I am a big fan of the OWN network’s programming. They always find the most interesting and inspiring individuals to put into their shows. The new docu-drama “The Diamond Collar” is absolutely no exception. Premiering Friday, January 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT, the series follows the day-to-day life of James Guiliani, a former street enforcer in the mafia who leaves his past behind to rescue animals and run one of Brooklyn’s top dog grooming parlors.
Along the way he finds several loves; love for himself, love for his girlfriend Lena Perrelli — and of course — hundreds of loves with all of the animals he rescues. I had to find out how he was able to change his life, find his true passions and love, and open himself up in such a meaningful way. Here are a few excerpts from my interview with him:
eH: So I have to know, how did you go from mob enforcer to animal advocate?
James Guiliani: It wasn’t something I expected to do. I lived a really tough life and made a lot of bad mistakes and decisions and at one point I started to realize it. I was at a party and was just not feeling good. I really hit rock bottom. A friend handed me a number and told me to call this girl. She said, “Just call this girl!” So I actually called the number…which was not something I would usually have ever done at that time.
We (he and Lena) spoke on the phone for 13 hours. Lena said, “Why don’t you meet me in Brooklyn?” I ended up meeting her in Brooklyn, and as the story goes, I fell in love, and I moved there a week later. She was a big animal lover and I wasn’t. I remember thinking to myself — this is going to be tough. She started working on me with the animal issue.
We found a dying dog on the streets named Bruno. She made me pick him up, take him to the vet, walk him, pick him up from the vet and I just fell in love with him. It was the weirdest feeling in the world. I didn’t even love myself or anyone but I fell in love with this destroyed, abused, gorgeous little guy. He ended up dying two months later … it was a shot to my heart. I remember being in Manhattan making the decision to put Bruno down. I’m on 15th avenue hysterically crying. I was shaking. Afterwards, I took him back home, cleaned him up, washed him and buried him in the back of where my store is and told Lena, “Now I get it.” I swore to her that from that day on, my life would change. It’s been 8 years. I haven’t had a drink or a drug. I haven’t committed a crime, except taking dogs from people who abuse them. I told my friends I had at that time to back away, that I had a bigger thing to do in life, that I had to help animals. I jumped in full force, and never looked back.
My mother, my brother, my father, no one in my family could ever get to me (emotionally). It took a mangy little beautiful baby — and then I couldn’t help him. Anything I came against I was able to overcome. Now, my little guy is dying, and there was no fixing him. I thought about the horror this dog went through his whole life. How could people let an animal get to this degree? Bruno was abused his whole life. It was horrible. They are voiceless, they can’t say stop. I kept getting more involved, opened up my own place for animals. I got my store. I wanted to make a big difference, not a small difference. I wanted to make a splash.
Q: How did you know that Lena was the right person for you?
JG: Because she was so unselfish in everything she did. When Christmas came, I asked her what she wanted. She would turn around and say, “Get me a cat scratching post.” She’s unbelievable, anything she wants isn’t for her directly, it was for her cat or her animals. How pure is that!? Every girl I’d dated wanted the best steak, or to go out to the best clubs. At first it confused me. I would tell her she was gorgeous and should want the world. She would tell me she had everything she needed, she had her babies (her dogs.) Eventually I opened my heart. It was a scary thing for me, because to me everybody always got hurt. But since the day I opened my heart, I’ve never been hurt. Life just gets better and better. I laugh, I have fun, I work very hard, 13 hours a day. But I’m doing something. I’m saving something. My life has meaning.
Q: What would you say to a woman whose boyfriend didn’t want the dog sleeping on the bed?
JG: I’d say find a new guy! No, I didn’t like Lena’s pugs on the bed at first either. Eventually I walked them enough and got to know them. Look, a little hair on the couch or a scratch, these are materialistic things. When you rescue an animal into your life, it’s a family member. A lot of people are just too selfish. They aren’t ready to give up anything for an animal.
Q: What’s next for you?
JG: I will never stop. I opened a rescue in Brooklyn, I work every day by myself. I have 30 animals here and 30 in my house. I’m a busy boy. People say, “Wow, James, you are going to be out there and a celebrity!” I don’t care about any of that; I just want to take care of my animals. I got in this to change minds. I’m not going to be out there partying like a rock star. I’m going to be out there changing minds and bringing in more animals. People want to know where I will watch the premiere of my show. I tell them I will be at my house with my animals.
“The Diamond Collar” premieres this Friday, January 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.