Carol Perkins' Pet Project

Homebound with a devastating illness, former fashion model Carol Perkins started designing accessories for dogs and discovered a new career.
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Throughout her 20s and 30s Carol Perkins lived a dream life. She traveled the world as a Ford model and appeared in magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. In her early 30s she continued modeling for clients like Victoria's Secret and started performing with magicians Penn and Teller. When she wasn't working she was out on the town, at art exhibition openings, theater events, and nightclubs. Home was a loft apartment in Manhattan. "It was a fashionable, fast-paced life," Perkins says. "Definitely glamorous."

Then she got sick. "I started getting dizzy and having severe headaches," she recalls of 1995. Even worse for her career, her weight shot up by 70 pounds. She developed a hump between her shoulders and noticed hair growth on her chin. Doctors prescribed antidepressants, weight-loss pills, and migraine medication, but nothing helped. As the bizarre symptoms intensified, Perkins could no longer work. "I was disfigured and unemployable," she says. "I kind of hunkered down and lived off my savings."

In a short time Perkins had gone from jet-setter to shut-in. Many friends, unable to deal with her illness and physical transformation, stopped coming by. "It was a really dark downward spiral," she remembers. Two things kept her from complete despair: dogs and sewing. Perkins had always loved animals, so much so that she'd once considered going to veterinary school. But her travel-heavy career had made it impossible for her to have a pet. Now homebound, she began pet-sitting for friends and neighbors. "They were my emotional support dogs," she says. "Dogs don't care if you're fat -- they love you unconditionally." Perkins also loved to sew, and she began making robes, sweaters, and dog beds as gifts for her canine guests. "There's such a joy in making something with your hands," she says. "I was really grateful to have a purpose."

A year and a half later Perkins was finally diagnosed with Cushing's syndrome. In her case the rare illness was caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, which made her body produce too much cortisol and led to her many strange symptoms. Two weeks later she underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. When she awoke, "It was like a weight had been lifted," she recalls. "I decided right then that I was going to devote myself to helping animals and people."

Back home, Perkins faced a long recovery as her brain healed and her body chemistry returned to normal. But the animals continued to visit, and she kept up her crafting with a newfound purpose -- to turn her hobby into a career. An opportunity arrived sooner than expected. Just a few months after Perkins's surgery, an editor at a fashion magazine happened to see a dog bed she'd made as a gift for a neighbor's pug. The bed was featured in the magazine's May 1997 issue. Perkins had never sold any of her crafts before, but her company had launched -- whether she was ready or not. "The phones were ringing and buyers from Bloomingdale's were ordering," she says. She scrambled to fill those orders, then decided she'd better figure out how to really start a business. "I was the typical entrepreneur in that I didn't have a clue." Perkins spent most of 1998 and 1999 doing research and development, still filling orders from her kitchen table.

In 2000 she launched her company for real. She cashed in all her assets, traded New York City for Savannah, which was more affordable and closer to the textile mills she needed to work with, and opened up Harry Barker. "All dogs are hairy barkers," Perkins explains. Then she finally adopted a dog of her own, a sheltie-collie mix she named...Harry Barker.

Perkins not only found success in business but she also found love: She met her future husband, David Rawle, on a blind date and at 45 became a first-time bride, moving to Charleston to live with him. Today Perkins, 51, and Rawle, 66, share their home with Harry Barker and Josephine, a briard. Harry Barker, the company, has seven fulltime employees and operates out of a dog-friendly office in Charleston. The pet accessories for dogs (and, in more limited fashion, cats), such as collars and leashes, beds, toys, and treats, are available online at harrybarker.com and in 3,500 stores internationally.

And Perkins didn't forget that promise she'd made to do good things for people and animals. This year the company launched a line of dog treats and toys that benefits therapy-dog programs at a nearby hospital. Many of Harry Barker's products are hand-packaged by adults with disabilities through a community partnership with the local disabilities board. And a good number of items are earth-friendly -- a recently introduced line of environmentally conscious collars and leashes is made out of recycled plastic bottles. But as gratifying as those do-good initiatives are, says Perkins, the real joy of her new career is all about the dogs. "There's just something about a wagging tail that makes me happy."

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.

 

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