remain best friends today, meeting once a year somewhere in the world. She’s a highly celebrated film maker, documentarian and author, and now works for German television. Like me she’s obsessed with aesthetics, art, culture and style. During that year we created a series of photos in black and white with ourselves as subjects from other periods in time.”

Helen of Troy magically captured on film? No, Leo took this photo of Sabine in an abandoned crypt at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery using bed sheets from his apartment.
Leo, transported back to the 1920s. He says of taking these photos with Sabine, “The locals thought we were nuts!”

After a year in Paris, Leo felt he needed to head back to New York to get on with his life. He began working as an assistant to several photographers who specialized in commercial advertising, mostly home design. He soon realized that all the designers that were being hired to design the sets were making way more money than him. Leo decided to market himself as a photo stylist/designer, becoming quite good and, over seven or eight years, built a business focused on editorials, ad campaigns, store catalogues. During this time, he fell deeply in love with a man who insisted on hiding his sexual identity from the world. As much as Leo was in love, it held him back from what he’d achieved since leaving Long Island as a teenager, living and celebrating his life openly. Despite being in a long term relationship, Leo never felt so lonely in his life.

As he extricated himself from that isolating existence, Leo found a new career when an old friend, Anthony, contacted him. Anthony had moved to Los Angles and started working on press junkets within the film industry. At the launch of major movies, the studio wants elaborate sets which mirror the film’s set design. Most of the junkets are staged at LA hotels, but if the studio also wanted to hold one in New York Anthony would reach out. At first Leo said no. In the mid-nineties, however, when his friend called to say he had an extremely large junket to set up in Manhattan, Leo agreed, perhaps humoured by the irony. The film was The Birdcage, Hollywood’s adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, about an openly gay man, played by Robin Williams, and his life-partner, played by Nathan Lane, trying to “go straight” for the benefit of Robin William’s son’s ultra-conservative, Republican in-laws.

This was for a VH1 show about Cher’s music career. Leo says “she was sweet, generous and kind. That day I’ll always remember!”

After the success of that event, Leo continued to work on New York junkets until Anthony convinced him to move to LA where the bulk of the work remained. In a way, I think, Leo’s move to LA, removing himself from a romantic relationship that would not allow him to be himself, was as liberating as his move from that overly conservative town in Long Island to Manhattan. A year after arriving, he purchased a beautiful house that sits a couple of blocks behind Venice High School, in the west LA neighbourhood called Mar Vista. Once again, Leo’s sense of spirituality was allowed to grow and he’s flourished ever since.

Thirteen years since that move, Leo has worked hard to help grow the business, and travels back to New York, as required, for studio junkets. In addition, he’s travelled to Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Austin, London, Hong Kong, Moscow, Vienna, and Sao Paolo. The most beloved, though, may be to Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which he does every year. One of Leo’s favourite memories is designing the junket for the newest A Star is Born, and meeting Lady Gaga. He says of that 2019 TIFF experience, “she was great, so upbeat and nice and kind — another amazing day.” Unfortunately, that was one of the last great film memories for awhile with the coming of the Covid pandemic in 2020. There have been no film press junkets since February, 2020.

Leo with Cynthia Erivo at a screening of Bad Times at the El Royale

As much as Barb and I came to admire Leo, and respect his approach to life, we both agree that the emotional challenge of the pandemic, which has brought out the worst in some people, has brought out the best in Leo. She reminded me of his response as the extent of Covid was becoming apparent while we were still in California last winter, saying, “The magic of Leo is his warmth, his nurturing. I remember when Covid hit he invited everyone to utilize his lush garden to meditate.” When I talked to Leo about his approach to life in the face of the pandemic, he said “This year I feel incredible: physically, spiritually, emotionally. And I decided to make a concerted effort to share on social media.” Indeed he has.

Leo’s Facebook page has always been an array of posts full of beautiful photos, whether with friends, his work travel, self-portraits dressed in his finest, his home and his garden. Physically isolated from his career and much of the world, he responded by creating a website: Lifestyles by Leo. His website highlights three key interests: Home Design, Garden, Cuisine/Health.

Of Home Design he writes: “A well designed home brings a sense of delight and contentment. Good design should be personal and reflect one’s character as well as providing comfort and style.”

Leo’s home

Of Garden: “My extensive experience in garden design is a reflection of my creative spirit. A well designed garden is a pleasure to the senses and brings balance and peace to our lives.”

Leo’s garden

And of Cuisine/Health: “A well nourished body and mind is the key to a happy, successful life. I’ve integrated my love for cooking and wellness to create delicious/nutritious food combined with meditation, QiGong, and yoga to achieve optimum health and longevity.”

The practice of QiGong
The art of cooking: Chili Crusted Tempeh in Asian Noodles with Edamame

Leo has created a blog within the website and his articles explore those interests. I urge you to visit his site — if, for nothing else, the recipes!

Leo with his mom and sisters Cathy, Lena, Carla (l-r)

Beyond sharing on social media, he personally reaches out, whether to individual friends or the community at large. One day he postponed one of our interviews because the local food bank had called. Some volunteers couldn’t make it and they needed Leo to help out. Without hesitation, off he went. A number of mutual friends we’ve made at the Santa Monica TM Center contact Leo for personal support. In fact, he asked me to include his email address and encourage anyone who is looking for comfort during this continuing pandemic to get in touch with him: llubrano@gmail.com. Leo believes deeply that “small random acts of kindness go a long way. I feel better about myself when I help others.” 

As we finished up one of our last discussions, I wondered about romantic relationships since moving to California. Leo told me he has dated but the move from New York to California gave him a total freedom that he continues to enjoy. When the right person comes along, no doubt he’ll be ready, but for now the spiritual, mindful, healthy journey he’s on provides more than enough wellbeing — not to mention his countless friends. Listening to that reply, one more question popped into my head. Leo certainly liberated his adult life by becoming an absolute, through and through New Yorker. Since he’s been living in West LA for over a decade, has that changed? Most definitely!

“I’m a total California boy now,” Leo said.

Next up is Lisa DeMarco. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, the youngest of nine children, she was a self-described math and science nerd. In the blink of an eye, while working on her Master of Science, she decided to write the LSAT and apply to Osgoode Hall Law School. Over twenty-five years later Lisa is one of the best and most respected environmental lawyers in Canada.

I hope you come back.