A Model Citizen

Clay Parton is put together all wrong. He’s a good ol’ country boy trapped in a male model’s body. You catch glimpses of it when he smiles. Suddenly, he’s any other 24-year-old just finishing up his firefighter/EMT training. Or when his slight Southern accent rolls across his words and he’s just like any other guy who grew up among the orange groves of Haines City, now working for the county Parks & Rec and bussing tables part-time at Outback.

Yes, if all were right in the universe, Clay Parton would resemble that average, laid-back buddy from high school, the one who went mudding on Saturday nights. The truth is, he is that guy. But he’s also a man who somehow, somewhere along the line was blessed with striking good looks—the kind that even halfway talented modeling scouts can pick out from a stack of comp cards, the kind tailor-made for billboards on Sunset Boulevard and in Times Square. He’s a better-looking Olivier Martinez (who famously wooed Diane Lane in Unfaithful). Or perhaps Ashton Kutcher’s long-lost Aremenian cousin. The fact is, however, that there’s more—much more—than meets the eye with Clay Parton.

When he swings open the door of his modest, one-story home in Ocala, Clay smiles sheepishly and politely extends his hand—“Hey, how you doing? Nice to meet you.” His beautiful wife, Kiara, is holding the couple’s shy but energetic 20-month-old daughter, Nielah. The three moved to Ocala in 2009 so Clay could attend the Florida State Fire College in town. Kiara has a promising garden coming up next to the side of the house, and both agree that Ocala is an ideal city for a young family like theirs.

Sitting off to the side on their dining room table is Clay’s modeling book, but it takes a while to get to the photos inside. Clay is more interested in reflecting back on his life growing up on his family’s 600-acre farm in small-town Haines City, a map-dot in the middle of the state. He was, by his own admission, a good kid. He went to a small, private school where he earned good grades, served as class president from seventh grade until he graduated and was active in sports. During his free time, he was often outdoors, making ample use of Haines City’s many clay roads (especially after a good downpour) and engaging in orange fights on 4-wheelers (picture Florida’s version of a snowball fight).

He signed up for the National Guard before he even graduated high school, but his options grew limited after an Ishihara Test revealed he was color-blind.

“They told me it was better to have only one arm than to be colorblind in the Army,” he recalls. “I could do only two jobs—secretary or radio operator. I can’t spell well and I don’t like talking on the phone, so I went to radio operator school.”

But the 19-year-old was burning with ambition and yearning for a bigger adventure. The stars must have aligned just right because his big chance came when he decided to drive from Stark to Miami to see about a girl. Things with her didn’t work out, but something far more important did.

It’s not every day you run into someone like that,” says modeling agent and owner of Republica Management Michael Waller, who discovered Clay. “I was referred to him by a photographer friend of mine. He came over to meet with me, and as soon as I saw him, I thought he had great potential, a superstar. One in a million people look like that.”

Clay was skeptical at first but figured he didn’t have much else going on. Besides, he’s an optimist by nature, and if this agent saw some potential in his appearance to earn a living as a model, why not seize the opportunity?

“He was and is totally oblivious to his looks,” Michael says. “I remember he asked, ‘You really think I could do this?’ I thought, I can’t believe he asked if I think he could do it. But that’s the way he is. He’s very laid-back and very humble, which helped him immensely to be successful. There are not a lot of models like that.”

Perhaps that’s why Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana chose him to open their show in January 2006. Clay glances at a photo of himself walking the runway during that Dolce & Gabbana show. In it, he’s stern-faced and wearing a short, decorative military jacket, the kind you might see in a Coldplay video or in photos from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s days. The show was a major coup for Clay, but his Haines City side keeps it all in a healthy perspective.

“What would I do in this jacket, though? Create an army?” he asks with a laugh. “Not want to get it dirty!”

Michael says it’s exactly this nonchalant attitude, coupled with a humble professionalism that makes Clay such a popular booking.

“I’ve had so many clients call and tell me how funny he was,” he says. “This is these people’s job, yes, but at the same time, they want to have fun. He definitely made it enjoyable for everyone.”

