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Filmmaker Chris Stearns, Van Voast's friend, is struck by the way topless activism, even the legal kind, affects the women who've participated in it.
"It seems like all the women who have done this long-term, it's had a negative effect on their lives," Stearns says. "I just — I don't want to speak for them, but I got the impression that none of them, looking back years later, think it was personally rewarding."
Moira Johnston was cited along with Van Voast after the latter interviewed her in the Union Square subway station in June 2012. Metropolitan Transit Authority police cited them for "creating a crowd" after 40 to 50 people gathered to watch. (Ron Kuby fought the citation in the MTA's in-house court and lost. Both women were fined $100.) In an interview with Alternet, Johnston said that while she tries to go top-free wherever she can, the experience of being shirtless in public is "draining."
"Just the response it gets from people, and it's a lot of talking to people," she explained. "Doing something that's different from the social norm can be draining energetically."
In October, Jessica Krigsman filed suit in Brooklyn against two officers who arrested her in July 2012 for sitting on a bench with her shirt off in Calvert Vaux Park. Krigsman alleged she was held for five hours at the 68th Precinct, and that when police could find nothing else to charge her with, they cited her for "obstruction of a sitting area," a charge that was later dropped.
Krigsman did not respond to an interview request for this story. Johnston agreed to answer questions via email, but wrote back upon receiving them, "I appreciate your questions and interest in my experience. I have determined that to properly respond would require too much time and energy for me at this time."
Apart from wreaking havoc on your Google search results, public toplessness is terrifying.
"It's so scary to do those things," Van Voast says. "It's really nerve-wracking. It was like Jackass on speed."
Santorelli concurs. In 1987 and '88, she'd ride her bike alone, or with a gay male friend. "He was shirtless and he put wings on. He was part of this fairy group. He put on a skirt, earrings and had neck-length hair, a beard, and mustache. We rode around the city like that."
It was enough to cause quite a flap. Recalls Santorelli, "People were flipping out."
Van Voast found that there were a few celebrities she just couldn't bear to go topless in front of, for fear they'd react in a cruel way. Stephen Colbert was one. She planned on two separate occasions to do it in his studio audience. Both times her courage failed her.
"I love him so much," she explains. "And I love Amy Sedaris so much, I couldn't bear to have them laugh at me. It was just too much."
Sometimes her fear of being mocked came true. "Cyndi Lauper was really nasty and dismissive," she says, describing a Harvey Van Toast appearance at a book signing Lauper did at a Barnes & Noble last fall. "She was like, 'We've seen that before. Sit down.' I thought she would be more receptive to it. I'm not taking it personally, because she doesn't know me. They don't really know me or what I'm doing. But that was sort of hard to live with, because it's Cyndi Lauper. It was a bummer."
For that matter, it was hard every time. Before she'd take off her shirt, Van Voast says, "I would just sit there sweating for an hour.
"That's what nightmares are," she points out. "People have nightmares about having their clothes disappear in public. I was living that out."
"I'm so glad it's over, it's not even funny," Van Voast says.
She hasn't been seeing much of the places where her breasts made her a local celebrity. In late September, after (at least) 10 arrests, four involuntary hospitalizations, dozens of newspaper articles, and a brief stint appearing topless in front of celebrities, she packed up and moved to Berea, Kentucky, a tiny, artsy town known for its spoonbread festival.
When the Voice first contacted her in Berea, Van Voast reported that she was staying in a hotel on a hill overlooking a Cracker Barrel and a Dollar General. Most days she walked down the hill to dine at the Cracker Barrel.
"I love it," she said jauntily. "All the chicks who work there are super cool. And I love Waffle House. Oh, my God, I want to open a Waffle House in the city. It would clean the fuck up. I fucking love it. It's, like, made for clubbers."
About a month ago, she found an apartment. "I officially have a new life now," she wrote on Facebook.
In part, Van Voast left New York because she had no place to stay. But she was driven from the city by a larger feeling, a sense that everything here has shifted.
"New York City has changed," she says wistfully. "One day not too long ago, I walked around and every place I used to go to was gone. I wanted to go to this diner on University that was there forever. Gone. Utrecht Paints: gone. So many places are gone since I came in 1984. It was really sad to me."