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"I always said I wanted to go to New York because you could walk around without your shirt on," she says. "I'm the one who really drove it home that you couldn't."
Van Voast grew up in Galway, a tiny town upstate. In her youth, she says, the feed store was the most exciting place around for miles. Her parents still live in the area, as do most of her siblings: a fraternal twin sister and an older sister and brother.
She doesn't speak to any of them. "I'm beyond the black sheep," she says. "I'm like the sheep on the moon."
"She was definitely a rebel, for sure," says Chris Stearns, an independent filmmaker who knew Van Voast in high school and who in August of this year completed a documentary, Topless Shock Syndrome, about her shirtless antics. Stearns describes Galway as an isolated, conservative enclave that largely escaped the punk movement of the 1980s. "She definitely stood out," he says of Van Voast.
Topless Shock Syndrome traces Van Voast's move from Galway to a $250-a-month apartment on the Lower East Side with a bathroom in the hallway. She feasted on the Lower East Side's art scene and tried, with mixed success, to draw attention to her own painting. To make ends meet, she wound up working at an advertising agency, doing production work for pharmaceutical ads. Later, she worked for a small company in the financial district, writing applications and reports. She continued to pursue art: painting, modeling for fellow artists, making jewelry. (One season, she sold a collection to Barneys.) She "dropped into" photography, she tells Stearns, though not the safe, studio-art kind. "I was interested in the risky sort of high you'd get from trying to get portraits of people who maybe didn't even want you to shoot them," she says in Topless.
In 2008, Van Voast made one of her most striking photo series, focusing on jockeys at racetracks around the region, from Belmont and Aqueduct to the Meadowlands, Saratoga, Delaware Park, and Pimlico. She fell in love with the look of one jockey in particular: Edgar Prado, who reminded her of something out of a Frederick Remington painting. Her Flickr page, where she goes by the handle LensJockey, contains hundreds of images of the jockeys racing and at rest, small and stately in their helmets and bright silks. A series titled "Woodlawn Invitational Cup" features several jockeys racing on horseback among the tombstones and monuments of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
In the mid-2000s, she began photographing the various crowds she'd fallen in with: Michael Arenella and the Dreamland Orchestra, the 1920s-style big band he leads, and a tight-knit group of underground "punk drag" performers.
When she first went out as Harvey Van Toast in May 2011, Van Voast wore pasties. But by July she was going completely topless. "It was just too expensive, getting pasties," she explains. "The only thing that holds you back is the insecurity of having your nipples exposed, which is retarded."
Somewhere along the line, Van Voast decided to turn her camera on her alter ego's audience, making photos or short videos of passersby reacting to her getup. One video she posted to YouTube in September 2012 is set outside a school in the Bronx. The nine-minute clip shows mothers rolling their eyes, huffing in disgust, and pulling their children away. "I know it's legal," one woman says, exasperated, taking her daughter by the hand. "But why you gotta be around kids?"
As another publicity ploy, Harvey Van Toast began seeking encounters with celebrities. James Franco was her first: She waited outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to surprise him as he slipped out after an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Other gonzo celebrity encounters include Bill Cosby (looking baffled), Johnny Depp (likewise confused, peering at her over the top of a town car), Robert Downey Jr. (delighted), Mayor Michael Bloomberg (at a parade, his face caught in a rictus of forced jollity and dawning horror).
Van Voast is emphatic that when she started out, she intended for Harvey to be purely a performance. She wasn't trying to make a statement about the politicized nature of bare breasts. "I'm an artist," she says. "I don't see why artists have to be pressured into being activists. I think it's dismissive of the time and effort it takes to be an artist. No one pushes activists to be artists."
But what she was doing began to take on new meaning, particularly after she was arrested for "disorderly conduct" three times between August and October 2011: in Times Square, outside the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, and in Williamsburg.
In January 2012 she was arrested yet again, this time in St. Patrick's Cathedral. According to the police report, cathedral staff members said they observed Van Voast "walk in the middle aisle while talking very loudly and removing her top, exposing her bare breasts." Employees said they "observed people turning and walk[ing] away from the defendant's direction" and claimed they told Van Voast to leave several times before they resorted to calling law enforcement.