Like the time he worked with Kate Moss. Clay was not a fashion connoisseur when he entered the modeling world, and he didn’t know who Kate was until she was in full makeup and recognizable from her numerous campaigns. As a result, he was relaxed for the shoot, which was with famed fashion photographer Bruce Weber. In an effort to stand apart from the other male models on set, Clay decided to climb one of the nearby palm trees. Bruce loved it.

“‘Stay up there! Stay up there!’ he told me,” recalls Clay. “So Kate got under there with me.”

The result is a stand-out image in an already-impressive modeling book. Clay’s resume is replete with big jobs such as the Weber shoot, however. He’s done print work for such brands as Marc Ecko, Levi’s, Diesel, Von Dutch, Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman, and runway work for such caliber of designers as Giorgio Armani.

“I liked Armani,” Clay says. “I’d like to be like him when I get older—the way he walked and carried himself, how he’d come up and fix the suits. When he spoke, everyone paid attention. I really like his stuff, too. He was my favorite to wear.”

Through it all, Clay always viewed his job as just that, a job. And with all due respect, he says, it’s only clothing at the end of the day.

“You’re getting paid to wear clothes,” he explains. “You don’t have to talk or do much. They always told me on the photo shoots to ‘look mad.’ OK, I can do that.”

Clay doesn’t quite understand the big fuss over models and certainly not any of the excitement over him. He shops for his own wardrobe at Wal-Mart and Target. A pack of T-shirts, jeans and flip-flops and he’s good to go. (He’s amused by the prevailing belief that models get to keep the designers’ clothes. They don’t, he stresses.) Moreover, he doesn’t think much of his looks.

“I see myself every day,” Clay shrugs. “When I look in the mirror, all I see are the faults. I never think, ‘Oh my God, whoa!’”

Clay looks utterly perplexed when asked if he has a beauty routine.

“No,” he says flatly. “I just put cocoa butter on my tattoos to keep them from getting dry.”

He does work out regularly, though, but to hear him tell it, it’s mostly to expel some of his boundless energy—not specifically to maintain his model physique. Some mornings, if he hasn’t worked late at Outback the night before, he’s up at 4am to workout at the gym. He also regularly runs the one-and-a-half-mile nature trail behind his house.

Clay still models, but his days on the runways of Milan and Paris are behind him. Currently, he averages one modeling job every two months, and it’s mostly catalog work, which he prefers because it pays better and it pays on time. He’ll travel to Miami for a job or even Houston, for example, if it’s a gig with JCPenney.

“With his look,” Michael assures, “he could keep modeling until he’s 50 if he wants to.”

Clay’s wife, Kiara, believes it’s also his personality that’s so appealing and keeps opening doors for him.

“He’s one of those people who can fit in wherever. He can hang out with anyone and make them feel comfortable, make them laugh,” she says. “He enjoys people, and I think that’s why people receive him so well.”

Count Cathy Norris among them. Like many non-modeling people who meet him, Cathy had no idea that the affable young man who walked into her Marion County Parks & Recreation office about a year ago looking for a job had once rubbed elbows with Giorgio Armani and Kate Moss. What she did know, right off the bat, was that he was enthusiastic, outdoorsy and very polite. So when a spot opened up on her staff last June, Cathy quickly hired Clay as a youth recreation leader. True to form, he immediately established a rapport with the other youth rec leader, Danny Smith.

“They’re great together,” Cathy says and then laughs. “They remind me of Starsky and Hutch, different yet alike. They both have very good value systems. Clay’s value system, respect and courtesy go a long way.”

With the kids at the camp, Clay truly shines. He readily admits he’s still a kid himself, and Cathy, for one, appreciates the youthfulness he brings to his job.

“The kids like him. He’s young, outgoing and can keep up with them,” she says. “They’re not going to wear him out.”

His numerous tattoos don’t hurt either, which the kids find pretty cool. Each one of the designs inked into Clay’s body was deliberate, except perhaps for the “Dirty South” one he got at 17. All his friends were getting it at the time. The two that capture Clay’s life philosophy best, however, are on his wrists—“See It” on the left and “Own It” on the right. This ‘make it happen’ mantra is one he tries to impart to the kids he teaches.

