New York's Topless Pioneers -- and What They Gave Up for Your Right to Bare Breasts
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
But that wasn't true, as Van Voast's lawyer, Ron Kuby, discovered when he reviewed security tapes of the incident. "They tried valiantly to cover her up with their jackets," Kuby says, adding that a few moments later, "the cops just hauled her away."
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Van Voast was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and possession of marijuana (in her purse). The case was dismissed.
All the arrests had a common thread: Van Voast would tell her arresting officers that public toplessness had been legal in the state since 1992, when the landmark case People v. Santorelli affirmed equal treatment of men and women vis-à-vis public shirtlessness. The officers, she says, always seemed clueless about the law and about what to do with her.
On May 20, 2012, after Van Voast appeared topless at the Bronx Day Parade, police sent her to a medical facility yet again, this time Montefiore Hospital in the Norwood section of the Bronx, where, she says, two officers handcuffed her to a bed for several hours.
On July 7, Van Voast decided to celebrate the anniversary of Santorelli by appearing topless outside a Hooters restaurant. Two police officers quickly approached and told her to put a shirt on. She declined. The number of officers kept growing, and Van Voast kept refusing to get dressed.
"That was so common — having six to eight cops just like, 'What do we do with this? What do we do?" she says.
Eventually, they bundled her in an ambulance and sent her off to St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital, where she spent another long night under "psychiatric evaluation" before being released.
Ron Kuby sports a graying ponytail and round, silver-rimmed glasses. A recent day at his Chelsea office finds him dressed informally (Yankees T-shirt, scuffed dress shoes) and drawing from a limitless supply of boob jokes.
"My particular favorite was when we were trying to consolidate a number of her cases," he says. "We succeeded, but then she got arrested a couple more times. I looked at the judge and said, 'Since we were last in front of Judge White, Ms. Van Voast has had two outstanding busts. I would like to send these two to Judge Whitten, unless Your Honor would like to handle them yourself.' The D.A.'s office, they were fucking cracking up. The judge played it really straight, but she got the joke."
Kuby has represented a number of nearly naked clients, including 31-year-old Amy Gunderson, who was arrested during the 2001 Coney Island Mermaid Parade while wearing a thong and body paint and won $10,000 when she sued the city for violating her civil rights. He also represents photographers of the naked: He's the longtime counsel for Spencer Tunick, famous for his mass nude portraits.
"That was the one that got us to the Supreme Court," he says, gesturing to one of several Tunick photos on the wall, depicting a pale (and likely chilly) group lying supine in an intersection near Times Square. Noting the abundance of pubic hair in a few of the older photos, Kuby adds, "you can actually date these things based on that."
In representing Tunick, Kuby also helped establish that in New York City, as a matter of law, people have the right to be fully nude in public as long as they're doing a "play, public performance, exhibition, or show."
Says Kuby, "The only thing New York City has criminalized is what I call 'nihilistic nudity': You wake up, don't feel like putting on clothes, and walk out the door."
Van Voast and Kuby now consider one another close friends. She has retained him ever since an unfortunate incident with a court-appointed lawyer: The man was nearly 90 years old. When he showed up to represent her for the Grand Central bust, she promptly took her shirt off in court. No one knew what to do, least of all her counsel.
"He just — it was like in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the guy's face melts," she remembers. "He was outraged. They didn't know what to do." After a few tense moments, the judge and the lawyers managed to recover. (The case was eventually dismissed.)
Kuby and Van Voast are a more comfortable attorney-client fit ("I respect her particular breed of zaniness," Kuby says fondly). The lawyer says he's baffled by the sheer number of arrests Van Voast has racked up. Police officers seemed almost magnetically drawn to her, and he can't quite figure out why. He thinks it may have to do with her age: She was 46 when she started her topless reign. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I haven't had a lot of satisfactory answers," he offers. Then, bluntly: "Holly is not a cute chicky."
Van Voast agrees. "I'm an older person," she says. "It took guts for me to go out. I'm not really pretty. I have decent boobs, thank God."
Per Kuby, "The police and city's response to a 22-year-old model walking around with their shirt off is very different than the police response to Holly bare-breasted with her mustache and her Marilyn Monroe hair. There is a real gender-bending, gender-confusion, gender-challenging presentation that Holly gives. I think it bothers a lot of people at some sort of deep level that I'm not qualified to assess. It really does."
That might account for the difference between Van Voast's experience and that of the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, a book club that has met in Manhattan parks for the past three summers. Society members are, by and large, in their early to mid-20s, and while they attract a crowd, they say they've never experienced serious harassment from the police, much less the threat of arrest. (Van Voast and the book clubbers agree that being topless in a group is nothing like going it alone.)
