New York's Topless Pioneers -- and What They Gave Up for Your Right to Bare Breasts

New York's Topless Pioneers -- and What They Gave Up for Your Right to Bare Breasts
David Stephson

For six days in March 2012, Holly Van Voast went missing. She wasn't in any of the places she'd been so conspicuously spotted: riding the D train toward the Bronx, steaming down the central aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral, ambling through Grand Central Station, or leaning quietly against the railing of the Staten Island Ferry.

"I wanted to go to New York because you could walk around without your shirt on. I'm the one who really drove it home that you couldn't."

People tended to remember Van Voast's appearances.

There was her persona, "Harvey Van Toast," a paparazzo who favored a gray fedora (the better to set off her shock of dyed blond hair) and a painted-on mustache, pencil-thin. If that wasn't enough to get your attention, there was the fact that she made her rounds topless, armed with her digital camera and a pair of guaranteed conversation-starters.

Ron Kuby says his client’s performance “bothers a lot of people at some sort of deep level I’m not qualified to assess.”
Caleb Ferguson
Ron Kuby says his client’s performance “bothers a lot of people at some sort of deep level I’m not qualified to assess.”

Harvey's unwitting audience was often less than receptive to the performance. Wednesday, March 14, was typical.

Van Toast appeared without a shirt outside P.S. 6, a tony public school on the Upper East Side. Within a few minutes, a mother dropping off her tween daughter offered her own review.

See Also: A Chilly, Educational Field Trip with the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society

"She destroyed my camera," Van Voast recounts. "Then she pushed me into a police barricade. I had a bruise on my backbone."

Two police officers showed up. Van Voast was arrested. The camera-smashing parent wasn't charged.

The arrest didn't surprise Van Voast. It was her sixth or seventh citation for going topless in public (she'd lost count). Although she'd logged significant hours in criminal court, the charges were always eventually dismissed: Regardless of one's gender, toplessness is legal in New York state.

But this time, instead of writing her a ticket, the officers sought more specialized backup. They took her to New York Presbyterian Hospital and involuntarily committed her for what they perceived to be a "mental health emergency."

It was the second time the NYPD had transported Van Voast to a psychiatric unit. The first, at Bellevue following a performance in Times Square, had lasted a mere four hours, and she'd handled it with aplomb.

This would prove to be a longer stretch.

"I was topless in front of an elementary school," Van Voast informed an admitting nurse at New York Presbyterian, according to hospital records. "Instead of being arrested, they send me here."

A psychiatric nurse noted that night that Van Voast was "pleasant and compliant with staff." But the following day another offered a more unflattering assessment.

"Patient reported that what she does is 'performance art' and that herself and some friends who are in drag performance in the night industry are in the process of making a reality show which involves 'getting to see people's irrational reactions to exposing my breasts.' Patient reported she had presented her idea to Bill Clinton and Johnny Depp who she met at a book signing. Patient has exposed herself 100 times around New York City and was arrested in May 2011 for exposing herself in Times Square."

All true. Van Voast had been photographing a group of punk drag performers for years, and she meant for "Harvey Van Toast" to draw attention to that project. She had indeed presented her ideas — in the form of her breasts — to both Clinton and Depp, two of the many celebrities in whose presence she'd appeared topless. (Her references to her lawyer, Ron Kuby, also appear to have been taken by the medical staff as delusional ramblings, although he too is a real person.)

"I don't think I need to be here," Van Voast told another doctor. "But I'm OK with it." She said that by dropping blou at the school she'd aimed to prove that "breasts are not abusive to children."

Noting that their patient seemed "anxious," doctors diagnosed Van Voast with "delusional disorder and anxiety disorder." They prescribed lithium for mood stabilization, Zyprexa for her "delusions," and Seroquel to help her sleep. She refused all of them. A staff note suggested she might need to be involuntarily medicated.

On March 16, another psychiatrist weighed in. By appearing in front of a school, she was "exposing children to her inappropriate behavior," he wrote. "Given her escalating behavior and increasingly poor judgment, lack of treatment in the community, history of medication non-compliance she poses a risk to self and others."

Four days later, Van Voast was asked to sign some forms and released. Medical records don't indicate how she'd transformed from shirtless menace into a docile member of society.

"There was no follow-up," she reports. "With involuntary cases, there's supposed to be a hearing before you can try to leave. I really think, like always, nobody really had any idea how to deal with me."

She remains mystified as to why the police officers deemed it necessary to hospitalize her in the first place.

"Maybe I looked crazy," she muses. "But why can't they just walk by and say, 'Look, a New York crazy person'? I'm a chick with my tits out, but this is New York City!"

Holly Van Voast is 48 now, with bright blond hair, dark eyebrows, a smoky voice, and sardonic way of talking. When she recounts her career as a self-proclaimed topless pioneer, she sounds alternately amused and astonished.

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