Clay is quick to point out that the Parks & Rec work complements his personality perfectly. It’s challenging and always changing. Above all, it’s not a desk job.

“I don’t have to be inside, and it’s not the same thing every day,” Clay explains. “It fits me.”

During the course of his workday for the county, Clay might be leading a kayaking expedition, singing a silly campfire song with a few youngsters or throwing together a fort with another group of kids, as he did recently.

“Some of them told me they had never built a fort before. It hurt to hear that they had never done it,” he says. “We did it all the time when I was little.”

In 10th grade, in fact, he built a cabin in the middle of an orange grove with his friends, complete with a front porch, a door that locked, and a flag pole and a burn barrel out front. It withstood, Clay says proudly, three hurricanes in 2004. He couldn’t fathom not showing these kids how it was done.

“So we built a fort and kept adding to it. We made a three-story masterpiece,” he says.

This is exactly where the most impressive side of Clay Parton begins to show—something far more attractive than the long stares in his modeling photos and more serious than the horseplay with the Parks & Rec kids. Early on with his county position, Clay recognized that he could fill a role in the young kids’ lives. He could make a positive impact on them by simply being someone they could talk to. In return, he tries to teach them that if they have the right attitude and make the right decisions, good and even great things will come into their lives. Clay was adopted, and growing up, he says he always felt that there was something big and important in store for him. As such, he went forward with a grateful yet driven outlook on life.

“I tell them, ‘Just look at me,’” Clay says. “You can achieve big things, too. You have to believe it, and it will happen.”

If only photos could capture this part of Clay. It’s his best side.

Get Out!

Marion County Parks & Recreation hosts numerous camps, tours, programs and other events throughout the year, perfect for young and old alike. Check out these exciting activities just waiting for you and your family to explore and enjoy:

Explore Marion County—Interpretive Outings & Day Hikes
Mar. 1 & 22, Apr. 5 &19, May 3
Adult participants enjoy a two- to three-hour walk through Hopkins Prairie, Sink Hole Trail and other locales.

Kayak & Koffee
Mar. 3 & 24, Apr. 7 & 21, May 5 & 19
Mini-outings on the Rainbow and Silver rivers at 10am for beginners and those interested in nature and wildlife viewing; $16 per person plus park user fee.

Art Van-Go
Mar. 5, Apr. 2, May 14
A monthly mobile art program for ages 5-15 held at Baseline Road Trailhead and other locales; $3 per child.

Eco Tram Tours
Mar. 10 & 13, Apr. 10 & 14
Tour Carney Island (March dates) and Sunnyhill Restoration Area (April dates) via tram; $6 per person.

Kayak Outings
Mar. 11, 19, 20 & 25, Apr. 3, 9 & 29, May 14, 22 & 27
Outings for the experienced paddler on Juniper Springs Creek, the Ocklawaha River, the Rainbow River and the Silver River; $27 per person plus park user fee.

Kayak 101 at Carney Island
Mar. 12 & 29, Apr. 12 & 23, 
May 17 & 21
Instruction in kayaking on Tuesdays or Saturdays for those with little or no experience; $11 per person plus park entrance fee.

Spring Break Youth Fish Camp
Mar. 14-18
Children ages 9-15 will learn about boating safety, types of tackles, casting, knot-tying, fish identification and more from 8am to 5pm; $125 for the week.

Basic Wild Caving Experience
Mar. 19, Apr. 2, May 7
Beginner program at Brick City Adventure Park for ages 8 and up; $32 per person.

Family Overnight Camp-Out
Mar. 26-27, Apr.16-17
Camp-outs at Lake Eaton Youth Conservation (March dates) and Carney Island (April dates) for ages 8 and up include a nature hike, kayaking, night walk, crafts and meals; $32 for Carney Island and $40 for Lake Eaton for family of two and $10 per additional family member.

Park Explorers
Apr. 4
Kids ages 10-15 will learn about nature and wildlife while exploring, hiking and kayaking in the Rainbow River State Park; $16 per child.

Register Some Fun
(352) 671-8560

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