Kuby dismisses any notion that police were ever concerned Van Voast might be in the throes of a mental health crisis.
"Holly videoed most of her conduct that resulted in her arrests and her commitments," he explains. "There's absolutely nothing in her behavior — at least by New York City standards — that would convey as floridly psychotic or anything else, besides the fact that she's clearly outspoken and in your face.
"Was she agitated when she was dragged off to a mental institution for exercising her rights?" the lawyer continues. "Yeah, she was reasonably agitated. But agitated is not floridly psychotic, or even disturbed. I would be agitated too. I would rip shit. They'd have to put me in handcuffs."
In May 2013, with the help of Kuby and another civil rights attorney, Katherine Rosenfeld, Van Voast sued the city, the NYPD, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and several dozen individual officers, accusing them of unlawful imprisonment, negligent hiring, and violating her constitutional rights.
As they deposed police officer after officer, it became clear to Kuby and Rosenfeld that Van Voast's assessment had been on the mark: Most of the cops had no idea toplessness was legal. One officer, Philip Wong, testified that he'd arrested Van Voast in a subway station because "it's a hazard. . . . It's rare to see somebody, a female, topless in the train station."
"Was there a violation of the law?" Rosenfeld asked him.
"There's public lewdness," he replied.
Rosenfeld and Kuby were aware that at 10 consecutive roll calls, beginning in February of this year, NYPD commanders read their 34,000 officers a memo. It reminded them that women aren't committing a crime by "simply exposing their breasts in public."
Police officers in New York state have had a long time to get used to the notion of a woman going shirtless in public. A quarter-century before Holly Van Voast first unpeeled her pasties, Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss made history at a topless picnic a group of feminists staged for the sole purpose of getting arrested.
"We chose June 21, the summer solstice," Santorelli says of the watershed event in 1986. Nine women took off their shirts and waited for police to arrest them. The activists were charged with violating New York state penal law section 245.01, which prohibits exposing "the private or intimate parts" of one's body. The law went on to spell out a crucial gender distinction: On "a female person," said "parts" included "that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola."
The event was eagerly covered by local reporters, who found plenty of smirk-worthy fodder.
"'Doffing our tops,' 'baring our breasts' — all these really nasty ways to describe women taking off their shirts," says Santorelli, who coaches girls' basketball and works as a life coach for adults.
Santorelli will stop you the instant the T-word crosses your lips.
"That word, 'topless,' it puts a huge red flag up for me," she says. "It makes my hair stand up every time. Holly likes the word, but I do not. It fuels the patriarchal values of how women are viewed. It has the connotation to topless bars and pornography, which from day one was what we were trying to get away from." Although the two women admire each other very much, she says, "Holly will not agree with me on this. We've even had some debates about it."
After their arrest, Santorelli and Schloss (the latter prefers not to speak to reporters) sued the state, alleging that section 245.01 was discriminatory and unconstitutional. After a six-year battle, the case reached New York's highest court. In 1992, a panel of New York State Court of Appeals judges ruled that the "discriminatory effect" of the law did not "serve an important governmental interest," and that the classification was not "based on a reasoned predicate." The panel further noted that New York was one of only two states that "criminalizes the mere exposure by a woman in a public place of a specific part of her breast."
The ruling was published in July of that year. But for a long time afterward, it wasn't widely known that a woman could go shirtless anyplace a man could.
"I've lost a lot of jobs because of my activism in my early years," Santorelli says today. "It's hard for me as a basketball coach. I lost a lot of opportunities. If I had to do it all over again, I may not have. I'm 55 now. I'm in a situation where I didn't devote a lot of my time to a career. I was more political, and an out lesbian — being very active that way. It cost me. You give up something for causes. I think I forfeited a career, that's what I think. But you learn to live with it. I have friends who think it's fantastic. I look at them and think: 'What the hell was I thinking? What the hell did I do to myself?'"
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."
Van Voast left despite the unfinished business of her lawsuit against the city and the NYPD. While living in Berea, she got a call from Ron Kuby with news that the city had agreed to settle. She was awarded $77,000, of which nearly half goes to Kuby and Rosenfeld. (The New York Post trumpeted the story on its front page with the headline "BOOBIE PRIZE.")
Although much of her share will be consumed by taxes, Van Voast considers it a vindication. "It happened: I got a settlement in my favor," she says. She's hoping to use some of the proceeds to write a book about her experiences, tentatively titled Topless Zodiac.
Ramona Santorelli's battles are long behind her. These days she goes shirtless every summer, swimming, biking, and strolling through Rochester's many scenic outdoor festivals. No one ever hassles her.
"It's fine," Santorelli says, sounding proud, if a little weary.
"Nobody says a word to me. I think they know who I am."
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